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Why we need to start afresh and rediscover innovation

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Over the past 12 months and more, our world has changed dramatically due to the pandemic, forcing a recalibration of norms and behaviours. Yet the need to respond urgently and engage with rescue and recovery activities means there has been very little time to think about the changing nature of projects.

As humanity seeks to establish a new normal, it becomes important to reflect on what we have learned during this turbulent period.

The responses of different countries across the globe have reshaped civilisation in unprecedented ways and may suggest new opportunities for societal engagement and the delivery of meaningful change. What, then, are the lessons for project management?

How a crisis shatters the familiar

We have witnessed the results of exercising disaster management and rapid recovery projects on a global scale, often with spectacular results. At the start of 2020, it would have been unthinkable that most schools would be closed, billions would be out of work, individuals would be confined to their homes, all children would be home educated, food and toilet paper would disappear from shelves, landlords would not collect rent, banks would suspend mortgage payments, public gatherings would be banned, governments would put together the largest economic stimulus packages seen in a generation in order to maintain national economies, and the homeless would be housed in hotels.

Yet it is increasingly clear that crises can rapidly reshape society, the economy and life as we know it.

Many of the urgent projects we have seen around us were borne out of crisis. A crisis is a wake-up call. Crisis situations are extreme because they threaten our very survival, creating an overwhelming urgency to resolve them. The pandemic has shaken many of the foundations and deeply held conventions underpinning society, the economy and government. The unique power of a crisis is in making the familiar shatter almost instantaneously.

Retaining our sense of innovation

The impact of a crisis can be likened to a rogue wave striking a ship in deep seas – sudden, spontaneous and significant. The response to the crisis necessitates a near continuous stream of urgent and unexpected mini-projects characterised by immediate decisions, plans that must be created and enacted in a matter of hours (or minutes), an immediate reversal of our conservative aversion to risk-taking, and the abolition of an excessive reliance on speculative business cases.

The results have been nothing less than spectacular. In our haste to respond, we uncovered new abilities to work together, embrace new technologies, collaborate and achieve the impossible. The radical shifts that normally define transformation appear to have been mastered by society: hospitals built in 10 days, new vaccines in circulation within a matter of weeks, education systems moving online and significant changes to all forms of human interaction, communication and collaboration. Indeed, rather than finding new leaders for times of crisis, we instead discovered a new society ready to band together.

Management guru Peter Drucker observed that: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Perhaps our greatest challenge beyond the pandemic will be to retain our rediscovered sense of innovation beyond the immediate scope of the crisis and to embrace the new spirit of inclusivity, cooperation and creativity. To prepare for the challenges of a more turbulent and volatile tomorrow, we therefore need to harvest hard-won insights from our experiences.

The six Ps

The experience of working in more demanding contexts will require new positioning, including increased attention to the following aspects:

  1. Purpose: Increased primacy of meaning, needs, purpose and value creation.
  2. People: Greater orientation on self, employees, customers, community and society.
  3. Place: Proliferation of remote, flexible and home-working modes away from the office.
  4. Platform: Adoption of online platforms to compete with face-to-face communication.
  5. Pragmatism: Experimentation, testing and adaptation will remain essential to flourishing in a fast-changing world.
  6. Professionalism: Reflection-in-practice and the ability to cope with and make sense of turbulent, volatile, novel and ambiguous conditions.

Underpinning it all is our willingness to continue to initiate, invent and innovate as project management rediscovers its way and its place in supporting, enhancing and sustaining society through meaningful change.

A version of this column appears in the summer 2021 edition of Project journal, free for APM members. The article draws on content from Darren’s forthcoming book, The Future of Project Management, to be published by Routledge.

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