Project managers face a unique set of challenges as the coronavirus outbreak continues to keep much of the United States in a lockdown. While regular business is disrupted, most organizations expect work on projects to continue moving forward.
But how do businesses accomplish that goal with potentially less staff and resources at their disposal? For project managers, this is especially tricky as executives expect them to meet the same rigorous goals in terms of completing projects on time, on budget and in a way that meets the original strategic goal.
To do so, project managers will need to successfully navigate two important areas: making good decisions when faced with change and leading a remote team effectively.
The “New Normal”
How long the lockdowns last will likely vary by state and even by city. Some projects managers may find themselves working on projects with remote teams for many months. In some cases, companies also have laid off employees and reduced the workforce, meaning smaller teams and less resources going forward for projects.
In some ways, this is a continuation of the past, just magnified. The Project Management Institute, in its Pulse of the Profession 2020 report, found that companies waste about 11% of all money spent on projects because they do not meet strategic goals.
Now, hurdles to successful project completion are magnified. Project managers already are reassessing risk documents for projects, meeting with available team members and reporting the impact on the project to stakeholders, as well as options for going forward.
As they move forward through this crisis, project managers also need to not lose sight of some of the top reasons why projects fail. These include poor preparation, bad leadership, inadequate documentation, failure to define and enforce parameters, inaccurate cost estimates and inadequate communication.
While the working situation has changed, these causes of failure have not.
Facing Change, Making Good Decisions
In the Pulse of the Profession report, PMI reported that many companies are “rebuilding their organizations to make agility and creativity part of the organizational DNA.” More than half of the organizations surveyed for the report said building a culture receptive to change is a high priority.
Even so, many organizations take a cautious approach. While the guidance from PMI to get around that did not pertain to the disruption of the coronavirus outbreak, it seems to fit the moment and the momentous changes everyone is experiencing.
PMI reported that when it comes to change, the first phase is often denial. Interviewed for the report, Bob Roark, a PMP-certified executive solutions strategist for Cherwell Software in Denver, said that people sometimes react to change by saying, “I don’t want to do this; I’m not going to do this.”
Eventually, though, he said “they’ll start to understand this new thing, and all of a sudden it becomes the norm.”
Clear articulation of the ideas behind the change helps employees adjust faster. In the case of coronavirus, everyone knows why they are working remotely. But managers need to offer clear communication on why they have made the moves they’ve made, and the role employees have in the overall business strategy as the company moves forward.
Leading a Remote Team
The coronavirus has thrust many people who have never worked from home into doing exactly that, and for an unspecified amount of time. Many may need a time of adjustment. But certain changes can help better guide team members as they transition to working remotely.
Some of the issues to keep in mind include the following.
Coordinating for time zones: Make sure to schedule meetings during times where it’s convenient for people in all time zones, if possible.
Set daily goals: Distractions are more numerous when people work remotely. Managers can help keep employees on track by setting daily milestones, at least initially.
Pick good collaborative tools: Set up communication tools that allow for synchronous and asynchronous communication (especially if different time zones are an issue).
Centralized communication: People unfamiliar with working remotely will have many questions. Make sure to establish a “Book of Truth” area where information employees can trust is provided on frequent questions. This also is the place to put communication meant for all employees.
Face to face meetings: While this is not necessary for veteran remote workers, it’s a smart move when dealing with new remote workers. Rather than relying only on written communication, schedule routine face-to-face meetings.
Project managers also do well to keep in mind basic principles such as Edward Deming’s 14 points for effective project management. While the methods of communication, collaboration and even motivation for employees have been changed by the virus, these points still provide a sound foundation for every project. They include creating a consistent plan for process improvement, breaking down barriers between teams, and leading everyone to work toward accomplishing transformation.
A Word on Emotions
The scope of the coronavirus outbreak is shifting every day. As noted by McKinsey & Co, the situation has “the hallmarks of a ‘landscape scale’ crisis.” They define such a crisis as one that has such enormous scale and moves with such speed that it creates “a high degree of uncertainty that gives rise to disorientation, a feeling of lost control and strong emotional disturbance.”
For project managers, it’s important to keep this torrent of emotions in mind as they move forward. Making good decisions in association with change, as well as managing a remote team well, can give people a sense of stability at a time when many things in their life feel unstable.
However, McKinsey advises that it’s not wise to take a top-down approach. Rather, they advise that leaders should set “clear priorities for the response and empowering others to discover and implement solutions that serve those priorities.”