Covid-19 offers valuable lessons in making project management more adaptable

Project management is a discipline obsessed with risk aversion, with preparing for and predicting everything. But the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that often excessive need to consider every eventuality has had to be replaced with more pragmatic measures.

The emergency nature of the reaction to the global outbreak meant decisions were made immediately, plans enacted in hours – or minutes – and contingency could not always be accounted for.

There are important lessons to be learned from the pandemic about operating in different ways, becoming more adaptive and flexible, and enabling rapid innovation. What we have seen through this crisis is that we need to become better at dealing with turbulence and uncertainty.

Normally when you start a project, you have a grand vision that drives what you do. Here, we have an emergency: we need to do something quickly, and we do not know how what we do will impact anything else – we just need to restart, to do something new or differently.

We are outside our comfort zones. Normally on projects, we work from left to right, we have an idea of what we want to be doing, we start shaping and planning, developing a business case. Now, everything is urgent, critical, it must be done by tomorrow. There is no time to plan as we move from one phase to another because action is needed.

I have worked with the Red Cross and other organisations who deal with disaster response. Much as with Covid-19, they cannot plan in advance – when they land on the ground, they see what they can do based on the resources they have; they prioritise based on urgency.

You go through phases: saving lives, re-establishing certain things in the short-term, then looking to the longer term and planning the recovery. There are lessons for our current situation, but with those emergencies you are trying to get back to normality after a sudden stop. This is different. We have essentially frozen life – everything around us – and we are trying to re-establish all of it at the same time.

We need to deal with things on different timescales; we can think about schools today, tomorrow, in a month’s time, in six months’ time, and each of them is a different project. There are multiple phases of recovery and post-crisis – some operational and immediate, some longer-term – and it is about how we do these things in parallel. The Covid-19 situation is unprecedented in scale and scope, but also in dimensions – thinking about today, tomorrow, next week and next year at the same time is not something we normally do.

We do not understand all of the parameters, so we cannot possibly imagine all the potential results. Elements that are usually known – how people shop, how they go to school, how they work – have gone and we are in a whole new reality where we know nothing. Everything has to be redesigned as you start running the projects – it’s urgent, it’s in-your-face with no time to stop and think, no opportunity to deliberate and re-negotiate time and cost. All the projects are urgent, but we must be reasonable in accepting that we do not know all that will happen – you are prototyping answers to a situation nobody understands particularly well.

What is more, everything is connected, it touches on everything else. When you send schools back, there are implications for parents, for driving, for cars; when workers return, there are issues over office space, dining areas, supply chains. Normally in society, we tinker with one element at a time – here we have stopped all the elements, and restarting even one impacts everything else.

How does this all apply to industry? Some of the manufacturers I have spoken to looked at urgent needs within the health sector, providing equipment for them. They are doing that whilst trying to figure out how to work with new rules, with social distancing, challenged supply chains and an uncertain future. It is about realigning operations while still thinking in the long-term that when this is all over you have to return to what you were doing before. However, people are slightly obsessed with the current situation and are not looking forward sufficiently.

I have spent a lot of time working with organisations on agile approaches, and those who have experience in employing such approaches are more sensitised to the need to probe the environment and change course rapidly. A lot of organisations are fixated with the disaster aspects of what is happening. The biggest challenge is the need to shift between thinking about today, to thinking about tomorrow, two weeks, two months and two years from now.

Survival now is about learning to become more adaptive, rather than just being risk averse. We normally do that because we want to justify the investment, the cost, but what this new reality is forcing us to do is become more adventurous. Solving problems in turbulent environments is about speeding up innovation. We do not understand all of the parameters, there is a lot of uncertainty, so we need to champion experimentation; we have to ask ‘what will happen if we try this?’ If it doesn’t work, we try something else. We take lessons from all approaches and see how we can move forward.

This is not something we asked for, but there are opportunities to learn here. We can try out new approaches, we can become more adventurous. Change is happening all the time, we are learning new things, and we are going to need to become more resilient and more adaptive in how we do projects. We do not have time to start projects properly – if we normally have due diligence for a few months, we cannot have that now. We need to find a new way of balancing our anticipation and our love of planning, risk management and governance with the requirement to do things quickly and make rapid changes based on circumstances. There are tremendous opportunities because crises force us to rethink, change and improve.

Professor Darren Dalcher is the founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management at Lancaster University Management School.