The coronavirus (COVID-19) impacts have tested the ability of organisations to effectively deliver projects and programs. Some projects and programs adapted quickly and effectively, with managers and sponsors able to pivot to remote working, while others have had substantial delays or cancellations.

As organisations start to return to a new normal, we consider what this will this look like for project and program management, and what changes, short term or enduring, we will see.

To prepare for this next stage, we sought to identify learnings and themes from a range of on-going projects and programs in different sectors to develop a view of what is needed across the multiple time horizons over which the Australian economy will emerge.

Our observations and key lessons

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that our working environments are characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. How each organisation is adapting to the current challenges differs, but there appears to be four common horizons of response and subsequent impact to effective project delivery.

  • Horizon 0 – Reaction. The rapid and large-scale shift to working remotely caused significant disruption to ongoing projects and programs, requiring sudden changes to the way in-flight projects were managed. This often involved re-setting the processes to govern delivery, with some projects requiring significant changes to ways of working to remain effective. A clear differentiation of adaption effort is noticed in the different phases of programs, mainly driven by the required level of collaboration and governance.
  • Horizon 1 – Resilience. Having adapted to the remote or disrupted modes of working, many projects are now faced with more fundamental questions around scope and potentially a reassessment of the underpinning business case as their sponsoring organisations react to the changing external business environment. 
  • Horizon 2 – Recovery. Having set the new direction, it is now in the hands of the program professionals to create ways and means to enable a stable and timely delivery of their adjusted program utilising the apparent drawbacks and benefits of the new reality.
  • Horizon 3 – The New Reality. As we return to a new normal, it’s likely that a number of ways of working will be changed forever. The approach to selection and delivery of projects within organisations will likely be changed and the role of the project leader will need to adapt to this new way of working.

Actions relevant to the three horizons

Actions relevant to the three horizons

There are six common themes when observing the delivery of projects and programs in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Theme 1: Project delivery disciplines

Projects with organised and defined scope, schedules and governance structures have adapted better to the current reality.

Our observations

  • Projects and programs with clear delivery structures, typically led by experienced and professional project managers, have been better able to pivot to the new operating rhythms as the documented scope, plans and governance regimes more effectively withstood the change impact.
  • Conversely, projects being led by project managers with limited experience, or those juggling other work, with ad-hoc plans and governance structures have struggled to withstand the changes. Such projects often require significant effort to establish engagement with stakeholders to enable effective decision making in remote working situations.

Our predictions: More agile, more discipline

  • Momentum to increase the adoption of agile thinking in the project delivery world will increase as organisations recognise the importance of being able to pivot quickly and maintain focus on benefits delivery in achievable windows. 
  •  This will be accompanied by an increased emphasis and recognition of the importance of key project delivery frameworks and disciplines such as governance committee meetings accompanied by documented delivery plans, change management processes plus risk and issues tools.
  • The value of the professional project manager will increasingly be recognised as important to manage the complexities surrounding scope and in handling stakeholder engagements.

Theme 2: The role of the project leadership

Working remotely has highlighted the importance of clear accountability and outcome ownership structures supporting projects. Emphasis has also been placed on the need to have clarity of purpose to enable project activities to pivot quickly and appropriately when responding to uncertainty and change.

Our observations

  • Projects and programs that have struggled to adapt to the change in working conditions have often been met with confusion or uncertainty when confronted by the need to change direction or deal with limited access to key resources.
  • The imperative to establish good governance practices and executive involvement to provide support and guidance to projects is difficult to achieve on the run.
  • For many client projects, the role of the sponsor to assist the project or program manager has been decisive to provide guidance and assistance when dealing with significant changes in the external environment.

Our predictions

  • Organisations will invest more in defining, supporting and building capability within the role of the sponsor to make this more business-as-usual for the way investment projects are established and run.
  • We will see some form of accreditation for project sponsors/business owners emerge to begin the professionalisation of this critical role.
  • Project and program managers will need a regular rhythm of steering committee meetings and related documents such as reporting tools and issues escalation processes built into the DNA of their projects, ensuring project leadership is fully informed and involved in the decision-making.

Theme 3: Stakeholder engagement

The rapid adoption of collaboration tools has been critical in keeping stakeholders engaged and maintaining relevance of project activities. Unfortunately, not all projects have been able to pivot quickly enough.

Our observations

  • Remote engagement – quicker and better attended meetings but a loss of water cooler conversations.
  • More formal conversations online leading to poorer outcomes in terms of transfer of understanding. Having mechanical project reports and unengaging documents that fail to capture audience attention are redressing this problem.
  • Experienced project managers who use layers of communication to convey information have kept stakeholders engaged and momentum. We have also seen projects where this engagement has been lost.
  • The 2019 AIPM and KPMG Project Management Survey identified that 51 percent of organisations were using collaboration software to support project delivery. Emerging technology and collaboration tools have helped alleviate some of the stakeholder engagement issues, particularly within organisations where these tools were already in use, and we have observed a trend towards greater adoption and use.

Our predictions

  • Increased adoption of project management and collaboration software to facilitate stakeholder communications, accompanied by documented delivery plans, change management processes and risk and issues tools.
  • Project managers will need to develop their communication skills and ability to creatively convey information to their stakeholders.

Theme 4: Management of project resources

With the likelihood that increased remote working and virtual teaming is here to stay, we will see increasing importance placed on the ability of project leaders to manage – rather than direct – their team members more effectively.

Our observations

  • Remote working challenges the capability of the project or program manager to direct team efforts and removes the social controls of everybody pulling their weight in a team working environment.
  • Team stand ups have changed dramatically, meaning project and program managers need to find new ways of connecting with their wider project team.
  • Successful project and program managers are placing greater emphasis on individual recognition and scheduled, regular one-on-one catch ups with team members. They are also placing greater trust in individuals to deliver their outcomes, rather than managing their inputs.

Our predictions

  • The skill of facilitation will be increasingly of importance in the project and program managers skill set as they strive to coordinate outputs from across a dispersed team.
  • Agile practices involving regular virtual team stand ups will increasingly be the norm to keep teams aligned and maintain focus and structure across activities.

Theme 5: Managing project phases

With remote working being the new norm, project leaders will have to apply different styles during different phases of the program, requiring flexibility of leadership styles, combined with the necessary adaptations in team composition and the use of collaboration tools to create successful outcomes.

Our observations

  • Every phase of a project demands a different collaboration approach due to its nature. In a waterfall program the design phase requires different interactions than a build phase, or a training phase. 
  • These different approaches happen more naturally in an office environment where project team and business team are all within meeting room distance or collaboration happens due to the fact that you can see each other and the person in front of the room is clearly giving the instructions.
  • Remote working and distributed teams demand a new leadership which is adaptable, driven by the collaboration needs of the project activity/phase of the moment. 
  • New leadership styles, combined with a thorough reflection of meeting composition, the type of collaboration tools and a clear agenda will drive to successful outcomes.
  • However what works in the initiation phase, will need to be adapted during the testing phase.

Our predictions

  • There will need to be an adaptation of leadership styles during different phases of projects and programs. Project leaders who seize the opportunity to utilise the right collaboration tools and devote time in thinking about these operational aspects will find their programs continue to make progress. 
  • The adaptive leader who recognises that not only the goal is important, but so is the pathway towards it, will emerge successful.

Theme 6: Managing progress and dependencies

How do we track the delivery progress of projects, while maintaining insight in the dependencies in a changing reality? We are seeing a shift from tracking deliverables and artefacts to an awareness of progress.

Our observations

  • With the new operating rhythm the need to have insight into the team progress is greater. 
  • This will require closer attention to progress with less focus on the actual end deliverable. We hear more questions like “are you on the way?”, “do you make good progress?”, complemented with the “what help do you need to get there?”. 
  • Again this requires a different leadership style, where deliverable trackers were the thing to do, it is now focusing on progress trackers, creating more awareness on improvements and the potential of slipping timelines.

Our predictions

  • The time of walking into a project room and hearing there is a problem is gone. Finding ways to deepen your knowledge of how teams are tracking and how they can be supported to reach their goals is becoming more important.
  • Finding a way to get a feel for your teams journey towards a deliverable will continue to be more important. Going beyond the percentage complete and asking questions which show understanding of the teams work and effort becomes the new reality.

Implications for the Project Manager

We have seen the value of the experienced and professional Project Manager enhanced through this crisis. The core skills of the Project Manager in managing risk and rapid scope change to determine a clear schedule for action, combined with organising structured engagement with stakeholders have been in demand.

Leaders of projects and programs – both those managing the day to day delivery and those charged with execution strategy and governance – will face a range of challenges in maintaining delivery pace and momentum in project and programs that will not dissipate in the short term.

1. Optimising, not cancelling, the project portfolio

When confronted with uncertainty and the need to conserve cash, it is natural for organisations to place immediate halts on on-going transformative investment programs. However, there are areas where, more than ever, critical investment will be needed to help ensure the business can remain competitive in the new reality.

Such areas will include embedding business transformations to enable the business to pivot towards new operating environments, accelerating digital transformation initiatives in light of the increased take up of on-line activities and other technology and automation programs that promote greater business agility. We are already observing increased infrastructure investment due to underlying population changes and as a mechanism for governments to stimulate the economy. There will likely be emphasis on progressing projects to shovel ready and into delivery in the short to medium term.

The challenge for business leaders and those charged with delivering projects will how to get better results from the reduced investment portfolio. Ensuring improved ‘connectedness’” from the needs of the front office business operations to the back office support functions and the project delivery team will be increasingly important to ensure the project portfolio is dynamically aligned to the business needs. Improving focus on benefits through the business case and throughout the delivery cycle will be important to ensure every investment dollar is spent optimally.

2. Remote leadership

We recognise there are areas for project and program management professionals to focus their development – these relate predominantly to improving and enhancing those skills involving work with remote and disconnected teams, such as communication skills and leadership abilities to compensate for the reduced opportunities to informally engage with and direct project team members.

3. Get better results with collaboration tools

We have experienced a shift to the use of on-line collaboration tools to support project team engagements. It is important that project and program managers continue to leverage these tools and enhance their utility. This will be particularly relevant to specialist software tools – and we expect to see momentum to more effective utilisation of the data in these tools, coupled with artificial intelligence tools, and see a trend toward the virtual reporting Program Management Office.

4. Disciplined agility

The agile practice elements of regular team stand ups, and flexibility in altering schedules to accommodate changing needs has been integral during the COVID19 crisis. These agile practices will become increasingly commonplace. However, we have also noted the importance in many projects and programs of having a clear, well documented and agreed set of program schedules, planned outcomes and governance structures. We believe it likely that establishing Disciplined Agile practices will become important for the project and program management profession. This requires an appropriate balance between flexibility in outlook on project activities and establishing the certainty provided by clear documented plans and associated project control documents.

Contributing Authors: Gillian McKay, Partner and Adrian Jager, Director, Transformation Program Management.


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