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.
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.
There are six common themes when observing the delivery of projects and programs in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Projects with organised and defined scope, schedules and governance structures have adapted better to the current reality.
Our predictions: More agile, more discipline
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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