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Project On! 5 Actions to Maintain Project Momentum During COVID-19

 San Francisco Bay Area Chapter 

Troy is the CEO and Founder of Aspiri Consulting, Inc. in San Francisco.

Topics: Change Management, Risk Management, Stakeholder Management

Even in the most turbulent of times, projects meant to deliver meaningful results for the business, its employees, and its customers must stay on track. Turbulence can come in many forms. The coronavirus pandemic has completely and rapidly changed how we operate.

Seemingly overnight, business models changed significantly. You may be experiencing shifts in business priorities, supply chain disruption, product demand spikes and shortages, changes in how your products are delivered to the customer, changing hours (if not completely shutting the doors), and employees being asked (if not ordered) to work from home for the foreseeable future.

The impact from COVID-19 has been swift and, in many cases, dramatic. Even so, projects that deliver meaningful results must stay on track. What can you do to keep those meaningful projects on track? I've listed five simple yet effective actions you can take: 

1. Reaffirm your project's value. Before beginning, pause to affirm your project's value in light of the pandemic. The benefit and value your project will deliver must remain relevant to the business, employees and/or customers. 

It may be hard to assess this yourself. You are likely biased toward your own project. Hopefully, your organization has an approval process for projects. If you don't have a defined process to revisit, you should check in with the PMO, the COO's office, the finance department and/or your executive sponsor to help affirm that your project still has the green light.

Unfortunately, the project may need to be cancelled or delayed. On the bright side, if this happens, you can free project resources to realign with the new direction. 

2. Focus on results. Now that we've affirmed your project will continue, you know with confidence that it remains viable for good reason: to deliver a clear benefit to some combination of company, employees and customers. Remind everyone of this fact—and keep reminding them. Keep your stakeholders (e.g., sponsors, project team, contributors, impacted audiences) focused on the benefits, the reasons why this project is personally meaningful to them. Don't let them get distracted while your project tasks begin to slip. 

3. Adjust your approach. Depending on how your business has been impacted, your approach may need to be adjusted. For example:

  • Work locations: Consider shifting from in-person workshops to remote working sessions via phone and/or video conferencing. If these technologies are new to your people, be prepared to provide best practices to help with a steep learning curve. 
  • Availability: Consider shifting from long workshops to shorter bursts of working sessions. You may also need to adjust your meeting schedule if coronavirus-related meetings supersede your chosen time slots. Be flexible but persistent. 
  • Personnel or roles: Consider adjusting your project team, resources, governance model, etc. Some key personnel may have been reassigned to COVID-19 response efforts. Be quick to react to keep your project properly staffed and able to execute as planned. 
  • Budget: Consider options to reduce costs if your budget has changed. Examples include restricting non-essential expenses (e.g., working lunches, project swag, monetary awards), less travel, using more internal resources, and scope. That last one, scope, can save big blocks of time and money. Reduce or eliminate “nice-to-have” elements only if it won't significantly impact the value the final results deliver. 
  • Training: Consider changing to remote learning options if the ability to deliver in-person training has been impacted.
  • Rollout: Consider adjusting your rollout approach if other dates related to your company’s coronavirus response are conflicting with yours. Maybe a phased approach will be more effective if the impacted groups are occupied with virus response efforts. 

4. Align your project plan. Once you've adjusted your approach, review the plan—the tasks themselves, the sequence of those tasks, and the duration of those tasks. What adjustments are needed to keep your project on track? Tactics you may consider:

  • Eliminate tasks: Eliminate tasks that are no longer needed or don’t directly contribute to project results. This is particularly important if the scope has changed. Nice-to-haves may need to wait for a later time or subsequent sprint. 
  • Minimize tasks: Similarly, the time needed to complete some tasks may have changed, allowing you to decrease the planned task duration. 
  • Shift tasks: If the physical workplace has been impacted, move in-person tasks out—and move forward with tasks that can be accomplished remotely. If resource availability has been impacted, shift tasks forward or backward to better align with free time. If functional capabilities have been re-prioritized (e.g., online functionally needs to be delivered sooner), shift delivery waves to accommodate the new priorities.
  • Phase implementation: Consider phasing the project implementation to those who will receive the most benefit first so you can deliver the majority of the benefit on-time. 
  • Review impacted groups: Review the groups most impacted by the coronavirus response. Where possible, reassign tasks to people or groups that are less impacted and have the bandwidth and focus to deliver on-time.

5. Update the change management plan. Go back to the beginning and review your change impact assessment (or conduct one if you don't have one). The volume of change may have increased (while the readiness for change almost definitely has). The focus and ability to adopt the change has likely diminished. It's time to adjust and “turn up” your change tactics. 

  • Re-engage your executive sponsor: Keep him/her front, center and visible with their continued support of the project. 
  • Re-charge your managers and/or change agent networks: Emphasize the need to continue supporting the change through coaching, advocation and enthusiasm. 
  • Re-commit to your communication plans: Turn up the volume on communications through more effective and frequent messaging. You must break through to make sure your information is being received and absorbed. 
  • Re-assess your training plan: In the case of workplace disruption, a different training approach may be needed. Otherwise, be sensitive to other events and design your training approach and schedule accordingly. 
  • Re-view your reinforcement tactics: Ensure that the changes needed for your project to be successful are effectively being acknowledged—and shortcomings are being identified and addressed in a timely manner. 

As good project managers, we assess and monitor risks throughout our project lifecycles. Even so, it’s likely few anticipated the impact of COVID-19. It is impacting our businesses, employees and customers in ways we have never seen. This makes delivering your projects difficult—but necessary to deliver meaningful results to those same stakeholders.

Use these five actions to keep your project on track and deliver the benefits your organization, people and customers need.

Credit to Project Management Institute.