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Don’t panic! What COVID-19 teaches us about teamwork under pressure


Blog posted by: Matthew Moran 29 April 2020.

Like me, you may have watched with wonder the videos circulating on social media of Italians and other Europeans singing from the windows of their apartments while under lockdown against COVID-19.

The videos are a reminder of humans’ awesome and irrepressible courage in the face of disaster. In the same way, survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York recall that people sang while fleeing the burning buildings.

Despite media reporting of ‘panic buying’, panic is rare, even in the most desperate situations. The author and journalist Amanda Ripley interviewed many survivors and witnesses of disasters for her remarkable book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When The Disaster Strikes – And Why. Ripley finds that people rarely panic in disasters. The reason, she suggests, is that it is simply not a useful survival tactic: ‘we probably could not have evolved to this point by doing it very often.’

Panic is not a helpful reaction in a crisis. Instead, humans seem to be wired to work together to help ourselves and those close to us.

We see evidence of this all around. Since the pandemic was declared, there has been a rapid mobilisation of vast numbers of volunteer and community groups, which have sprung up almost overnight to support the health services and provide mutual aid to vulnerable members of our society. The numbers are staggering. On 22 March 2020, the day before the UK Government placed the country in lockdown, 1,000 volunteer groups had been set up, with tens of thousands of volunteers, to assist people during the pandemic.

What can we learn from this as project managers?

Firstly, it is easy to misjudge how people will react in a crisis – our initial reactions may be quite different to what we expect. This is important for anyone working in or leading teams. How well do you understand the reaction of your team members to the crisis? How can you improve your understanding of their reactions, so you are better able to support your team and create the conditions needed for the team to collaborate and succeed?

One way is simply to ask them. In my teams, we are all working remotely now, and having our daily scrum meetings and other events entirely online. This can make it difficult to see and appreciate how people are feeling and how they are doing – so why not simply ask them?

One technique I am using is to display pictures of Captain Jack Sparrow (from the Pirates of the Caribbean films), showing a range of emotions. But you can use your own favourite characters from film or TV. At least once a week, we go around the team and we each say which picture matches how we are feeling and why. It’s a cheap, fun and safe way to increase everyone’s awareness of how the team is doing under pressure of the lockdown. Why not try it?

What about that other characteristic human response in a crisis, our tendency to collaborate – what can we learn from this to take to our work as project managers leading strategic change?

Stop for a minute to consider how this response happens in real life. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, volunteer and community groups have popped up spontaneously, with little planning or preparation, and without waiting for permission from government or other authority. These informal groups and networks are local in nature, serving local needs, and using the resources available locally. They are for the most part autonomous and self-organising.

What the COVID-19 crisis is teaching us is that groups and organisations can achieve amazing things, which in normal times would take months or years to plan and execute. We can achieve these things now because the crisis allows us to sidestep formal organisational hierarchies and their apparatus of command and control.

Again, this is an important reflection for projects and project managers. Is it possible that our profession’s emphasis on planning and control robs our organisations of their people’s inherent ability to act to deliver great outcomes? And if so, what do we need to do differently?

The responses of volunteer and community groups shows us that not everything needs to be project managed, and that if we wait for plans to be drawn up and resources allocated, we may miss the moment. In a crisis, motivated people will take the initiative, they will organise themselves, and they will find the resources they need to achieve their goals.

Project managers can harness this incredible power of free-range people.

Again, in my teams, we work variously in iterations of one and two weeks. On Monday morning at the start of each iteration, we collectively build a plan by drawing on the backlog of work tasks and incoming projects. We prioritise together, but my role as owner of the backlog is to bring the business view of priorities into the team. Then the team builds a plan for the iteration, the team members decide how to achieve the goals, and the team members organise themselves and mobilise the resources (and knowledge) we need to deliver the outcomes.

At the start of the week, for each project we set a confidence rating: 1.0 means we are very confident we can achieve our goal, 0.7 slightly less so, 0.3 means it will be a stretch, and 0.1, well, 0.1 means it won’t happen. Mid-week, Wednesday morning, we check in again briefly to review progress and specifically to score confidence: has our confidence gone down since Monday, and if so why, and what can we do about it?

Friday we check in again, and review what we have achieved, and we celebrate (or lick our wounds if it hasn’t gone so well).

This lightweight framework creates space for motivated people to self-organise and deliver rapidly changing business priorities without heavy planning and control. For me, as project manager, it enables me to communicate priorities and to be confident that the right things are being worked on. It also enables me to support the team by removing barriers or deflecting unhelpful interference from outside. It also reminds me that sometimes the best thing I can do is to get out of the team’s way.

Working like this has enabled us to maintain momentum and to continue to deliver business value during the transition to remote working. Again, try it, and let me know how you get on. And if I can help you, get in touch.

The COVID-19 crisis is a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. We will not know the full impact on society and business for years, possibly decades, to come. But it is possible even now to learn some valuable lessons about the nature of human responses to crisis, and to harness these for project success.

  • Look out for Matthew’s article Collaboration in a crisis, published in the summer edition of Project journal – out June 2020.

Want to sharpen your project management skills? Visit APM Learning for interactive learning content that is quality assured and approved by APM. 

About the Author

I am Head of Transformation at The Open University and sometimes lecturer in the OU Business School, and I speak, write, consult and advise on strategy, project and product management, and organisational change.


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