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Fatigue, disruption, working at pace: project lessons from lockdown

Blog posted by: Sarah Coleman, 15 Dec 2020.

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Early in 2020, few of us envisaged how significant an impact COVID-19 would have. Project professionals have had to change at a pace and scale we would not have previously anticipated or even considered workable. Our professional lives have been rapidly reassessed in terms of when, how and where we work. Some of us have been furloughed, while others face unemployment.

So, what skills, competencies and behaviours do we need for the future? And what do we want to leave behind? Collectively, there has been a significant shift away from ‘It has to be this way’ to a more flexible, agile way of working. We’ve gone from simply admiring and poking the problem to being invited to actively contribute to the solution – all thanks to clear priorities and a heightened sense of urgency. 

Stark new realities

Conversations within the project community have made comparisons with pre-pandemic life, including former instances of wasted time and effort and inefficient processes. In 2020, the challenge of bringing our whole selves to work has become more complex. Our personal lives and caring responsibilities have been transformed within a short space of time. We continue to work from home, possibly in a makeshift space. Interruptions, home-schooling and shielding may need to be factored in. We wonder about our previous ideas of a work/life balance.

While the ‘new normal’ will look different for everyone, organisations need to think carefully about how they move forward. Feedback within the project community has highlighted:

  • more collaborative organisations united in finding solutions that meet everyone’s needs;
  • adult-to-adult conversations increasingly outstripping parent-to-child conversations;
  • contractor-client engagement becoming more pragmatic;
  • making more time for conversations rather than issuing instructions;
  • a shift in management style away from needing to see people at work to be confident they are working; and
  • a loosening of control and an increase in trust, meaning a move away from micro-management towards outcome management.

Creativity and innovation have also been marked. Hardware, software and cybersecurity have played a huge role in making remote working a success. Teams have had to learn how to work together remotely, where previously they sat in the same office. The overwhelming feedback is that videoconferencing has led to more effective and efficient meetings that are less likely to be derailed – only one person can talk at a time to ‘claim the space’ and everyone is equal in the small thumbnail video. This has brought about a form of equality for participants.

Data-driven, speedy decision-making

Organisations typically focus on data-driven decision-making – and look for guarantees and dependable data on which to base their decisions. The pandemic has forced them to take faster decisions by accelerating the decision-making process or, in a few cases, circumventing it altogether. Notwithstanding the current debate as to whether government should have been better prepared for what some are calling an entirely foreseeable event, most organisations had no playbook for this scenario.

Many in the project community are used to working remotely and relying on online collaborative tools, but even they are now feeling ‘Zoom fatigue’, with days consisting of back-to-back video meetings. 

They worry that this fatigue results in less bandwidth to make a ‘good’ decision and that their judgement has been impaired by time pressures. Some feel that they have been forced by circumstances to take more risk and that decisions taken now will be revisited in the ‘new normal’. The attitude appears to be that there is an increased risk appetite from organisations, although this is not a comfortable position.

No longer a short-term blip

Line-of-sight events and planning horizons are now shorter than ever. Some organisations initially viewed COVID-19 as a ‘short-term blip’, so the focus became ‘keeping the show on the road’. This short-term blip is now regarded as a more fundamental change. Sense-making and decision-making need to be more strategic in nature, but it is unclear whether the data gained historically is fit to be used for forward planning, and the scenarios used for forward-planning options may not be robust enough.

There is a general feeling that decision-making at pace in a context of deep disruption is uncomfortable and often lacks the timely, relevant data needed. Nevertheless, we are still required to make those decisions.

As a project community, we work to bring about change. We are well positioned to change at the individual level and to keep up with this changing backdrop, as well as to support our teams and organisations to keep changing.

Stay safe and well, and take care of your physical and mental health.


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About the aurthor

Sarah Coleman is a Chartered Project Professional, Fellow and former Trustee of APM.  She is a thought-partner and advisor working at leadership team and board level across government, the public sector and private sector organisations.  Sarah has over 30 years' experience across the entire lifecycle from inception to closure and of every aspect of project, programme and portfolio management and of transformation across private sectors, public services and government in the UK and internationally.  She is valued for her excellent communication style, relationship-building skills at all levels of the organization, her willingness to share experience and knowledge gained in other sectors, and her ability to challenge positively and constructively. 

Since October 2016 Sarah has been an Infrastructure and Projects Authority Associate, Major Projects Reviewer and Subject Matter Expert (Projects, Programmes and Transformation) for infrastructure, digitisation and transformation.  Sarah has extensive experience of every aspect of projects, programmes and transformation across the entire lifecycle (from early stage shaping and scoping through to start-up, delivery and closure) and across all activities (establishing governance and process, planning, performance reporting, benefits management, risk identification and management, through to communication and stakeholder engagement.  She also has robust experience of assuring projects, programmes and transformation, and of developing competency frameworks and L&D strategies for in-house capability building. She helped Wellingtone develop their APM Accredited Assurance Practitioner Course.

Sarah’s work over the last few years has encompassed the UK nuclear estate, HS2 P-Rep team, critical friend support across UK government departments and GMPP reviews.   Clients and former employers have included BT plc, Rolls Royce plc, Grant Thornton UK LLP, Experian, Diamond Light Source Ltd, Pera, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Stroke Association, NHS, Legal and General, Home Office, Bank of America, PA Consulting, Defra, COLT Technology Services, Department for Transport, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Air Miles amongst others. 

Sarah holds an MBA from Cranfield School of Management and is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University.  She is a Chartered Project Professional, Fellow and former Non-Executive Director of the Association for Project Management, and a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. 

Sarah is a published author ((“Project Leadership: skills, behaviours, knowledge and values” (APM Publishing, 2018), “Project Leadership” (Gower, 2015), “Organizational Change Explained” (Kogan Page, 2017), “Dealing with Power and Politics” for “Business Analysis and Leadership: Influencing Change” (Kogan Page, 2013)), and contributor to books ('Strategies for Project Sponsorship' (2013), Management Concepts Press; 'Developing the Practice of Governance', APM Publishing 2020), professional bodies of knowledge ('APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition', APM Publishing 2019) and professional journals. She has also guest lectured at Cranfield University, Loughborough University, Oxford Brookes University, Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University.  She regularly presents for professional bodies and at P3M community conferences.  She is a qualified and experienced coach and mentor.


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