Managing in a Time of Crisis - A Project Manager's Reflection

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So much has been written about what a strange and unusual year 2020 has been. As a muted festive season gets underway, I’m not sure anyone who was prepping for their Christmas party this time last year would have guessed quite how 2020 would turn out.

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For many, it’s been a year of unbearable sadness, with people lost to a once in a generation illness. For others (the lucky among us), it has been a year of reflection, a time to pause and maybe give thanks for how fortunate we really are.

I’ve been a project manager for over 15 years, and while it’s not the sort of career that you necessarily pinpoint as a target as you’re growing up, it is a job that I feel suited to. It has also provided significant satisfaction over the years.

I have spent the last seven months (really since the first lock down) helping one of our major clients manage their response to COVID-19. I can honestly say, despite working on dozens of programmes and for many different clients, nothing has quite prepared me for size, scale, and complexity of delivery over the last few months. Below are some of my thoughts about this complicated time.

Sometimes there is no plan, sometimes you just need to ‘do’.

As project managers of all varieties, we are taught to adhere to methodologies. We are encouraged to devise, improve, and reuse templates and tools. Waterfall or Agile, we are used to working our way through a process to deliver products, outputs, and outcomes to our stakeholders and clients.

But what if decisions are made by the hour and not by a pre-planned monthly programme board? What if a government policy shift means that all the work you did for the last week is no longer relevant? How about when the decisions you take today result in headlines tomorrow?

I can honestly say that in my role at least, planning has been largely futile as priorities and focus shift constantly. That is not to say chaos and disorganisation have reigned, more that the need to be flexible and stick your hand up to heave a deliverable over the line has been far more important than reflecting on milestones past.

A good example of this is just a few days ago. I found myself in a vast warehouse looking for office equipment because, by sifting through this cavernous space, we saved significant sums of taxpayers’ money. It takes a long time to find 200 office chairs in such a large space but sometimes you put on your oldest pair of jeans and just ‘do’.

Leave your badge at the door.

Life as a consultant means you often come across consultants from other firms. No matter which firm you work for, there is always a sense that your firm is better for some reason or another. Often, in times of crisis, past disagreements and old rivalries are quickly forgotten and the focus on the greater good is the driving force.

Over the last few months, I have witnessed the coming together of almost every consultancy imaginable, as well as contractors and those directly employed working as one team to drive forward innovative and cutting-edge solutions to try and overcome this disease.

I would go further; no one is interested in hierarchy. It is related to the point above but the people I have witnessed be most successful in delivery during the crises are those that do not care where they sit in an organisational diagram.

Those that have bobbed and weaved to complete tasks and activities to almost impossible deadlines, have stayed late, started early, and worked weekends to deliver for the greater good are those that I believe will find continued career success as life returns to normal.

Watch out for your team, these are unusual times.

We’ve probably all seen a different side to people we love and know well throughout the crisis.  Those that we may thought were impervious to stress have had dark days worrying about the seeming impossibility and unending nature of it all while others have taken it in their stride.  For me, I find the scale of the problem almost unfathomable, I have taken joy in the small things.

For the first time in years, I have spent months at a time at home and watched the cherry tree outside my window go through the seasons.  But not everyone is the same and keeping an eye on a dispersed and fragmented team is critical.

A home office with notebook and laptop
Photo by Ken Tomita from Pexels.

As managers, we know we should always have one eye on our team. But as the world suddenly shifted to Skype calls, dodgy internet connections, and critiquing the previously unseen interiors of our co-workers’ homes, it was harder to spot patterns of behaviour in those that work for us. Those that were struggling were able to hide it if they wanted to due to a lack of face-to-face contact.

Being even more fastidious about team meetings, regular catch ups, and one-on-ones during this time has been key to ensure individuals have time to vent their fears and frustrations, and that plans and support mechanisms can be put into place, so no one feels like they are alone.

Mental health awareness is growing and is being pushed up the agenda. This is a real positive for our line of work which expects long hours, travel away from home, and the ability to deliver in ever-changing environments as the norm.

Small kindnesses matter.

I did an internal presentation to my MIGSO-PCUBED colleagues in April when the unknowns were all too great. One of the key messages in my presentation was about small kindnesses and how these micro-acts would be what got us through these troubled times.  I stand by this, and although lockdown through a British winter is certainly harder than when its light until 10pm, there are still many positive stories to celebrate.

We have all seen the headline grabbing news stories of Sir Tom Moore and his garden escapades, claps for the NHS, and people talking to their neighbours for the first time ever. However, I look around my place of work, and I see this reflected in the people around me. I’m one of the lucky ones, classed as a key worker that’s been in and out of the office all year.

Bakery window
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels.

From the lady in the canteen who, without fail, greeted every customer with a smile and a “How can I help you?”, to the person in my team who goes out of his way to buy coffee for his co-workers each week, to all the people in my team who put their hands up to be Mental Health Champions. I truly believe these things have all helped us get through.

Let us also not forget the bigger picture in that in less than a year, an effective vaccine has been found for this novel virus that has turned our lives upside down.  That is truly remarkable.

I think we are all hoping that 2021 will be significantly less eventful than 2020, but I, along with many others, will take many learnings from the experiences of 2020. I am thankful that I have not only been working throughout this crisis, but able to contribute to the national effort in my own small way. Now, having done daily reporting for three months, I will certainly never complain about having to pull the monthly steer-co deck together ever again!

This article was written by Laura Willson

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