Toolbox for the Crisis: What Project Managers Should Know

June 30, 2020

101 of crisis project management

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the economy, the full dimension of which cannot be assessed yet. What is already clear is that many industries are experiencing a sizeable slump. Keeping this in mind, the number-one goal is a fast recovery that is as sustainable as possible; and in order to make this happen, professional project management (PM) and professional crisis management is needed. Prof. Martina Huemann, Academic Director of the Professional MBA Project Management, has analyzed what project managers should do in times of crisis, which competences they need, and how they can best prepare for the time after the crisis.

Pic of a group working in project management
In times like these, professional project management is essential for rapid, sustainable reconstruction. Photo © CC0 Licence

“In tough times like these characterized by drastic limitations due to halted production, short-time work, and various restrictions imposed by the authorities, solid crisis project management is very important. This requires project managers with sound expertise, leadership experience, and the right mindset,” says PM expert Martina Huemann, who also heads the Project Management Group of WU Vienna.

Three Possible Routes of Action for Ongoing Projects

Regardless of type, scope, and complexity, numerous projects across virtually all industries are currently affected by the crisis. This is because many organizations are lacking the required resources to deal with the problems at hand. The first step should therefore be a comprehensive assessment of the situation. For Martina Huemann, the current situation allows for three routes of actions that project managers can take to address the challenges their ongoing projects are now facing.

1. Looking for Alternatives

Are there any other options available? If so, which additional resources, both with regard to staff and funding, are needed to realize them? Does the expected output justify the extra expenditure?

2. Ending the Project

Sometimes it makes sense to cut your losses and put a stop to a project. “This is a step I recommend when the business case behind the project is no longer a good fit. In other words: if a project is no longer likely to achieve the estimated benefits, project managers should end it because continuing the project would be more expensive. This is certainly a hard decision to make. And that is why PM leadership experience is so crucial,” Martina Huemann says.

Pic of a red light, symblic for the abortion of project management
A project should not be terminated prematurely, yet it can sometimes make sense to do so. Photo © CC0 Licence

3. Pausing the Project

According to Huemann, the third option is the most popular at the moment, and for good reasons at that. “Companies should not give up on every project; this would make life difficult at a later stage.” By pausing a project, the resources and project team can be quickly put to work again in the next phase, i.e. at a time when the economy has recovered to a certain degree and we are quickly returning to business as usual. What is key, however, is to make a clean break and communicate this transparently to everyone involved. For instance, stakeholders need to be informed that the project will take a break but that a concrete plan including all timelines and details for its later continuation is in place. This also means that project managers need to make detailed records of results already achieved in order to be able to resume work on the project with the project team as fast as possible after the break.

How Project Managers Can Adapt

What is the best way for project managers to deal with the present situation? Though some projects can now be paused, many companies are currently investing in alternative business models. “Just look at our segment: executive education. We had to clear the classrooms practically overnight and had to implement all of our learning offers online as quickly as possible. Such a change requires tremendous effort, and this is where you need a project,” Huemann says. To make a project successful, it takes a “get it done” mindset, which can be found in many seasoned project managers.

Portrait Martina Huemann

Prof. Martina Huemann

  • Academic Director of the Professional MBA Project Management

The desire to achieve strong results in a short amount of time is really what counts. This requires intrinsic motivation, speed, clear priorities and objectives, transparent structures, and neatly coordinated deadlines to support the team in self-organizing because in such a situation, we really need to pull together.

There is a limit to how fast things can be realized, though. Just think of the construction industry, for instance: some projects simply cannot be accelerated beyond a certain point. Nevertheless, it always makes sense to structure a project into distinctive stages without losing sight of the big picture, Martina Huemann holds. An agile work style and seamless communication with the customer who has commissioned the project can help achieve interim results quickly. This way, progress becomes quickly apparent, the psychological effect of which should not be underestimated. To reach this, you sometimes have to be daring and try something new and unconventional. This takes the right mindset.

Competences Project Managers Need Now

Will the crisis and its aftermath require different skills and expertise in project management? “I would not say that it is about fundamentally different skills,” Huemann says. The crisis has simply put a spotlight on the skills that are particularly important: true leadership in a project, solid communication, and the will to let the team self-organize while still steering the course. Self-organization skills enable fast decision-making and targeted collaborative work, which will, in turn, produce good results fast. And PM in times of crisis is also about resilience: project managers must “be able to take what is ahead.” It makes sense to adopt a trial-and-error approach – think of rapid prototyping or double-loop learning – to test out the available options, quickly discard the ones that produce bad results, and stick to those that deliver.

Pic of a wrong equation
In times of crisis, it is useful to explore various possibilities with targeted collaborative work. Photo © CC0 Licence

Supporting Projects That Help the Economy Recover

After the crisis, we will need to focus on rebuilding – that much is clear. This will be the time to continue new ideas and novel business models that have been developed. Projects are not only helpful to guide a short-term transformation, they can also be utilized to build up something over a longer period of time. “If you want a company to undergo real transformation instead of only adjusting a little bit, you need a structured change process,” the PM expert explains. She points to the example of returning to the office after working from home. Many stakeholders, among them works council representatives, want a say in this process. “The conditions created for the return to a normal work mode will have a sustainable impact that will reach far beyond the end of the crisis.”

Demand for Project Management Still on the Rise

In times of turmoil, there is a great demand for project managers. Experts who can bring structure to a chaotic situation and who know the methods to introduce and sustain change are a sought-after human resource. Martina Huemann: “Professional project management can serve as a lifeline that works in any crisis. It can be a compass for the organization and its employees, which is crucial in difficult times: this way, change or a new strategy can be broken down into concrete goals staff can work towards. Smartly designed projects will enable us to create a positive future for everyone.”

For more information about the Professional MBA Project Management, please click here.

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