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Thoughts from Engineers: Project Management in the Age of COVID-19

Chris Maeder on May 13, 2020 - in Articles, Column

If there’s one positive to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that we’ve been knocked out of our comfort zones, and forced to recalibrate and reevaluate the important things in life and business. The virus and global economic downward spiral have driven home the fact that we and our businesses are significantly more vulnerable than we thought. Seasonal flu and its annual culling of the human population have always been an unfortunate fact of life, but COVID-19 added another potentially deadly and unknown variable in the mix. Clearly, modern medicine can only do so much.

What does all this mean in the context of project management (or managing a business)? We’ve always known that time is valuable, and that lost time is lost money, but these clichés seem more relevant and poignant than ever before.

If you only had so much time available and your business’ financial viability depended on making the correct decisions and effectively executing on them, how would you go about it? How, in other words, would you manage a project (or business) in the age of COVID-19?

Planning: Identify the Mission (and then Carve It Down to Its Core)

Beware the nonessential in any plan. If your plan of action is cluttered with multiple objectives and ambitious vision statements, you are wasting time. Now is the time to be clear, concise and ruthless: What’s primary to the mission, and what’s secondary?

Identify the essential goals without which the mission is certain to fail. It can take time and substantial effort to whittle it down to the bare bones of the mission, but it’s necessary. Shrewd businessmen have always understood this. Steve Jobs once remarked, “(s)imple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

To keep the scope of your project in check, identify three or four essential goals (that may include the following):

• Construct a timeline showing when project milestones need to be reached.

• Identify potential roadblocks or shortcomings that could arise and place the project at risk.

• Determine who on the team is best situated to work on various parts of the project.

Prioritize Objectives as If Your Life Depended on It

If you only had so much time to execute on the goals identified in the aforementioned exercise, how would you do it? Clearly, you would prioritize and deliver on the most important objectives first. Among the essential project goals identified, which are absolutely vital to the mission? If time is short, these get done first.

Find Darwin’s “Fittest” and Delegate to Them

Who would you trust with your life? If this seems too extreme a criterion, consider who you would trust with your business or, better yet, a particular business task? Identify team members who have specific strengths and leadership skills. These are the people you want at the helm of the project’s sub-teams. The principle of “survival of the fittest” applies here; in the age of COVID-19, raw talent wins. It’s that simple.

Execution: Identify Non-Negotiable Benchmarks

A plan needs to include measurable benchmarks showing that the project reached key targets. Identify business metrics (e.g., client interactions, project deadlines, project deliverables, etc.) that are indicators of success. Design your plan of execution so attaining benchmarks is a condition of moving forward.

Identify Timeframes to Hit Target Milestones

When do the project’s objectives need to be met? Time your own benchmarks so they’re in sync with client timelines or subcontractor availability. Examples here could include fiscal planning periods for municipalities and the private sector, client meetings, or site analysis and field work.

Make Use of Available Technology

Conventional methods of meeting as a team require a white board, CAD drawings and a physical space in which to gather, but don’t dismiss collaborative work tools such as Bluebeam, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Wrike. Aside from sharing a bag of chips, plenty in the way of generating solid work products can be done using these technologies. We’ve all (reluctantly?) used these tools; it’s time to maximize the potential.

Monitor Your Progress with a Sharp and Uncompromising Eye

Early signs of dysfunction need to be addressed as soon as they become apparent. Don’t dither and lose time hoping that flawed systems will magically reverse course. Take steps to remediate flaws in team dynamics, process or project execution. Value proactive measures. There’s nothing wrong with some degree of “jumping the gun” and taking preemptive action if your gut tells you some fundamental aspect of the project is off course.

In the opening paragraph of this column, I suggested that COVID-19 has forced us to take a step back and reevaluate the many complex aspects of life and business. My appreciation for family and home is keener, but there’s no doubt that managing a project (or running a business) requires a sharper, more uncompromising set of skills. An engineer can’t afford to be reactive or presume that work-life will remain constant, predictable and without crisis. Today, more is required of us, and the time to act, as they say, is now.

 

Chris Maeder

About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: chris.maeder@civilgeo.com.

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