The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Project Management
Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.
Sr. Executive Director for Project Management
International Institute for Learning (IIL)
In 2020, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Public sector, private sector, and government leaders across all businesses had to respond quickly to the effects of the crisis, often with very little time to prepare. All of this was taking place in a rapidly changing VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) environment, intensifying the decision-making process.
Dealing with this crisis required that many projects be implemented quickly without having the luxury of sufficient time to use many of the traditional project management tools, techniques, and processes. It affected project management leadership practices as well, especially the way that leadership had to be applied and how decisions should be made. Most project teams had never been trained in how to deal with crises such as this when executing both traditional and nontraditional projects. The information learned from managing projects during the pandemic has generated many best practices that are now being applied to all types of projects.
The pandemic has accelerated the recognition and needs for significant changes in human behavior in project leadership. These characteristics are now seen as best practices and are becoming part of project management educational programs.
One of the biggest challenges in project management leadership is getting the team to trust that decisions made by project managers are based upon honesty, fairness, and ethical practices that consider the best interests of both the projects and the team members. Trust will encourage team members to become more engaged and committed to the project. Trust can be destroyed if project managers act in an unethical manner, abuse the power of their position, or demonstrate toxic emotions towards the team.
The pandemic placed people under significantly higher levels of stress. People quickly recognized the added complexities of their job with the reality of having to work from home. Working on virtual teams was a new experience for many people. Project managers were relied on to provide guidance to team members on day-to-day activities as well as updates from the company on business recovery or lockdown. The need for effective collaboration to establish trust is now seen as a best practice.
To build and maintain trust, project management leaders must continuously provide emotional and interpersonal support for the team. This was a new experience for many project managers who were just beginning to realize the importance of earning team members’ trust and its impact during a crisis.
Leadership during a crisis must focus on persuasion rather than formal authority and coercion. This is best achieved through effective communications. Active listening practices accompanied by emotional intelligence concepts and empathy should be used to understand team members’ concerns.
When team members work from home for an extended amount of time, they rely on media interaction and engagement to understand what is happening during the crisis. The greater the uncertainty in the news, the greater the anxiety in the listeners.
Project managers must be willing to give up the idea that information is power and support the transparency of making information available. The information should provide a clear and realistic view of what is currently happening and possibly an optimistic view of future expectations. Empathetic communication is becoming a best practice on all projects.
On traditional projects, project managers often adopt a wait-and-see attitude before making decisions with the belief that all possible scenarios must be considered, including the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, all of this takes time. During a crisis, delaying or not making a decision promptly is generally a bad idea and can lead to a potentially worse outcome than expected by missing project opportunities. Decision delays can also create an environment where team members no longer have any credibility in the project manager’s leadership ability.
The pandemic has taught us that we must be willing to make project decisions rapidly based upon whatever information we have, even if the information is imperfect or incomplete. Project managers must do the best they can with the information available to anticipate what can go wrong.
During a crisis, strategic decisions are usually made for both the long- and short-term benefits whereas project decisions may require a different focus. Some decisions may be designed around the organization’s core values which may be in contrast with the project’s objectives. Other types of decisions may need to focus on the beliefs and values of the people affected by the decision. Regardless of the decisions made, project managers must spend sufficient time with all players, even if this means one-on-one virtual meetings to explain the meaning of the decision and what actions are expected from them.
Project Control Center
In traditional project management with well-defined scope and expectations, critical decisions are most often made by the team in open meetings and reviewed as needed with the project manager and either the sponsor or governance committee. However, during a crisis, executives often believe they must take control resulting in the removal of leadership responsibility from the project manager and possibly the project sponsor. Meetings are held behind closed doors with only a select few in attendance. These secretive meetings often do not include project managers or project team members even though the resulting decisions may have a serious impact on the direction of the projects.
Using the hierarchical approach for making critical decisions during a crisis runs the risk of making bad decisions by overlooking critical information. The result is most often mistrust by the key players and a lack of commitment to the decisions.
Effective decision-making during a crisis should be done through brainstorming sessions. Having the right people in attendance, the greater the likelihood that critical information will not be overlooked, and more perspectives will be considered. Many of the participants may not have been part of the original project team if the crisis concerned just your project. The brainstorming sessions should include suppliers, distributors, and other strategic partners that may be experiencing the same risks and uncertainties as you and must understand the rationale for whatever decisions are made and how it impacts them. Their support may be essential.
There may be frequent brainstorming sessions, and team members will want to know what decisions are being made and if they will be impacted. It may be beneficial to establish a project control center or project nerve center for the control of information to team members.
The result of crisis decisions frequently leads to change management activities as strategies based on new or promising ideas are designed for implementation. During a crisis, companies try to reduce costs and they often begin by abandoning teaching and educational activities. This may lead to detrimental results if the training and education are essential to fulfill and implement a strategy that requires organizational changes.
The magnitude and speed of crises are often unpredictable as we have seen from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the actions that companies have taken during the crisis are now becoming standard practices when managing many types of projects and are treated like best practices.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Harold Kerzner is a globally recognized expert in project, program, and portfolio management, innovation, and strategic planning, and Senior Executive Director at International Institute for Learning (IIL). For 50 years, Dr. Kerzner has shared vital guidance for making project management a strategic tool for competitive advantage and helping companies around the world build a powerful foundation for company improvement and excellence.
Dr. Kerzner has published or presented engineering and business papers and has published more than 60 college textbooks/workbooks on project management, including later editions. His books include Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling and Controlling; Project Management Metrics, KPIs and Dashboards; Project Management Case Studies; Project Management Best Practices: Achieving Global Excellence; PM 2.0: The Future of Project Management; Using the Project Management Maturity Model; and Innovation Project Management.
He is a charter member of the Northeast Ohio PMI Chapter.
He traveled around the world conducting project management lectures for PMI Chapters and companies in Japan, China, Russia, Brazil, Singapore, India, Korea, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Croatia, Mexico, Trinidad, Barbados, The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Venezuela, Columbia, United Arab Emirates, France, Italy, England, and Switzerland. He delivered a keynote speech at a PMI Global Congress on the future of project management.
Dr. Kerzner’s recognitions include the following:
- As a Mission Partner of the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF), IIL is proud to create endowed scholarships in the name of Dr. Harold Kerzner to support project management education and excellence, in partnership with Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF). The Dr. Harold Kerzner Scholarships are four academic scholarships awarded to undergraduates and graduates for studies in project management.
- The prestigious Kerzner International Project Manager of the Year Award, presented to one project manager yearly anywhere in the world who has demonstrated excellence in project management, by Project Management Institute (National Organization) in partnership with IIL.
- Distinguished Recent Alumni Award in 1981 for his contributions to the field of project management, granted by The University of Illinois.
- 1998 Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the field of project management, presented by Utah State University
- The Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute gives out the Kerzner Award once a year to one project manager in Northeast Ohio that has demonstrated excellence in project management. They also give out a second Kerzner Award for Project of the Year in Northeast Ohio.
- Baldwin-Wallace University has instituted the Kerzner Distinguished Lecturer Series in project management.
- The Italian Institute of Project Management presented Dr. Kerzner with the 2019 International ISIPM Award for his contributions to the field of project management.
Dr. Kerzner has an MS and Ph.D. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Utah State University. He taught engineering at the University of Illinois and business administration at Utah State University, and for 38 years taught project management at Baldwin-Wallace University.