By Dr. Harold Kerzner
June 10, 2022
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 D. Kerzner, Ph.D., is Senior Executive Director at the International Institute for Learning, Inc., a global learning solutions company that conducts training for leading corporations throughout the world.
He is a globally recognized expert on project, program, and portfolio management, total quality management, and strategic planning. Dr. Kerzner is the author of bestselling books and texts, including the acclaimed Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Thirteenth Edition. His latest book, Project Management Next Generation: The Pillars for Organizational Excellence, co-authored with Dr. Al Zeitoun and Dr. Ricardo Viana Vargas, delivers an expert discussion on project management implementation of all kinds.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.