Chaos Needs a Plan
Published: Mar 26, 2021
BY BRIAN PORTER
One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been positives and negatives, but managers still need to plan for continued uncertainty.
So, here we are, about one year after a “limited” global shutdown caused governments around the world to close borders, companies to consider their risk profiles, and the Tokyo 2020 games to be shifted to the Tokyo 2021 games. At the time of this writing, the games are still planned for this coming summer.
Let’s consider some of the major changes that have come about in everyday life because of COVID-19 responses:
- Masks required in many or most public places
- Physical distancing recommendations outside the home
- Limited number of people at gatherings
- Videoconferences rather than “in-person” now the norm
- Reduced travel for business and personal purposes
- Less time with extended families
- Delayed weddings, funerals, and other special events
- Soaring and then dropping unemployment, which remains above historic lows
- Significant decline in math and reading skills for children • Mandated curfews in some cities
- Significantly increased domestic violence numbers
- Increase in suicidal thoughts, especially in younger generations
It’s not all bad, though. We have also seen several beneficial aspects to the 2020 isolation period:
- Less business travel, which is good for the individual and families but not for airlines
- Lower fuel prices for those who do have to travel
- Increased focus on health and exercise for some
- Increase in baking, which is good for those who like eating!
When the pandemic restrictions first hit the workplace about a year ago, a general feeling of helplessness seemed to permeate just about every person. The chaos of disrupted business required a varied approach to doing jobs, including WFH (work from home), alternating schedules, and modification of normal processes. So many individuals, employees, and managers took the initial two-week shutdown as a vacation rather than a way to consider risk and improve ways of getting things done.
However, some of the best managers and executives saw an opportunity to modify and thrive, rather than sit back and wait. The rest were confused and didn’t have a clue how to move forward. You may have determined who you were in spring 2020. More important, it’s up to you to decide who you will be during spring 2021 and moving forward. How will you address the unknown in the future?
PROJECT MANAGEMENT TOOLS CAN HELP
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
—General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Organizations, whether for-profit, nonprofit, or government, just need to plan. There may be those who are on one side or the other of the “predictive” or “agile” argument. Neither approach is correct by itself, especially in a time of chaos. It takes a balance of short-term responses and long-term adjustments, which will require both agile and predictive methods to assess and respond with better results.
Just to be clear, here’s an analogy for understanding how the two methods would be used when taking a trip from New York to California:
- If a 100% predictive method is used, the project manager will focus on details from the very start to the very finish using the IPEMC (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing) process groups. They will outline each turn and every stop and calculate estimated fuel efficiency for the entire journey.
- If a 100% agile method is used, the team will only consider the direction they are heading and estimate how far they might travel in a day. Each morning, the team will consider what the plan for the day should be. To this team, an agile daily stand-up meeting includes yesterday’s accomplishments, goals for today, and the challenges blocking these goals.
Both methods require planning, but one assumes a known end and that all details can be calculated. The other addresses the short term with more flexibility.
Let’s use both methods and address this the AMA way!
- Analyze the situation
- Make a plan
- Adapt as needed
ANALYZE THE SITUATION—DON’T FLINCH!
All too often, managers flinch at sudden changes in the market, employee resignations or, in 2020, a pandemic. Those that “flinched” canceled life for two weeks and then came back without a plan. Instead, when faced with a business or personal situation that causes great change, you should pause and consider the situation. Observe all ways the organization, employees, and you as an individual will be affected.
I recall a disaster movie where people saw a meteor coming at them and started to panic, shouting and running in every direction. One “leader” got on a megaphone and yelled “Stop,” causing everyone to look at him. He shouted, “Look where it’s heading!” After a moment they all noted the direction and ran to the side, avoiding running into the peril. They stopped for a moment and decided how to respond.
When chaos or disaster strikes business, you may need to tell yourself “Stop” for a moment and figure out where things are heading, instead of responding by panicking. Consider all the elements that need to be addressed:
- Policy. Consider newly instituted local, state, and federal restrictions. How might some of these restrictions threaten business, but also open opportunities?
- Product. There will be changes in demand for products or services provided by the organization. This could mean a significant drop or a significant increase. Perhaps a portion of the organization will see a drop and the other portion will see a gain.
- Process. There are external forces that can invalidate your current processes. Perhaps you have performed business only in a face-to-face modality for years, but now you have changed to digital or physical delivery. What other factors might force change to your existing processes?
- People. Your employees will have fears and concerns. Unemployment is a big concern, but for others during the 2020 pandemic, the fear was not of losing their job but determining how to do the job effectively with children studying at home.
Sometimes, a proposed change itself is enough to cause panic and fear. Judging the level of anxiety will help a manager determine urgency for a change versus importance of the change
MAKE A PLAN, OR START PLANNING?
After completing a thorough analysis of the situation, the manager can now use some project management tools to focus on planning. I’ve noted that project managers are a lot like NFL football coaches. We spend the majority of our week in planning and just a small portion performing the execution component. Here are some specific ways to help staff and the organization through times of chaos, starting with the people:
- Get your bearings. Just as airlines instruct passengers to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before helping others, you need to make sure you are ready to face the issue head-on. This means you need to clarify the scope of your efforts. Whether they are projects or process (operations), you need to ensure that you are clear on the scope and vision of your efforts.
- Sleep right. Without sleep, you will not be focused enough to make good decisions.
- Eat right. Eating or drinking excessively will only hamper your health.
- Exercise right. Make sure to take a few minutes every morning to get the circulation flowing and metabolism started. Even a few sit-ups and some jogging in place can really help a person’s mood and metabolic rate.
- Add tools. Consider what you need to monitor the business and marketplace within logical constraints, not emotional triggers. Resource management is one of the 10 knowledge areas in project management, and it gets less attention than scope, schedule, or cost (budget) management. Don’t ignore it! Determine the resources required to be successful, such as a computer, headphones, technology, and so on.
- Team meetings. Regular team meetings, including agile daily stand-ups, will help keep people on track and connected. During any “chaos” event, a feeling of helplessness and loneliness is the enemy. Remove the fears and help the team.
- One-on-one check-in. Make sure to have individual conversations, not just group discussions. Certain employees may feel left out because they are too shy to speak up in the group setting. Pay attention to their needs as well.
- Team “fun” exercises. The intent is to build camaraderie beyond the basic interactions while working. Find a way to team build. A few ideas include Dave and Buster events and virtual happy hours (everybody has their own snacks and drinks but shares time chatting with one another).
- Technology needs. During any upset in business, the first thing some managers do is to cut back on resources to avoid unnecessary costs. However, updating technology and looking forward may provide efficiencies and confidence needed to make it through the disaster. More, not less!
For the Organization
Once you have a plan for yourself and employees, now think of the business:
- Policy. What changes to policy will be required? The pandemic changed a lot of company practices requiring individuals to work at the office or onsite. Overnight, something that was prohibited became not only the norm but a requirement. During the next “chaos” event, what policies might be revisited? Even if it is a weather-related or a financial, competitive, health, or other unknown event that causes the change, evaluate and be willing to drop or modify policies for the new reality.
- Product. Perhaps competition is adamant and aggressive about new products, and they disrupt what has been a comfortable position for your organization. Cities replaced rural and agricultural living in the 1870s. Digital media displaced newspapers in the 1990s. Online banking has displaced much of “personal banking” over the past 30 years. Electric cars have and will continue to displace fossil-fuel vehicles in the years to come.
- Process. Consider how many small and large food chains had to change from dine-in to pick-up or delivery modalities during 2020 within a few weeks’ time. Manufacturing lines had to space employees out rather than “maximize” space usage. For some, shortcuts were taken, but that’s not recommended. Instead, re-envision a new process that meets the chaos situation.
ADAPT AS NEEDED
Recognize that every plan needs to be flexible. Whether short-term or long-term planning has occurred, we need to be open to further unexpected surprises. This is where the battle between agile and predictive project management tools can instead be a helpful selection process.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Seventh Edition, or PMBOK© 7, is scheduled to be released in late March 2021 and is intended to focus on outcomes. Project managers should use the correct tools from any methodology that is appropriate for their project. This means that some managers will need a lot of adaptive or agile tools upfront, but also should think long-term predictive tools for when things settle.
Think of it this way: When you have an emergency, you use an ambulance. If there is no emergency, you use your regular vehicle.
In the short term after “chaos” hits, consider using agile tools because it means that you will get through the day or week providing some form of value. Use 15-minute daily stand-up meetings to get feedback on what has been completed, what will be completed, and roadblocks for each team member. Approach the plan for only a week or two to make sure that every effort is worth the time. If something is not going to bring value in the next couple of weeks, then delay or eliminate that activity.
Once things begin to settle down, you can make the long- term plans such as formal six-month, one-year, two- year, and five-year strategies for operational and project modifications. Use predictive tools such as formal calendars and resource scheduling tools. Proper sequencing will keep you from wasting precious resources during tough times.
Whether the disaster you face is temporary or permanent does not matter. If it is a condition related to financial, resource, scheduling, communication, or scope elements, it does not matter. You can tailor your response to the situation at hand by using AMA: Analyze, Make a Plan, Adapt!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Brian Porter is an adjunct instructor at American Management Association. Porter has handled all aspects of product development and project management, including ideation, development, testing, documentation, NRTL listing, field testing, patent preparation, market rollouts, training, litigation support, and every other aspect of bringing a product to market.