Projects can get delayed for many reasons from third party suppliers failing to deliver on time, to poor communication between project stakeholders sometimes the deliverables are simply not realistic within the project constraints. Then there are the unpredictable and devastating external factors like COVID-19 that disrupt on an unprecedented scale.
Countless projects have been delayed or temporarily suspended as a result of the pandemic, labor shortages, and disruption to supply chains. This is the time when project managers need to take control, look ahead, stay productive, and identify mitigation options, which can be especially challenging when a project shuts down overnight, as has been the case during the coronavirus crisis.
Richard Reynolds, senior engineer at consultancy firm E&M West, has over 30 years of experience in the construction industry, including leading the multi-disciplinary design team for the Media Center at the London 2012 Olympics.
He says, “If it’s a short delay, you’ll likely have the same people on the project team when it resumes. However, if there are redundancies, which we can expect to see in the current climate, when the project does restart several months down the line you might have different people working on it, who don’t know exactly where things were up to when it stopped. They might assume certain issues have been resolved when in fact there were live issues at the time of the delay. It is crucial to have a close down procedure on a project so that when it restarts everybody knows where they are.”
Another factor to consider is the recession that is expected to follow the pandemic, when the original viability of projects will be subject to change.
“The project may have to start again as something completely new,” says Reynolds. “But there is a real opportunity here for design project managers to help clients understand what can be done to change the project and make it viable in the new economic climate.”
Previous experience of handling delays will stand a project manager in good stead in the current crisis. Sabrina Benjamin is a business and IT consultant with over 20 years of project management experience across many industries, including retail, and has dealt with the challenges of project delays, as she explains.
“One project I worked on involved the closure of a warehouse and relocation of operations across several other warehouses,” she says. “The initial analysis carried out by the internal team was challenged by one of the other warehouse sites at the start because there was insufficient car parking space to support the additional employees. This resulted in the warehouse external grounds being redesigned to enable the change, a three month project delay.”
Another two-year project to deliver an automated warehouse required further impact assessments to ensure the site would fulfil business growth targets over the ensuing five years. “The finance department took five months to provide the analytical data,” she says. “The additional costs from the delays and the increased cost assumptions for transitioning, provided by the data, resulted in the project going on hold for 18 months.”
Benjamin’s tips for managing delays include having a clear process to make decisions, and ensuring that resources are in place to provide and analyze accurate and complete information.
She says, “You need to establish the best way to deliver, make it digestible and break it down. Iterative project structures create opportunities to reduce the impact of delays and progress the project forward by delivering capabilities in small chunks. And update your project schedule. Schedules should reflect the latest approach, and tasks should reflect the journey and the touch points required, enabling the project manager to successfully track and manage the change. Fail to plan, plan to fail; it’s that simple.”
Effective communication can make a huge difference to a delayed project, and is now a key skill for project managers. Software development projects, particularly the large, complex variety involving multiple stakeholders, are often prone to delays. As a project manager at Rocketmakers, part of Hannah Sweet’s role is to identify and avoid potential delays, and if they happen, ensure there are workable options for delivering a project on time.
“We use the agile development method for most projects, which focuses on getting core features built first,” she explains. “Whatever we build should be usable from an early stage, so if a significant delay does occur there are options for the client: delivering the project to the original schedule minus a few ‘nice to have’ features, or, with more time, delivering the entire project scope.”
A recent project involved building an app that accessed a database of secure information. It was a complex piece of work and for various reasons the team couldn’t access the database in advance to see how it was structured until the app was ready to go. This made advanced testing, even with mock data, impractical and led to delays.
“As a project manager, my main role was to communicate clearly with all of the stakeholders, explaining why there was a delay, what had caused it, how it could be fixed, and what it meant for the rest of the project. Communication in these situations is extremely important, and everyone needs to work together collaboratively to solve problems.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations across all sectors and industries were undergoing huge disruptions and facing economic pressure to transform their businesses. In such a dynamic environment it is vital that organizations and professionals invest in ongoing professional development, says Sunil Prashara, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute (PMI).
He says, “From strategic business to project management to softer skills, such as communication, empathy, and collaboration, taking time now to upskill and reskill will make you better prepared to proactively navigate change.”
The PMI recently launched its Resource Hub for the New Work Ecosystem and is in the process of launching some new online courses to help professionals develop their skills.
“Now, more than ever, it is important to go beyond agility, and to be gymnastic in a business setting,” says Prashara. “That means being flexible, proactive, innovative and agile in response to changes, whether from the market, competitors or the economy. Project managers can act as ‘change-makers’ and we believe they will play a critical role in helping businesses, governments and society recover and rebound in a post-COVID world.”
Alison Coleman is a freelance journalist and editor, with 24 years experience, founder of Coleman Media, and a Forbes contributor. She covers stories on all areas of business for national and international online and print publications.