Continuing our weekly series of posts on the theme of Lessons from Lockdown with the help of Sarah Coleman, Vicki Griffiths, Ian Cribbes and Tim Lyons who are gathering and collating stories and insight drawn from the P3M community.
Some notional definitions
Resilience: The physical property (of a material) that can return to its original shape or position after deformation that does not exceed its elastic limit …. Or… An occurrence of rebounding or springing back;
Deformation: Alteration in the shape or dimensions (of an object) as a result of the application of stress to it;
Elastic Limit: [sometimes known as the Yield Point] the point during deformation beyond which (an object) will not return to its original state – in other words it changes from elastic to plastic.
Some general reflections on resilience:
A project results in something changing – i.e. what is there at the end is different from what was there at the start. You would expect therefore that project people would be totally familiar with the ‘original shape or position’ being changed so that the initiative or enterprise involved would expect to adapt to the end state. A well-run project will create an environment where this change was anticipated and even welcomed. Where a project has brought about a change, but the organisation has trouble adapting to the new shape, in a sense the project has failed to deliver an integrated change. Even under ‘normal’ circumstances project environments can have a slightly uneasy relationship with resilience, since they alter the end state.
Add to this the observation that under lockdown, standard definitions of ‘original shape or position’ may not still be relevant; organisations that relied on specific ways and patterns or working have been forced to adapt to new patterns in ways they would not have expected or wanted. Some have adapted processes, patterns and connections on a temporary basis in order to survive – meetings take place virtually, documents are electronically signed, site working is adapted to deploy social distancing, supply chains are altered.
Some of these new ways of working bring about unexpected benefits – less commuting, more but different contact with colleagues, environmental bonuses. The jury is still out as to whether when lockdown ends, all the new ways of working will ‘return to their normal shape or position’. If they don’t, then notions of Resilience would give way to a dominance of Flexibility/Adaptability. Put another way the deformation may be so great that the yield point has been reached and plastic deformation must occur for the survival of the enterprise. There are many ways in which an enterprise could assess its response to such plastic deformation – and done in a spirit of ‘not knowing’, using perhaps SWOT or Cost-Benefit analyses could reveal which changes were worth keeping/embracing and which were undesirable or a threat and should return to the ‘original shape or position’.
Through this all, organisations and project might reflect on whether the higher ‘neurological levels’ are changed or unchanged – for example if the Identity of the project and its values remain as before but the beliefs have been altered – “We CAN go on meeting like this…” – or the capabilities – “It IS possible for our team to make effective decisions, remotely” then the original DNA of the project can probably survive. Here the new shape or position becomes that overused term ‘the new normal’, but the intention and outcomes are broadly unchanged.
Considerations of Business Resilience
Business resilience as a survival technique is of course not new. There will always be times of feast and famine, especially for those who run small consultancies providing services to the project and management sectors. What is different during the present pandemic and post-pandemic periods is the scale of the difficulty of providing such services. In former times, a reasonably buoyant economy meant that service providers had to tailor their offerings and their differentiation to meet a fairly static demand. This called on a specific known set of business development skills.
With COVID19, firstly we find a client base that has downsized their business portfolios and whose initiatives are delayed until more is known about the economy, nationally and globally. The net result is less opportunity for service providers.
Secondly, in many sectors the change has been not a run-down but a cliff. There has been little time for service providers to adjust their marketing approach, or to discover what competitors are doing.
Thirdly, the process of engagement has been hampered by the need for social distancing. Although as noted above the opportunities for virtual meetings are shown to be manageable for teams that know each other, this is not necessarily so easy when approaching people and organisations that you don’t yet know.
As these factors have now dealt body blows to some, other opportunities are opening up for service providers to develop their resilience through other channels – normally ‘nice to have’ but lower on the pecking order after the day job. One suggestion might be to offer their expertise on a voluntary basis. The need for project-related initiatives in social and public sectors is likely to be as strong or stronger, post pandemic. That could translate into opportunities for service providers to show business resilience by offering much needed skills and expertise, at the same time learning more about those sectors. Although obviously a loss leader, it offers possibilities for skills enhancement and sector exposure which could provide a useful differentiation factor as and when global markets return.
It’s worth searching the web for online groups that act as connecting networks such as www.Furlonteer.com or www.Furloughed.Life , some set up as charities. These will allow people with skills to volunteer and keep themselves sharp.
Narrowing the range of offerings would be another application of resilience; for example those service providers who offer services and products in agile PM or Lessons Learned might major on just those skills, at the expense of their broader portfolio in order to double down on areas where there is work to be had. This in turn might lead to redeployment of specialisms and experts into areas within their own organisations. It will pay to remain alert and to be resilient enough to manage internal change.
Working collaboratively with other organisations could be a very lucrative application of resilience in the face of smaller markets. As my colleague Ian Cribbes has noted in his essay on Collaboration where organisations are able to work together to deliver a more integrated service, everybody can benefit. The skill of resilience will be to find areas where such collaboration does not sink the business but allow a sustainable level of profitability. Quite possibly when the pandemic is a distant memory, old rivalries will be alive and well again!… but that too shows resilience.
Whatever the wider social or business effects of lockdown, there is inevitably an impact on each of us as humans. We are evolved to be social creatures and, in most cultures, we thrive best where we meet and interact positively. Having to do things more in isolation can seem unnatural although there are some for whom this can be normal, such as writers. Indeed, there are now widely reported examples of people working in isolation who are finding it difficult to cope and organisations are learning to deal with this and to offer coping mechanisms. This has coincided with initiatives to deal with and understand wider mental health problems such as Mental Health Awareness week, in May 2020. Transport for London for example has been promoting mindfulness and meditative practices to its remotely working staff.
Where people work in a shared space, boundaries become important, both physical and also temporal. Shutting down the computer at a set time is often hard to do. Time and space can be ‘deformed’ compared with our usual work dimensions, requiring both the understanding and acceptance that we need to adapt.
Where we meet on screen, body language is often difficult to detect; low-resolution camera pictures and poor connections can mask the tiny facial cues we rely on. Direct eye contact is almost impossible since a colleague’s face is in a different place on screen to where the webcam is located. In this context, we often tend to rely on verbal cues, and even these can be distorted by poor connections. Communicating with our colleagues therefore becomes a rougher and less complete experience.[i]
There is even anecdotal evidence that people have been experiencing different patterns and intensities of dreams during the lockdown period and a current interpretation of dreams is that this is the brain ‘sorting out’ recent experiences.
Although much of this could be conjecture, it seems to point to us as organisms working in unusual places under unusual or different stresses and having to find ways to deal with all of these changes. How we do that often calls for more personal resources than we normally need. In my experience, at such times it is always worth reflecting on one’s own personal expertise, skills, relationships and energy. If we know that our values, capabilities and even identity[ii] remain pretty much as they were, then all we are doing is responding to a different environment in the most resilient way we can. We may have to assume a more adaptive ‘shape’ in order to fit how the world is now but we ourselves, at our core, are still who we are.
Tim Lyons FAPM, ANLP Coach, NLP Master Practitioner
[ii] Dilts, R. From Coach to Awakener, 2003
Project Resilience – Kutsch/Turner, Cranfield School of Management
How to build resilience in your people and your organisation – Delta Partners Inc. Canada
Mental resilience in project management – Gillian Jones-Williams, WIPM Conference 2019
Importance of Resilience in Project Leadership – Donnie MacNicol, Team Animation