We continue our weekly series of Guest webinars from a team of experienced project managers who will be familiar to many of you: Sarah Coleman, Vicki Griffiths, Ian Cribbes and Tim Lyons who are gathering and collating stories and insight drawn from the P3M community.

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In October 2016, simulation Exercise Cygnus was a carried out across all major government departments, NHS England and local authorities to estimate the impact of a hypothetical H2N2 flu pandemic on the UK.  This was a response to the civil contingency planning for emergencies as highlighted by the National Risk Register; the results were startling, highlighting  gaps in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan and helped inform the decisions, plans and actions taken as COVID19 struck.

The 2019 Global Health Security Index, an international review of pandemic planning, ranked the UK the second-best prepared country behind the USA.  Looking back at the UK government’s response to COVID19 it has been argued that the UK government planned for the wrong risk (Pegg, 2020) focussing in on influenza rather than coronavirus (UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy), overlooked recommendations from simulated exercises and paid insufficient attention to how Asian countries were responding to the coronavirus.  Equally, it has been argued that the UK government made best use of information and data as they became available on which to base decisions relating to COVID19, accepted and made decisions based on data interpretation and advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and other expert groups, that they should not expected to be blinkered to a plan which could only ever be emergent and reactive to research into the nature of the virus, and that decision-making had to be made at pace.

As lockdown eases – witness the planned reopening of swimming pools, gyms and outdoor theatres during July 2020 – how do we as individuals perceive and weigh the risks associated with the continuing presence of COVID19, make sense of the information we are presented with and make decisions in relation to it?  To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, just how lucky are we feeling?

In relation to the impact on UK organisations, there is no doubt that lockdown has created challenges and threats for many and opportunities for some.  A major impact of COVID19 on the delivery of projects, programmes and portfolios (P3) is the degree of disruption and challenge to existing ways of working; there is also the recognition it offers opportunities to organisations and sectors – a stimulus and prompt for renewal and recovery.

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How is all this relevant to the project, programme and portfolio management (P3M) community and to the spectrum of complexity of P3 that organisations have been delivering during lockdown? Over the last few years we have seen a dramatic increase in on-line traffic, information and discussions relating to project data analytics, big data, benchmarking and AI in P3M all trying to enable insights for and timely, relevant and better decision-making.  This is encapsulated in the concept of decision intelligence (Pratt, 2019).  We recognise the work undertaken by Flyvbjerg (2003), Kahneman (2012) and others relating to heuristics and cognitive biases in decision-making but what are we experiencing in decision-making during lockdown and now into this transition period of gradual lockdown release?

Talking with the P3M community they suggest that some projects have been accelerated, especially those enabling smarter working; few P3 have been cancelled and these tend to be the ones deemed to be non-priority; others have been rescheduled to a yet-to-be-decided time or have been reprioritised in line with organisational needs.  Many of the P3M community are used to working remotely and relying on on-line video and collaborative tools, but even they are feeling ‘Zoom-fatigue’ with back to back Zoom meetings (other on-line collaborative tools are available).  They worry this fatigue results in less bandwidth to make a ‘good’ decision and that their judgement has been impaired given the time pressures.  Some feel that they have been forced by circumstances and time pressure to take more risk, and that decisions taken now will be revisited in the ‘new normal’.  The attitude appears to be that there is an increased risk appetite from organisations, although this is not a position which is comfortable.

At the organisational level, organisations which have typically focused on data-driven decisioning – and have looked for guarantees and dependable data on which to base their decisions – have found that COVID19 has forced them to take faster decisions accelerating through the decisioning process or in a few cases circumventing these processes altogether.  Line-of-sight events and planning horizons are shorter: some organisations initially viewed COVID19 and its impact as a ‘short-term blip’ so the focus became a shorter-term tactical ‘keeping the show on the road’.  After a three-month lockdown period this short-term blip is now regarded as a more fundamental change: sense-making and decision-making need to be more strategic in nature but it is not at all clear whether the data gained historically is fit to be used for forward planning, and the scenarios used for forward planning options may not be robust enough.  Whilst also trying to continue to ‘run the business’, there have been changes in operating model components (product/service catalogue, new product development, customer base and markets, employee working environment, supply chain, budgeting and funding, etc), as well as considerations on a new view of business resilience and business continuity.

Some senior leaders are further concerned: if COVID19 was predicted and entirely foreseen but was ignored – as some insist – what else are we missing? The implication is that risk analysis, diagnosis and management are regarded at times as a brake on operations, strategic decision-making and forward planning rather than as positive challenge: yes, you did tell us but we decided not to work with your data, analysis or recommendations and, further, we would do the same in the future since we cannot justify the costs or time involved for preparation/ enterprise testing/ integrated end-to-end testing/ new hosting platforms/ empty emergency-use venues/ mass mobilisation of personnel, etc. Many of the important decisions in organisations and P3 involve the allocation of scarce resources (typically personnel, expertise, budget, technology, capital equipment, etc) and with competing requirements for these resources organisations and P3 have to decide how they allocate them, for better or for worse.  As one of my long-time colleagues in P3 and crisis management says, some consider it more exciting to be a hero in a crisis.  After all, crisis management is the best fun you can have with your clothes on.

One of the conversations for this article suggested it depends on how we view risk: as a rear-guard action to threats and challenges, or as a method of future scanning for positive opportunities. How many of us wish to return to things exactly as they were or are we looking forward to a ‘new normal’?  But for those organisations struggling financially, although they may recognise this period brings future opportunities, they are struggling in the here and now running the business whilst simultaneously changing the business with concerns over cashflow, furloughed staff, stock levels, supply chain, etc so that their ability to respond to anything outside survival is a challenge.  Their time-horizon is short-term and tactical, and they don’t necessarily have the head space to think long-term and strategic.  The issue then becomes how do they seize the opportunities presented in a big-picture view and at the same time respond to threats in the mid-term, so be transformative to meet the new opportunities?

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So these lessons from lockdown are that project data analytics, big data, benchmarking, AI and their use in P3M continue to develop and we welcome their value-add to decision-making; that decision-making at pace in a context of deep disruption is uncomfortable and often lacks the timely, relevant data needed; and how we chose to listen and react to input and analysis from risk practitioners at the P3 and organisational levels to make sense of what is happening and to formulate relevant, timely decisions as a result. If the organisational culture is to ignore input, data and analysis from the risk community, no single P3 practitioner can have much of an impact. Perhaps the real lesson to be learned is at the board and senior levels.

The Lessons from Lockdown team are Sarah Coleman, Vicki Griffiths, Ian Cribbes and Tim Lyons. If you would like to contribute or discuss your ideas, please contact me on LinkedIn or at sarah.coleman@businessevolution.co.

Sarah Coleman MBA ChPP FAPM CMgr FCMI

specialises in helping organisations operationalise strategy and policy. Thank you to all those who provided their thoughts and insights for this article including many P3 professionals, senior leaders, Dr Ruth Murray-Webster, Dr David Hillson, Tim Lyons, Lori Silverman, Professor Naomi Brookes and others. All interpretations and mistakes are my own.

References

Flyvbjerg, B. (2003) Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition. Cambridge University Press

Global Health Security Index (www.ghsindex.org/).  Accessed 10 July 2020.

Global Pandemic Preparedness by Country (www.visualcapitalist.com/global-pandemic-preparedness-ranked/). Accessed 10 July 2020.

Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin

Kozyrkov, C. (2019) Introduction to Decision Intelligence. www.towardsdatascience.com/introduction-to-decision-intelligence-5d147ddab767 2 August 2019.

National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies (2017) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/644968/UK_National_Risk_Register_2017.pdf.  Accessed 10 July 2020

Pegg, D. (2020) Covid-19: did the UK government prepare for the wrong kind of pandemic? www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/21/did-the-uk-government-prepare-for-the-wrong-kind-of-pandemic 21 May 2020.

Pratt, L. (2019) Link: how decision intelligence connects data, actions and outcomes for a better world. Emerald Publishing

Stock, M. & Wentworth, J. (2019) Evaluating UK natural hazards: the national risk assessment. UK Parliament Post (31 April 2019)

UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy (2011). www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-evidence-base-underpinning-the-uk-influenza-pandemic-preparedness-strategy.  Accessed 10 July 2020.

Other posts in the series

Lessons from Lockdown: Introduction

Lessons from Lockdown: Collaboration

Lessons from Lockdown: Resilience

Lessons from Lockdown: Creativity and Innovation

Lessons from Lockdown: Behaviour and Mindsets

Lessons from Lockdown: Risk and Decision Making

Lessons from Lockdown: Influencing at a Distance

Lessons from Lockdown: How to See Opportunities in Threats