Survive or Thrive? Managing Projects During Pandemics

When a worldwide epidemic strikes, and threatens to become or does become a pandemic, projects in organizations everywhere are affected. We might have dodged bullets with Bird Flu and Swine Flu, but will COVID-19 lead to mass disease, absenteeism, quarantines, and economic disruption? We examine project suspension and recovery tactics for three scenarios. The goal is to ensure employee health and enterprise well being.

Bird Flu, Swine Flu, and now COVID-19. We might have dodged bullets with the first two. Will we dodge a bullet with COVID-19? Or will 2020 be a year of mass disease, mass absenteeism, mass quarantines, and economic disruption? What are the consequences for projects already underway in companies around the world?

Managing Projects in Pandemics

A representation of the virus designated as SARS-CoV-2, the agent responsible for the COVID-19 disease.

We begin this program with a high-level survey of the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide basic information about how the virus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted, the course of the illness it causes, and its effects on people in our organizations. Given that understanding we then explore three possible scenarios that can occur in project-oriented organizations as the pandemic develops:

  • A low-impact scenario similar to seasonal influenza but more intense
  • A moderate-impact scenario with high absenteeism and a low death rate
  • And finally, a high-impact scenario in which absenteeism is severe and deaths of employees are common in certain highly affected groups and locations.

We then turn to a study of options for project suspension and resumption tactics. Our assumption in all three scenarios is that the crisis eventually passes. When it passes, the enterprise must then adopt a recovery posture. When resuming projects, success is more likely if we had undertaken suspension preparations with recovery in mind.

We examine suspension and recovery tactics for all three scenarios. The goal in all cases is rebalancing priorities to ensure the health of employees and the well being of the enterprise.

Program structure and content

In the spirit of minimizing face-to-face personal interactions, this program is offered in virtual formats only. That is, presenter and attendees are expected to connect to the program by means of the Internet. This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, or clinic.

Even though the presentation is virtual, interaction between presenter and participant is still possible. Participants are encouraged to ask questions or offer comments, and the presenter accepts questions and comments periodically throughout the program.

If the client organization has special interests, the program can be adjusted to focus on those interests.

Learning objectives

This program explores tactics and strategies for managing the risk associated with disruptive epidemics such as COVID-19. Some examples:

  • Know why touching your office wastebasket is especially risky
  • Know why bringing your lunch from home is safer than buying it at work
  • Know the ten most widely overlooked personal behaviors to avoid
  • Know what to do to keep project team members healthy
  • Know what information to gather in advance to help authorities with contact tracing
  • Know the importance of avoiding public transport during normal commuting hours
  • Know why using public transport at off hours isn't much safer
  • Know how to facilitate audio-only virtual meetings
  • Know how to facilitate software-supported virtual meetings
  • Know how to make the business case for pausing a nice-to-have but non-critical project
  • Know how to pause a project so as to facilitate smooth resumption later
  • Know what to do when a key team member falls ill or is quarantined
  • Know what to do when you learn of the death of a team member
  • Know what to do when a project sponsor falls ill or is quarantined
  • Understand the risks of software upgrades during pandemics
  • Understand what kinds of risks must be mitigated at organizational levels above the project
  • Know how to re-establish contact with retired or former employees
  • Know how to offer home preparedness training
  • Know why non-refundable airfares can be the costliest option during epidemics
  • Know the ten dangers that make email a poor substitute for face-to-face meetings
  • Understand the advantages of using short-term home rentals or apartment rentals as a substitute for daily commuting

We also explore special topics for agile teams, for example:

  • How to make the transition from face-to-face teamwork to remote teamwork
  • Know what to do when the contract calls for customer involvement but customer representatives become unavailable or unresponsive

Learning model

We usually think of risk management skills as rather technical — free of emotional content. We hold this belief even though we know that our most difficult situations can be highly charged. Despite our most sincere beliefs, elevating the performance of an organization confronting a pandemic does require learning to apply those risk management skills even in situations of high emotional content. That's why this program uses a learning model that differs from the one often used for technical content.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

This program is especially valuable for people in organizations that must deal with a pandemic while they're trying to reach goals with thin safety margins. Perhaps deadlines are tight, or the effort is unusually complex, or budgets have been reduced, or a strategic partner has become difficult, or any number of complications are anticipated — some possibly unknown. Dealing with any of these issues requires special approaches in the pandemic context. Leaders, executives, managers, project sponsors, business analysts, project managers, program managers, and project team members can all benefit.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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