Project Management Institute

How Organizations Are Navigating Disruptive Change

woman in winter coat using a compass standing in a foggy field

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

06 July 2020

Disruptive change can challenge even the nimblest organization. Members of PMI’s Global Executive Council share their experiences of dealing with COVID-19 and offer suggestions for how the crisis can serve as an opportunity for further growth.

Dealing with a tectonic, earth shattering, disruptive change such as COVID-19 is an all-consuming task for organizations and individuals. It’s therefore useful to step back and take stock of how others are dealing with the situation so that we can learn and be informed from their experiences. 

That’s what PMI’s Global Executive Council did in a recent meeting. The Council is a community of thought leaders from globally recognized organizations that meet to share learnings and discuss how to enhance the value of project, program and portfolio management. 

The focus of this meeting was—no surprise—COVID-19 and the innovative ways Council members have been navigating the crisis. In this post, I’d like to share some of the learnings from our last discussion in that call—what has worked well for Council members and the recommendations they have not only for coping with the COVID crisis, but using this moment as an opportunity to reimagine business. 

Tap Technology  

For most Council members, the first order of business in dealing with COVID-19 was putting in place technology tools so employees could operate in a virtual environment. These included commonly available tools like Microsoft Teams, OneNote, and Skype, which became widely used in a matter of days or weeks once employees started working from home. These tools are now proving so valuable that they’re likely to remain in place long after the crisis is over. As one Council member wryly noted: “It took a pandemic to get many organizations to modernize in many ways.” 

With new technology, however, comes the need for training, and Council members stressed the importance of getting people on board with new tools. And they suggested providing extra support, such as professional coaching and facilitation training, for those who are unaccustomed to running meetings online.  

Council members also recommended encouraging employees to pay attention to the ergonomic set-up of their home offices. Most members believe that working remotely will become a more accepted practice after the crisis ends. For this to be sustainable, however, employees need to have adequate space in which to work and may need to upgrade such standard technology tools as monitors, printers and Wi-Fi connections.  

Beyond the specific technologies cited by Council members, there are, of course, many other tools that project management professionals can avail themselves of during the COVID crisis—from document sharing and group software to collaboration, online learning and training tools. Project managers can also focus on systemizing workflows so human touchpoints in workflows are automated. 

Technology, we believe, will also play an increasingly important role in listening to the voice of the customer. Given recent advances, technology can now digest and synthesize data from disparate sourcessocial media, customer call centers, market researchand display that data in the form of real-time dashboards. Voice-of-the-customer data can now become part of an employee’s standard technology platform and inform day-to-day decision making. (At PMI, we’re using such a platform called Clarabridge to help us better understand the needs of some of our stakeholders.)  

Maintain Connection 

Beyond their technology recommendations, Council members also offered advice around communications and management practices. It’s important during a crisis, they said, to check in more frequently with our teams and to hold regular staff meetings so that all team members know what everyone else is working on. As one member said: “I make sure I have a staff meeting every week, even if it’s 10 minutes.” 

Part of the issue is that working remotely doesn’t allow for the informal information flows that occur naturally in an office. People no longer bump into each other in break rooms or the office pantry. And “management by walking around” is clearly off the table.  

Council members also said the extra communications helps people deal with the emotional issues that accompany a crisis. Employees, they said, are trying to work, organize home schooling for their children and, in some cases, help with elderly parents or grandparents. The emotional toll can be exhausting. Some members likened it to a roller coasterwith people toggling between being upset, feeling fine, and then being stressed again. 

The solution Council members have settled on is for managers to have more empathy and trust. These qualities tie back to the “power skills” we often talk about at PMIthe need for empathy and collaborative leadership, not just during difficult times but as a standard part of our management repertoire.   

At PMI, we’ve noted that many progressive organizations are providing their employees with additional resources to cope with COVID-related issues, whether it’s mental health support or help with remote working. And some organizations are creating social teams that give employees an opportunity to interact with colleagues on a personal level on non-work-related topics. At PMI, for example, we have regular “Coffee talks,” a Book Club, and a TED Talk discussion group that help colleagues stay connected while we remain physically apart. 

Stay Agile 

In fact, some Council members said the best strategy for navigating disruptive change is to practice what we preach in terms of staying agile. As one member noted: “Agile teams have been dealing with change for more than 20 years. They’ve been very quick to adapt. And dealing with change is built into how they operate.”   

Agile teams, they said, have long been accustomed to operating remotely, and they place a higher value on responding to change over following a defined plan. In fact, the first Agile value states that “we value people and their interactions over processes and tools.” Our processes and tools “should be our servants, not our masters.” 

Agile’s core values include adapting boldly, deciding with speed over precision, and engaging with teams for impact, motivation, and support.  That includes holding regular touch points and adapting work arrangements to suit new circumstances.  

For organizations that are new to Agile practices, it’s important to keep those core values in mind as teams shift to reacting nimbly and working in more flexible ways. Team engagement will be key to those dipping their toes in the Agile pool for the first time. As teams continue to build their Agile muscle, dealing with changeslarge and smallwill simply become a key part of how they operate.    

Look to the Future

If all this seems tailor made for times like this, there’s one other aspect of agile that we should bear in mind as we’re dealing with COVID-19 or any disruptive change: keeping an eye to the future.  

Our world has fundamentally changed as a result of COVID-19. As we emerge from the crisis, we will face hard decisions about how we do business and what remote work practices we want to pull forward as new operating norms. 

There are, after all, benefits to our new virtual work style. As one Council member noted, it encourages inclusiveness and diversity and gives people more geographic options for where they live and work. It also minimizes distractions and may bolster productivity in terms of “deep work” that requires high levels of focus and concentration.  

If there is an upside to the crisis then, it’s that more companies embrace a future of work that is diverse, innovative, and agilestrengthening our economy, creating exciting, high-quality jobs and better balancing the drive for profits with a renewed focus on people, planet and projects.  

If the COVID crisis has taught us anything, it’s that disruptive change can strike at any time, but that change can also be an opportunity to build back better than ever.