Project Management Institute

The Importance of Project Management During Turbulent Times

man wearing headphones looking at a laptop

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

16 July 2020

Project managers have always helped their organizations cope with disruption. Now, as economies start to recover from the colossal disruption of COVID-19, project management professionals can continue in this critical role by adopting mission-critical skills.

It may not feel like it right now, but I believe there’s never been a better time to be a project management professional.  

Project managers have been front and center as organizations all around the world have radically altered their operating models to survive during the COVID-19 crisis. And they will be at the center of the action once again as organizations reboot and move forward in the post-pandemic world.  

As the professionals charged with turning ideas into reality, project managers will lead the innumerable projects that are part of this effort. They not only have the technical skills to do so; I believe they also have the mindset needed to serve as the proverbial “bridge over troubled waters” during these tumultuous times.  

Here are some of the capabilities that have proven essential during the COVID-19 crisis and that every project management professional needs to cultivate while working virtually:  

Be Agile 

The first capability is agility. Organizations today need to be able to pivot quickly, and every day I see a more agile style of work manifesting itself across the globe. Think about building fully operational COVID-19 hospitals in a matter of days or converting an automobile assembly plant to manufacture much-needed ventilators.  

But how do you stay agile as the whole world has moved to a virtual working environment? The answer, we believe, lies in Disciplined Agile. Unlike some other agile methodologies, which recommend face-to-face interactions, Disciplined Agile says you can work in an agile way virtually. In fact, we’ve adopted many of the principles of Disciplined Agile here at PMI for both team meetings and operational meetings. It’s become a very important framework for operating in the virtual world. 

Check out our Disciplined Agile resources here.  

Sharpen those “Power Skills”

Some call them soft skills, but we prefer to call them “power skills”—borrowing a term coined by Professor Behnam Tabrizi of Stanford. What we’re referring to are the interpersonal skills that all project managers need to be successful. These power skills complement the technical skills required of all project managers but are no less important. The business world has slowly been embracing these skills, but the recent crisis has accelerated the process. Here are the power skills I think are most important:  

Collaborative Leadership

In a virtual world, collaborative leadership involves meaningfully connecting with team members online, conveying a shared purpose and leveraging online facilitation techniques that may not have been needed before. With people spending more and more time on calls, applications like Zoom or WebEx are critical to maintaining team cohesion even as we practice social distancing. Leaders, however, need to school themselves in the basic techniques of online interaction in order to get the best out of these tools. That starts with making sure everybody on the call is aligned around what you are trying to achieve.  

For tips on how to ace your next videoconference, read this blog post by my colleague, Scott Ambler.   

Empathy for the Voice of the Customer

The second power skill is empathy—specifically, empathy for the voice of the customer. 

During times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to put yourself in the customers’ shoes. What is he or she trying to achieve? How can you shape or mold your offer to better align with those needs? Answering those questions in today’s virtual world means making even greater use of technology to sense those needs and put them in context. At PMI, for example, we’re increasingly capturing customer insights through social media interactions, customer care data, surveys and more—trying to identify what our customers are saying about PMI, about the profession, about COVID-19, and about the implications of COVID-19 on the profession. Having strong VoC data points is critical to driving change.  

An Innovative Mindset  

The third power skill revolves around innovative thinking. The challenges of recent months have forced us to rethink how we get things done, and, in some ways, this has been highly liberating. It has allowed us to question conventional wisdom and come up with new, non-traditional ways of doing business.  

As project professionals, we’ll need to bring this innovative mindset forward into the post-COVID world. Of course, how we move innovations forward in the immediate future will be a little different. It will require ideating, prototyping and testing ideas virtually with your teams. Again, you’ll need to develop the skills and techniques to solve problems through facilitated online interactions.  

Make Team Members Visible to Drive Productivity

One of the most important project management skills today is the ability to maintain team productivity while working virtually. The key, we’ve discovered at PMI, is to make teams visible—to keep everyone informed about who is working on what across the organization. Three times a week, we all dial into a call where people share experiences and lessons learned. We also showcase different parts of the business, so people can see what each part of the business is working on and what it contributes to the overall enterprise. This has proved to be invaluable in gaining mindshare and helping our associates understand the direction we’re moving in. 

Our day-to-day meetings have also changed. We spend less time talking about the status of projects—things you can read about in a report—and more time on outcomes and actions. And because people have a better appreciation for how all the pieces are connected, they know how important their piece of the puzzle is and therefore are more willing to be accountable and take responsibility. We’re finding they simply don’t need the same level of supervision as in the past. 

Manage Change with Confidence

In a turbulent world, project managers need to drive change with confidence so that others in the organization have the confidence they need to shape a better tomorrow. This is perhaps the most important role that project professionals play during troubled times. Rebuilding our economies will not be easy. Even if organizations recalibrate their businesses and set new strategic goals, they still need to execute—to translate those strategies into actions and, ultimately, results.   

That’s where project management professionals come in. Project managers have the skills to lead their organizations into the post-COVID world. They will emerge as go-to change makers—providing the knowledge, experience and guidance organizations need to move confidently into the new era. In turbulent times, project managers can be the beacons that keep organizations on the right path.