Essential workers are being asked to manage complex projects, some for the first time. This playbook can help them pull it off.
Speaking to a friend the other day, I learned that she has just been asked by the government of her country to set up an emergency field hospital in a sports center to deal with the surge in patients expected as a result of COVID-19.
This friend is a senior medical doctor who has over 20 years of experience in a number of fields, including emergency medicine. While her medical experience will be very useful in her work treating individual patients, it will not help her with the new and daunting project before her: transforming a sports center into a field hospital. This has to be accomplished quickly and with a low margin of error, in an orchestration of many different disciplines: not only medical staff and public health authorities but also building managers, construction crews, equipment suppliers, electricians, fire department, etc. Her twenty years of experience have not prepared her for this.
It occurred to me that, in this challenging time, many essential workers like my friend are being asked, for the first time in their lives, to carry out endeavors of varying complexities. Physicians are being asked to set up field hospitals; supermarket managers are having to transform their supermarkets to comply with public health restrictions; educators need to completely re-invent their educational model. In other words, many essential workers have to now manage a complex project for the first time—perhaps without having ever received any formal training in project management.
Given that my main professional experience is in project management, I thought I would try and prepare a short list of best practices (a playbook, if you will) that could hopefully assist you if you’re managing a complex project for the first time.
Below are the 10 best practices that I think are applicable to any type of project—and 8 additional best practices that apply especially to larger and more complex projects. You shouldn’t feel intimidated by the number of points: I’m sure you already have an understanding of some of these points, through your own life experience.
If I had to try and distill these into a single piece of advice, it’d be:
Use the help of others to reflect on your approach often and improve things as you go.
If you are constantly improving, you’re bound to end up with a good approach, even if you start off poorly. By enlisting those around you to offer their support, perspective, and advice, you will have the collective wisdom and strength of your group at your disposal. Everything is easier when you don’t go at it alone.
Here are 10 pieces of advice that I think can help with projects of any size:
1. Define your objectives clearly
"If you don't know where you are going any road can take you there." – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Before you start the work, you must know what exactly you’re working towards. You’d be surprised at how likely it is that you (and everyone around you) know what the objectives are, only to realise later in the project that they were never clear to begin with.
If you’ve been given a clear project mandate (some sort of document outlining exactly what you’re expected to deliver), you’re one of the lucky ones. Very often, however, your mandate is given to you verbally, in a rush. The objectives of your project must be clearly defined not only because they guide all project activities (like a North star of sorts) but also because they help everyone be on the same page. As the adage goes, “If you can’t explain it simply enough, you don’t understand it well enough.” The exercise of stating the project objectives in detail (actually writing them down) will help everyone better understand the project. Ideally, this understanding should be shared between yourself, your superiors, your staff and other stakeholders.
Beware of this common trap: “We know what we need to do, it’s a waste of time to write it down.”
Recommendation: sit down for 5 minutes, write down the objectives as you understand them, and then validate your understanding with your superiors.
2. Identify the work needed to achieve your objectives
In project management jargon, we say we are creating a Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS.
This breakdown of your work is fundamental but it is skipped surprisingly often. In times of crisis we tend to think “We’ve been given our objective, let’s get to work!” which is a very appealing approach. However, it is important to identify what exactly that work is. You do this by identifying the main chunks in your project, and then the main subchunks, and so on. You might end up with a diagram that looks like a tree — though you can just as easily create a simple list. The first draft of a Work Breakdown Structure for transforming your supermarket to meet the public health requirements might look something like this:
Breaking down your work will help you:
a) Create smaller chunks of work (work packages) that you can more easily handle and turn into actions;
b) Assess what amount of time and resources you’ll need to be able to meet the objectives of the project (and report back to your superiors accordingly);
c) Delegate work to others more effectively, distributing tasks across your network of resources. Indeed, once you have created the list above, you can start putting names (and deadlines) in front of each task.
Beware of this common trap: “Our objective is obvious enough, we all know what needs to be done. Breaking it down into smaller chunks is a silly formality.”
Recommendation: spend just 10 minutes doing this with a few people. My guess is that at the end of the 10 minutes you’ll be convinced of the value of this step.
"Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important." – Stephen R. Covey
You might be familiar with the story of the teacher who puts several rocks in a bucket and then asks her class if the bucket is full. The class says that it is, so then she takes smaller stones and puts them in the spaces between the larger rocks. She again asks the same question, and gets the same answer. She then repeats this with sand and water, going on to explain that, had she put things in the reverse order, she would not have been able to put everything in the bucket. The lesson, she says, is that we must identify which are the “big rocks” in our lives.
Projects are no different. You should make an effort to decide which of your activities (and, indeed, which of your objectives) should be sacrificed in case you can’t accomplish everything. This also helps you work more efficiently, since you can find time-saving ways of organising your work according to priorities.
Note that, in all likelihood, you make mistakes in your prioritisation — and indeed in your other decisions as well. Accept this “fog of war” in the crisis. This fog — a natural haziness in the information available to you — will almost certainly lead you to make decisions that, in hindsight, you would not have made. Accept this reality; do not dwell on it nor regret any decisions that came to lead to negative outcomes.
Beware of this common trap: “Our work is of the utmost importance in this critical time — we can not afford to sacrifice any single activity!
Recommendation: you will have to sacrifice some things throughout the project. Be sure to assign priorities to your activities so that, when the time comes, you will know which things you should sacrifice first.
4. Learn from experience
"Experience is a master teacher, even when it's not our own." – Gina Greenlee
As much as possible, try to learn from the experience of others, to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Spend a significant amount of effort and creativity identifying ways to learn from others: this effort has a very high return on investment, leading to greater efficiency and fewer mistakes. Ideally, try to do your part by documenting your own work (and the lessons learnt) so you can help others who come after you.
Beware of this common trap: “How would we even find people to help us? Plus, surely everyone else is just as busy right now!”
Recommendation: call for a brainstorming session with diverse people in your project team to try and think creatively about how to find and reach out to others who may be able to help. They have already gone through what you’re currently experiencing and you’ll be surprised at how eagerly they will want to assist you.
5. Accept that "something's gotta give"
"You can't have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you." – Marissa Mayer
One of the most famous concepts in my field of work is the project management triangle, and it looks something like this:
It conveys two essential things. The first is that the quality of work in your project is affected by your budget, deadlines and scope. These three are sometimes referred to as “constraints”, because of the second essential idea behind the project management triangle: while you are constrained by these three elements, you can trade between constraints. You can relax one constraint but then the others will need to be tightened. Another way of explaining this is that, generally speaking, if you want to make something in less time, you’ll probably need more money. This constant trade-off between constraints is an axiomatic truth of project management and, the sooner you accept it, the easier your decisions will become.
6. Communicate well (but don't obsess over it)
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." –George Bernard Shaw
As best as possible, try to communicate above you, below you, and horizontally. The key information that the various people in your project (also referred to as stakeholders) tend to require are:
What are the overall objectives? What are my objectives? What are my objectives for this week?
Why was [xyz controversial decision] made?
When do I need to deliver my current work by? When can I expect other areas of work to be completed?
When might we see significant progress on the objectives?
How are we going to achieve what, to me, seems impossible?
Who is doing what, and what authority to they have? How can I contact them?
Where do I get [information, resources, etc.]?
They may need to receive this information regularly (even if it has not changed) because, in a fast-moving situation, rumours and misunderstanding tend to emerge on their own.
While it is important to communicate well, you should trust that, in times of crisis, people tend to organically develop useful communication flows. Avoid the tendency to obsess over communication and over-formalise communication procedures that will quickly be invalidated once the situation changes (as it often does in a crisis).
Try to encourage open communication from all staff (and subcontracted companies)—perhaps by holding a general meeting with everybody every week. This will not only feed you with useful ideas but also reduce the tendency on the part of the staff to “vent” their own complaints or concerns around the organisation, creating a negative atmosphere in the process. Be open to their feedback and channel it accordingly.
Beware of this common trap: the assumption that communication has already taken place, or is not necessary.
Recommendation: identify the key people in your project and, each week, dedicate an hour to putting yourself in their shoes and thinking “what information does this person need to better do their job?” Then give them that information.
7. Accept fluidity
"Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions ... He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent, and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain." – Sun Tzu
In a situation like this (crisis; fast-moving; high-profile), the things you took for granted will keep shifting under your feet. One day you might think you know clearly what your objective is; the next day it might’ve completely turned around. You might think this won’t happen in your case but, trust me, it likely will. This is simply the nature of the situation—and you should work with it, not against it. Your success will be determined less by your skill in a particular set of circumstances and more by your ability to quickly adapt to a new set of circumstances.
Beware of this common trap: it is easy to become personally invested in the project and, by extension, invested in the current objectives. When the objectives change (this happens frequently), you may feel betrayed.
Recommendation: remind yourself (have a weekly reminder on your phone, if need be) that your ultimate job is not to meet the current objectives but to meet the objectives defined by your superiors. This will help you better deal with changing circumstances.
8. Make time to think of the big picture
"He was busy looking at the ants while the elephants were walking past him." – Portuguese expression
It is easy to focus on the trees and miss the forest. Try to ensure that, as project manager, you have at least a little bit of purposeful time to shift your thoughts back to the big picture. Moreover, try to ensure that your management team also has time to think about the strategic level, collectively. It will be important to regularly ask yourselves (and your staff) two key questions: “what are we missing?” and “what are our own blind spots?” Strive diligently to foster a culture in which people feel free to answer these questions. You will create a useful “wisdom of the crowd”.
Beware of this common trap: when fires are burning everywhere, you might get lost in the urgency of putting out the present fire. This can prevent you for stopping to think how to stop the fires from starting in the first place.
Recommendation: have a weekly “look at the forest” meeting, in which you and your team think about and discuss things at a higher level.
9. Don't forget that people will feel the way they think you feel
"A leader is best
When people barley know he exists
Of a good leader, that talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, "We did this ourselves".
– Lao Tzu
Since you (probably) have the most information, and the best understanding of the bigger picture, your team will actively look to you and your emotions to get clues about how things are going. If you reveal anxiety in your facial expressions (even if you’re just annoyed at a very small problem), they will become anxious. Remember your high visibility and try to carry yourself accordingly.
10. Take care of yourself as a manager
"The Universe will never require you to set yourself on fire to provide heat for others." –Clyde Lee Dennis
Because of their intensity, crises tend to play out like marathons, instead of sprints—even when they are short-lived. As such, you must look after yourself so that you can still remain useful to the project throughout its lifecycle. Remember to sleep sufficient hours, as studies have shown that even a little bit of sleep deprivation leads to cognitive impairment similar to inebriation.
Beware of this common trap: the tendency to eliminate key “care-taking” habits from your life, under the erroneous belief that you need to spend time on the project instead.
Recommendation: start with at least 10 minutes per day of stretching your muscles and clearing your mind—and try to grow from there. In return, you will yield much more than ten minutes worth of productivity throughout the day.
The above list of 10 best practices should be useful for projects of any size. I think it is as complete a list as you can find, considering it takes under 10 minutes to read.
If your project is a little bit larger or more complex, you may want to take a look at the 8 additional best practices below.
I. Remember that you are preparing for tomorrow
In other words, you are “scaling up”. You should keep in mind your future management needs, instead of just today’s management needs. When an airplane is taxiing on the runway, the wheels are one of the most important elements and the wings are mostly useless. But the airplane is taxiing so that it can ultimately fly—and the wings become key. In other words, you would be making a mistake if you were to focus mostly on the wheels.
When you’re managing a project, it’s easy to think “these 10 people can manage the project” because... you’re doing just fine. However, it’s likely that the project will go up in scale very soon and, before you know it, those 10 people are no longer enough, and your informal communication practices might break down. Prepare today the management structures of tomorrow.
II. Define roles and responsibilities
Identify and appoint “Activity Leads”, individuals who are given both the responsibility and the authority to oversee a particular area of work. This frees you up to think of the more strategic questions that are sure to arise, as well as to coordinate the various areas of work so that they function well together. The Activity Leads should ideally both understand the work and be respected as leaders. Communicate with them about their area of work, striving to trust their reports. Be sure to a) empower them and to b) encourage a sense of initiative. If they don’t develop a proactive attitude, the project will struggle.
III. Separate facts from reports
While you should strive to trust the reports you receive from the field, do remember that a “report” is not a “fact”. If someone tells you that 50 hospital beds have arrived, this report may not be accurate, in a number of ways. Perhaps the reporter heard it from someone else (instead of personally checking). Perhaps the bed frames have arrived, but not the mattresses. Perhaps they have arrived in the country, from abroad—but not in the hospital. As you build a relationship with your Activity Leads, you will begin to develop an instinct for which reports you should fact-check. You can also remember that certain reports might not need fact-checking (e.g., “we have painted the walls with white paint”), while others do (e.g., “we have received 100 ventilators”). Develop the instinct to automatically choose which reports you want to fact-check, based on their importance for the project.
IV. Manage by stages
To the extent possible.
Once you have a rough estimate of how long your project (e.g., “setting up a hospital extension”) will last, try to break it down into stages (e.g., requirements gathering, planning, set up). If possible, try to break these stages down into even smaller chunks of time—for example, weeks or days. This will provide you and everyone else with clarity about what you’re supposed to do at any point in time, and how it fits with the overall objective. It also naturally gives you a sense of whether you are typically overestimating or underestimating the time required to do things—thus improving your ability to plan subsequent stages.
V. Manage by exception
Only escalate exceptional situations.
Avoid the danger of micromanagement by empowering each link in the chain with the authority to make certain decisions. You can intuitively understand this if I tell you that you, as project manager, will not be selecting the type of brooms that the cleaning crews will use. You rely on the crews to make that decision. In other words, there is an implicit agreement that the cleaning crews have the authority to make that decision. Since you are working on a project that is new for everyone, there are many areas of work with unclear authority. As such, a) clearly define responsibilities, b) convey authority thresholds (“if brooms cost up to 15€ each you can make the decision yourself but, if they cost more, then you should escalate the matter to your team lead”—this cost criterion can also be applied to time, quality…) and then do not get involved in your staff’s work. This has the double advantage of empowering your staff and of freeing managers to operate at their respective level.
VI. Eliminate ambiguities in authority
Who can make decisions on what? Who do you have to report to? Are there ambiguous areas of authority? These questions should be clearly answered and ambiguities eliminated. If there is ambiguity on the authority of persons A and B, it is much easier to clarify “Person A’s decisions take precedence over Person B’s opinion” before a misunderstanding emerges—in other words, while they are getting along just fine.
VII. Don't forget to document
It will feel like you do not have time to document—but you must strive to. Various aspects of the points above need to be documented in some way, in some information repository (can be as simple as Google Drive) that is accessible by all. You should document decisions about roles and responsibilities, stages, objectives, lessons, etc. Read more stories this month when you create a free Medium account. It will come in very handy for communications—and you might need it too, given the speed with which things are happening.
VIII. Build in Resilience
In a crisis, your organisation has to react to any emerging issues with speed. In other words, you won’t have time to wait for an event to happen before you figure out what to deal with it. Try to anticipate problems and mitigate the risk they pose. Think about areas in which your organisation is not very resilient. What happens if top management falls sick? What about if the electricity goes out? And what if the situation deteriorates to a point where people might try to break in to steal supplies? Or if the internet stops working and your communication tool stops working along with it? Anticipate problems so that you can more effectively respond to them as they emerge.
Hopefully the above ideas will be of some use to you and lighten your burden even if only just a little bit.
Thank you very much for your sacrificial work in these extraordinary times.
Sahba is a Senior Project Manager for CTG Luxembourg.