by Sharon Edwards

The Challenge

In less than a single business quarter, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended priorities and disrupted the best-laid business plans for organizations around the world. Project Management Offices (PMOs) and Project Portfolio Managers are feeling the pressure. What seemed most important to their organizations just a few months ago pales in comparison to the pressing challenges they face now. Rapid changes in work norms, business operations, customer needs are forcing whole new ways of thinking, planning and working.

During this time of rapid and unexpected change, how can your PMO act quickly to make sure that your organization’s people and resources are focused on the right things? What projects and programs are most critical now?

Point B’s Perspective

Point B is sharing knowledge to help organizations across the country address COVID-19. We recently hosted a series of roundtables focused on project portfolio management that brought together leaders from diverse industries to discuss the pandemic’s impact on their businesses and how their PMOs can help lead them through this new reality.

Throughout our conversations and in our PMO-focused Insights, we want to keep in mind that, while today’s unexpected crisis is a global pandemic, it could be something else next year that disrupts business as usual—a trigger event that forces organizations to make quick adjustments and set new priorities. COVID-19 is a wake-up call that we must all be prepared to act quickly in the face of an emergency.

What matters most now? Given the disruption caused the pandemic, PMOs must rapidly reevaluate their project and program portfolios. Stakeholders and leaders must join forces on essential decision-making criteria. What is truly business-critical? With these criteria in mind, they can quickly reevaluate the current portfolio and rank their projects and programs: What continues? What stops? What’s put on hold? Does anything need to be added, such as projects and programs focused on issues specific to COVID-related issues?

Use rapid cycle delivery principles to act fast.

As you reassess your portfolio, expect the pace and scope of change to remain high in the days ahead. The pandemic is not a single discrete event, like a hurricane or an earthquake. It’s a rolling event that is still unfolding. You may need to reevaluate your priorities multiple times as the situation evolves.

In the face of rolling change, rapid cycle delivery principles offer a few surefire ways to ensure that you keep moving quickly in the right direction.

  • Build close, daily cooperation between key stakeholders and business leaders.
  • Start with the highest value. Deliver rapid adjustment through cycles.
  • Focus on making continuous improvement as you go. Progress is better than perfection.
  • Focus on team integration, collaboration and adaptability. Trust in your teams.
  • Keep it simple. Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.

To get the highest business value, stay true to the goals of project portfolio management: Convert strategy into action, and adjust execution plans and roadmaps as quickly as possible. Focus on value delivery, not just project delivery. Keep making decisions that align the best use of resources with changing conditions. Manage risk and enhance your return. In the case of budget reductions, make sure you’re doing the right things to survive and build resiliency.

Rebalance your portfolio based on risk.

Organizations that have their project and program portfolio priorities in order are able to adjust more quickly and manage risk more effectively in times of change. That’s a huge advantage.

Determine which projects and programs should continue and which to stop based on those clear criteria set by leaders and stakeholders. Rebalance your project and program portfolio to manage risk items—including finance, strategy, supply chain, regulations, human capital and information security. Look ahead and do some scenario planning based on cross-organizational needs such as managing cash flow, productivity levels and customer impacts.

Cash flow is crucial. Organizations need to quickly evaluate and adjust to avoid spending millions on things that simply no longer matter. Reset your project and program portfolio priorities to get your financial house in order and be successful long after this pandemic is behind us. Help your team understand the organization’s cash flow and bring this lens to their work.

Make informed resource management decisions.

Which projects and programs should continue? Which should be put on hold or shut down to conserve capital or redeploy resources to new priorities?

Organizations with mature resource management know what their people’s work assignments are, and what skillsets they have. This knowledge makes it easier to adjust and reallocate their human resources to where they will have the most impact. Organizations that rely heavily on external resources have less visibility into their people’s work assignments and skill sets, so it’s tougher to reallocate those resources.

Amp up good governance and communication.

The pandemic has transformed work environments before our eyes. Millions more people are working from home, and on-site employees warrant new considerations such as social distancing and increased hygiene requirements.

Given this change, we see an increased need for leaders to be involved in day-to-day management decisions. And PMOs are seeing a higher demand for reports and analytics to allow leaders to gain insights from their project and program portfolios, with increased interest in risk management.

Good communication has never been more essential. Organizations need to anticipate people’s worries, proactively address questions, and fight any headwinds that could impede effective communications. Positive, human-centered change management calls for transparency and a single voice of truth. Confusion costs. Clarity is critical; people need to understand the “why” of any changes in their roles and responsibilities.

Reassess your customer engagement model.

The way you connect with customers now may be one of the most pressing challenges of all. You may need to increase online services and support and find new ways to stay in touch with your customers. As you adjust to customers’ changing preferences and needs, you may need to shift business units to right-size your customer support teams. It’s time to rethink the format and financial impact of future large-scale events and shift in-person gatherings to virtual events.

The Bottom Line

When your PMO is able to adapt quickly to crises, you can be confident you’re investing in the right things. You can give employees clear direction to move full speed ahead at a time when speed is more critical than ever. You’ll be ready to reevaluate and adjust again if needed. And you’ll have the resiliency to weather the next unexpected turbulence—wherever it comes from.