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Is COVID-19 really to blame for delayed projects?

Change management dashboards rarely show many red-flagged projects that aren't progressing on schedule. When lockdown started, most projects moved to red, but Barbara Moldenhauer considers whether COVID-19 is truly the cause.    

Change portfolio management dashboards typically use a red/amber/green (RAG) system to rank projects’ progress and keep them on track. Since the coronavirus lockdown began, many projects have been immediately marked red as a knee-jerk reaction, but how can change management leaders be sure that the current circumstances are behind these slipping milestones? Some projects would still have failed if coronavirus had never spread.

In reality, many delayed projects don't meet agreed milestones due to factors such as unrealistic planning or delays in mobilising resources. Determining whether the root cause of a delay is COVID-19 or alternative factors is essential to getting the project back on track.

Change management project performance

The board or steering group of a change management project usually receives monthly updates based on reporting data from a couple of weeks prior, so it is important that any actions are followed up within a meaningful timeframe.

Project progress is based on factors such as milestone achievements, costs, ongoing risks and resources – with more-mature change management approaches looking at a wider range of inputs. The RAG rating is a judgment view based on how many issues the project is dealing with and the potential impact on the project’s long term success.

More projects fail than people would like to admit, including high-profile projects for large organisations. They can be costly, not to mention disheartening for everyone involved. No one wants their project to fail and learning from common root causes can help firms avoid the pitfalls. Often, failed projects share the same traits:

  • poorly defined project scope
  • inadequate risk management
  • failure to identify key assumptions
  • inexperienced or untrained project managers or key personnel
  • no formal methodology or strategy
  • mis-managed expectations
  • poor engagement with third-party suppliers
  • contractual risks and restrictions from strategic partners

How do you tell the difference between projects that are struggling due to lockdown and those that were already doomed to fail?

The effect of lockdown on change management

The lockdown due to COVID-19 is making change management delivery difficult for some firms, with new projects emerging and ongoing ones re-prioritised. To manage change portfolios effectively, resources must be moved to time-sensitive projects, with discretionary or strategic change programmes slowing down or stopping altogether.

But it’s called strategic change for a reason. It is supposed to deliver critical benefits to support, secure or improve the strategic direction of the firm. Realistically, COVID-19 could delay strategic projects for up to six months. It could also justify delays on an already-struggling project, in which case, the accumulated overrun could be 6-18 months. Many firms may not be able to wait that long for the expected critical benefits to take effect.

As change management project-reporting dashboards have turned to a sea of red statuses, firms need to determine the underlying cause and not just assume COVID-19 is behind it all. Reliable management information and real-time reporting are critical to deciding how to mitigate the risks of a failing project. In most cases, this means finding out what’s gone wrong and getting the project back on track. For others, it means assessing if the project is still viable and deciding whether or not to move it forward.

Practical steps to get change management back on track

There are several approaches firms can take to limit the impact of COVID-19 on key projects:

Continuous assurance

Getting the right information at the right time is key to programme management, and red-flagged projects need to be monitored closely through a continuous assurance framework. This should be supported by increased change management oversight, with more-frequent status updates and project board meetings.

Monitoring key data points to validate progress for milestone slippage or resource mobilisation in real time can validate any delays attributed to COVID-19 related factors, and can help identify and contain the root cause.

Effective challenge

Robust challenge can help identify the root causes of a delay. A process to review a project’s status should include relevant performance metrics and skilled change management professionals with prior experience.

This sounds simple enough and arguably the senior responsible owner, project board and stage gate reviews should be doing this anyway. But looking at the number of projects that fail, it is clear that these interventions are not always effective.

Meaningful challenge relies on individuals with the right skillset and relevant previous experience working on similar projects. The right skillset alone isn’t enough thought and it’s important that challenge is given by individuals with appropriate independence and distance from the project.

Change management teams need to minimise the delay to critical strategic projects, while increasing the robustness of delivery plans.  

Scenario modelling and contingency planning

Change management teams should regularly review contingency plans and scenario modelling, if they aren’t already. This enhances risk-management processes, helps mitigate risk and increases the likelihood of successful project delivery.

While the most-urgent projects should be the priority, it is important to take a closer look at the rest of the portfolio, if delayed. Unnecessary delays may impact customer satisfaction and increase operational and strategic risks in the long term, which might come to fruition months or even years down the line.

By: Barbara Moldenhauer, director at Grant Thornton UK


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