3 scary behaviours seen during Covid-19 to improve on in life and avoid in projects

How we can improve our response to the pandemic and also get better at managing projects (if that’s what you do).

Everyone is dealing with the CV-19 pandemic in their unique way. Our experiences are wide-ranging and different.

Mine has been (touch wood) pretty minor— a month or so of shortened work hours and pay, and not seeing my Dad and Sis in the flesh for more than six months. At the other end of the spectrum are sickness, hospitalisation and death. My feelings and well-wishes go out to everyone who has been on that journey, which I’ve only experienced through the media.

By profession, I’m an IT Project Manager, and so inevitably, I see these experiences partly through the lens of my vocation. And what I see both alarms me and at the same time resonates with experiences on projects I’ve managed over the years.

So I’m sharing three perspectives of the pandemic that are both interesting and of use for project managers. They may also be helpful to others.

Now, I’m going to use the phrase “a lot of people seem to” {do something or other}. I’ll use it a lot. Do I actually know how many “a lot of people” is? No — it could be 10%, or it could be 90% — and I have no idea which particular segment of the world that covers. These are my opinions, synthesised from the range of media I consume.

I can only say that the behaviour seems to be shared by multiple people across multiple repeated instances, at least as perceived by me.

I’m going to look at:

  • Exponential rates of change
  • Biology-based problems (including people problems)
  • Experts and expert advice

A lot of people don’t understand exponential rates of change.

A lot of people seem to misunderstand exponential growth curves (or exponential decay). The virus is the standout exponential experience in 2020, but we encounter non-linear dynamics every day. Social media posts that rapidly gain global attention are called “viral” for a reason.

With CV-19, it’s the rate at which the virus propagates. If you saw the movie “Contagion”, you probably heard the term “R-nought” for the first time. Or you might just have heard it first recently.

R0 is the number of people that one infected person can themselves infect with the virus. Above one and the number of cases is growing; below one, and they are declining. There are other values like “R-t” and so forth but that’s not relevant to my point.

My point is how seemingly small the “R values” and yet still describe wild virus case growth.

Right now in mid-October 2020, US state-level R-t numbers over one range between just over 1.0 to 1.6. And yet the USA is in the grip of rampant third-wave case growth which is starting to impact hospital capacity.

But unless you get the impact, it’s like “meh! 1.6? what’s all the fuss about?

The fact that a trivial number can generate change as rapid and terrifying as the Blob is the scary bit. It’s the thing I call the “Gradient of Terror”.

It’s how fast things move despite the measurements appearing to be very low, and how much that undermines our ability to deal with the situation.

In exponentially changing environments, things can quickly move out of control in the time it takes to organise people to investigate the problem. And by the time you realise things are materially out of control, the situation has changed again. You schedule a meeting and prepare the data, and by the time you have the meeting, the data is out of date.

In projects, it’s often the exponential change that comes from a crisis. I’ve been in plenty of situations which rapidly cascade from a crisis meeting to daily crisis meetings, to twice daily, three or four times daily to continuous crisis war rooms.

In hindsight, we should have moved to a war room straight off the bat. But one of the problems with dealing the “Gradient of Terror” is inertia: a lot of people don’t want to take the big step that’s needed to get ahead of the rate of change — it seems like overkill.

And so they are forced into playing “catch-up”.

Just having a debate about the situation and the best solution leaves you out of date. You are literally “behind the curve”. And oh, how IT people love to debate.

The worst strategy for dealing with exponential situations is trying to “spin” your way out of trouble, and not doing the needful in time. Yet spin is one of the most common techniques employed by governments worldwide with the pandemic. And “spin” is too easy to adopt as the strategy in projects.

Crisis situations like this are the perfect scenario to “lead, follow, or get the f#$k out of the way!”

And on this point, Tom Peters wrote the second-best ever description of what it means to be a project manager, way back in 1991. Check out Pursuing the Perfect Project Manager to see how project managers need to be able to snap back and forth between two extremes, across 8 different behaviours — a kind of PM Hysteresis to deal with rapidly changing scenarios.

A lot of people don’t understand much about biology.

The CV-19 pandemic has underscored this lack of knowledge. Separate from the exponential growth rates, a lot of people don’t understand a lot about viral infections, or even basic biology. Amongst other things:

  • Why does hand-washing work?
  • Why are masks necessary?
  • What treatments and drugs work (and don’t work)?
  • Why does social distancing work?
  • How vaccines work and why they take so long to develop
  • And so on

There are all sorts of reasons promoted by people who don’t want to follow the guidance of our public health professionals: personal freedom, political perspective, the economy and personal inconvenience.

But guess what? The virus doesn’t listen, and the virus doesn’t care what you think.

The same is true in projects. If you have a catastrophic problem situation caused by a system defect that you’ve never seen before and can’t diagnose, then your whole project is going to be impacted.

The problem doesn’t care. The problem doesn’t care about your schedule or your boss’s reputation with the CEO or brand damage.

The problem doesn’t listen. It only responds to careful diagnosis and precise, appropriate action. (What that action might be, that’s a whole other thing — covered in the next section below)

Virus epidemiology might not be relevant to projects, but there are still concrete lessons to be learned from biology, and a lot of people haven’t learned these either.

A significant component of project success is human communication and psychology, which I guess is an extension of biology.

One of the deficiencies of project management training and knowledge is on the people side of projects. And what reference there is could be considered “damning with faint praise”. When referred to at all, the term used is “soft skills”, which always has a pejorative tone. I hate this name and the approach that it represents. “Soft skills” propagates the project management fetish with technique over knowledge, as if people were simple machines that needed certain kinds of treatment to keep operating correctly.

This technique-based approach doesn’t work sustainably with people — what else can I say?

A lot of people don’t know how to deal with experts.

With Covid-19, this is a partly a corollary to the biology point above but is worth a separate look.

We need a lot of expertise to deal with the pandemic. We start with medical and health experts. But we also need experts in economics, technology, manufacturing, logistics, mathematics and modelling, sociology, psychology and behavioural science, and so many more.

In the USA, it’s hard to understand what experts contribute to what discussions for what reasons. The UK is sort of similar, but at least they have a (notional) structure.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advising the British government includes a large number of experts from across the above fields and more. SAGE has sub-groups on:

  • Behaviours
  • Modelling
  • Serology
  • Clinical Information
  • Environmental
  • Children
  • Hospitals

There are a few things that a lot of people get wrong about experts.

Firstly, both experts and the consumers of their advice often conflate relative expertise with absolute expertise.

In other words, experts may know more than anyone else about a topic, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they know everything about that topic (or even close).

As the Covid-19 virus was breaking out, experts knew a lot about viruses in general, and SARS viruses specifically. But CV-19 is new — there’s a reason it’s called the “novel coronavirus”. Initially, the health experts didn’t know a lot about this particular SARS virus and they’ve been learning along the way.

Even now there is still a lot that we still don’t know, despite 10 months of treatment experience, and many research programs that are being rushed to publication.

Secondly, even when the experts do know a lot, they don’t always agree. In a critical situation, you often want to get multiple eyes on a problem. But once you have a group of experts, it is tough to receive advice based on a broad consensus. These experts may have:

  • Different theoretical or practical paradigms, some of which might be very deep-seated and inappropriate or out-of-date for a given situation. They might have specific personal or political agendas
  • Seen various aspects of the problem — the “blind folks and the elephant” scenario, or seen the problem at different stages in its evolution.
  • Used other methods of analysis, or failed to account for known issues or biases in the tools they used.
  • Hedged their bets by providing alternate viewpoints or qualified their advice with conditions or other “weasel words” — even experts are human, and nobody likes being wrong.
  • The rush to publish (for many good reasons given our situation) bypasses some of the safeguards that have been built into the modern scientific process, e.g. the types of research process, the independent verification of results and peer-review processes. These processes don’t guarantee correctness but they do weed out error, sloppy process and fraud.
  • And the list continues.

Problems in life are rarely clean-cut with clean solutions. Some are wicked.

Even worse, sometimes the differing advice you get is wholly or partially contradictory. So, if you’re a consumer of expert advice, you have to learn how to balance off these differing opinions to be able to make a decision.

The real reason Truman had the sign “the buck stops here” on his desk is less about departmental accountability but more about the ultimate need for someone (the President) to make decisions where there is no clear direction on the right way forward.

And so we’ve seen with Covid 19 very different behaviours across the world: some leaders dissembling, deflecting and blaming and some governments acting decisively.

In projects, we often get put into similar situations. In the IT domain (where I work) problems and technology systems that used to be simple are now enormously complex, and problem-solving skills have not kept pace with the growth in complexity. As a project manager, you need to develop this sense of how to manage experts and use their advice. Sometimes, a PM has to accept that the buck stops with them — they have to make a decision — usually in time-critical scenarios.

Other times a PM needs to bring a sense of inclusion to the situation so that there is a shared responsibility for decisions made without clear-cut advice on the best course of action. As a default, this is the best strategy if the situation allows. This “default” strategy is best because there are other side benefits, like increased team cohesion and alignment through shared experience.

In conclusion

These 3 behaviours have profound impacts on how the pandemic is being managed (or not) around the globe. And their smaller versions in projects can result in profound impairments to project progress and success.

Please do what you can to look at these three scenarios and improve your knowledge and practice in these three areas. It can only help our societies deal with and recover from the pandemic. And it might also help you in your project management activities.

I want to change the way you think about and do project management. http://www.adamonprojects.com

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