Many people have heard a lot about project management but do not really know how it works. A very effective example of project management in action is visible in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s live address on March 24 on how New York is addressing the escalating problems of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Governor’s address was called to my attention by a senior project management professional in government who recognized its value and passed it along to others. He called it “leadership.” Leadership is critical to project management. In addition, however, the whole way an executive goes about tackling needed change that is as challenging as this COVID-19 pandemic is completely different from “ordinary” management. Under normal circumstances, we do things that have worked in the past and been refined by repetition. When you are doing things that we have not done before, “the same old way we have always done them” simply does not work. Simply telling people what to do won’t work. Developing a complete project model and strategy can. Orchestrating multiple channels of action and integrating them over a critical timeline – with regular updates and changes to the plan – may be successful. Let me give you a simple synopsis to illustrate the difference.
First, it is important to remember the key definition of project management. Project management is doing something for the first time that is significantly different from what has been done before. This pandemic is significantly different. Prior experience is nice, but it cannot take you to a successful conclusion when everything is different and challenging. What you do, and how you do it, is critical to success. Project management professionals spend years learning how to manage large scale efforts in the face of many unknowns.
Because doing something different that contains so many unknowns is a challenge, following the project management discipline that is used by experienced project management professionals in the field can help a team of dedicated workers succeed even in seemingly chaotic times.
First, assess the current status: what is happening now, where are we, and where are things headed? The Governor gave statistics of how many cases and deaths have been identified at present, looked at other examples of patterns of spreading infection in other countries, extrapolated the trends that are appearing in New York’s numbers, and estimated the potential timeframe of the “project”—getting control over the COVID-19 pandemic in New York as it grows, escalates, peaks, and ramps down. The virus appears to have a fourteen-day incubation period, and people who are exposed may not get extremely sick until that time has passed. And one person can infect several others, building an unstoppable chain of contagion.
Second, define and clearly communicate the primary purpose of the effort: saving the lives of the most vulnerable, with stakeholders being all of us who have grandparents, children, and loved ones. The secondary purpose is to preserve and sustain the economy, so that the country can reopen its businesses when the pandemic passes through. And since different parts of the country are being exposed at different times, the pandemic will pass like waves across our communities and our economy.
Third, identify what is most important to assess our success: time, cost or quality. Obviously all three are important, but cost can be deferred through congressional budgeting and action, and loans that can be paid back. Quality is important, because the very sick need quality healthcare to survive. But if the entire effort is not timely, only a small proportion of the vulnerable population will be treated in time for them to survive. So, clearly time is the most important factor. What we postpone can undercut our success. Timely action is critical to get ahead of the escalating pandemic’s “curve of contagion.”
Fourth, identify the critical success factors: what must happen, and in what order, to even have a prayer of succeeding. A list of critical factors – hospital beds, staff, equipment and timely access to all of those – identifies those that are absolutely essential. A skeletal sketch of what is available now, what must be available later, and in what critical window of time sets the boundaries of what must be done. The resources that are needed can be spread over a timeline. We are still early in the growth curve, so there is still time to identify, capture and distribute the critical resources and staff that are needed to succeed.
Fifth, set up an action timeline and schedule for starting and completing the first major “deliverables” that will need to happen in order to be able to move on to the next ones. You will need hospitals, so finding them, assessing their contribution to the necessary numbers predicted in the future, and locating alternative sources of hospital space—and beds—is a key chain of action. Existing hospitals, public spaces, hotels, university spaces, and newly built hospitals are all in this work package. Staff, currently employed as well as previously employed – retirees, health care workers that are knowledgeable but not necessarily credentialed – will build a workforce that can be adapted to the task. Equipment is critical: PPEs, ventilators, medicines. These are in short supply, and may present the greatest risk to the overall success of the project.
Sixth, tackling the toughest challenges and greatest risks with creative solutions becomes paramount. For example, if the Department of Defense has ventilators, perhaps these could be deployed to the areas of greatest need – like New York – and then redeployed to the next “wave” of the pandemic in California, Washington or Illinois. Creative uses of existing equipment are being developed to maximize the use of what is available to save lives while the primary sources are put in place.
Finally, reassessing success factors as the project progresses can help redefine which courses of action are working well, and which require extra attention. Developing a risk plan for addressing potential things that might go wrong can save valuable time as the effort moves forward. What we do not know about the virus may become known. What may be changing in the timeline may create more challenges or resolve some of them. What can happen in locating needed staff and equipment may allow new resources to be identified.
No plan is perfect. But if we do not put the brain power and effort into controlling the ‘known knowns,’ we will not have the time, energy or solutions to address the “unknown unknowns” we know will be there.
Anyone who has read the book The Great Influenza  that describes the challenges and progression of the influenza outbreak in 1918 will notice that the author gives great recognition to an “unknown” role in the creation and evolution of the country’s response to this “swine flu.” This man was not a doctor, and not even a health care worker, but he provided the leadership necessary to take our “country doctor” health care system into the twentieth century. This man was the “project manager.” We did not have a name for this occupation until the Project Management Institute was created in 1969. Now we do.