Q&A: Project Planning During a Pandemic

employees in remote Zoom meeting

In these unprecedented times, many managers are faced with either running operations infrastructure programs entirely remote or considering whether to engage on such a program. Our advisory and delivery teams quickly transitioned their project work to remote setting and have learned what it takes to meet program goals with a dispersed team.

We’ve asked two members of our senior consulting team to weigh in on the challenges and successes of two different asset management operations programs that are being run remote from inception on.

What is the nature and scope of the project that you are involved with currently?

Project A: The project involves the implementation of a performance and risk system, and the subsequent development of a target state operating model to incorporate enhanced enterprise-wide functionality. The client is a mid-sized asset owner, and the selected vendor is well-known with significant market share in the asset management industry. The software being implemented is mature and has been a staple for many years, so at the outset of this project I anticipate few surprises.

Project B: This project is a full conversion from one accounting platform to another across a mutual fund book of business and institutional book of business at a large asset manager. This conversion has been broken into multiple stages and must be completed during very specific timelines. Because we began planning just prior to the pandemic lockdowns, navigating these deadlines has been a challenge for us.

What did you perceive initially as your most significant hurdle of undertaking a project at the outset of a pandemic?

Project A: I feared the inclination to force-fit our new realities into our previous sense of normalcy. Not adjusting the approach to accommodate our limitations could have had adverse effects on the process and threaten the success of the project.

Adapting constantly has become a requisite skillset and this skillset has been developed collectively. In addition to project considerations, we’re focusing on the fact that this is a human crisis. All team members, key stakeholders, and vendors will have personal concerns to contend with. Issues with home schooling, caring for elderly parents, personal health, and well-being, etc. Life events do occur during each project but not typically to all project participants simultaneously.

Having said that, the team has embraced the uncertainty of these circumstances. We have agreed to keep original timelines as an aspirational target while being open to adjustment as necessary throughout the life of the project.

Project B: First and foremost, we were right in the middle of planning—we’d only kicked off the project six weeks prior. As an organization, our client was very office-focused so cancelling our travel plans left some uncertainty around how this would impact our ability to work efficiently.

The shift to remote was a major change for everyone involved and the client did it well, but there was still an impact to navigate. At the outset of lockdowns, the client needed all hands on deck to get their BAU processes running in a new environment. Due to this, we did have to push back a few deadlines and I think we were all initially concerned that this could have a longer-term impact on the program. However, once the client could re-focus energies on the project deliverables, we were able to get back on track.

How are you solving for the collaboration element typically inherent with successful implementations?

Project A: Collaboration is a critical component of all successful projects. I think of collaboration as a continuum throughout the life of the project and a critical element for effective communication with key stakeholders, vendors and contributors. The process typically involves constant interaction leading to steady advancement with periodic bursts of achievement. It sometimes resembles a series of sprints within a marathon. We have engaged quickly and capture the excitement of a new project. Early and constant engagement seems like the best solution to ensuring collaborative success.

Project B: Planning was really challenging at the outset because we’d normally be in a room whiteboarding together. This sort of brainstorming doesn’t lend itself well to a remote environment. I think that we rolled with the punches as best we could in the early days, then hit a good rhythm as we experimented with new meeting formats and collaborative technologies.

On the Citisoft side, we wanted to foster an environment that felt a bit like coworking. We assigned each consultant a workstream and then someone who runs support on this workstream—these aren’t discrete roles, but rather a way to feel like someone else is invested in your work and available to help problem solve along the way.

On the client side, we found that our meetings evolved quite a bit to ensure we had collaboration at a senior level. We hold a weekly management meeting and produce a dashboard for this each week. This normal cadence is even more important when we are remote and don’t get the normal office interaction. We have found the client has been very engaged in these meetings.

Did you encounter any positives associated with the planning of a fully remote project?

Project A: Difficult to find much positive in our new reality but the project has realized early benefits of the current environment. The first of which was resource planning since I knew that I would have a captive group throughout the life of the project. There are no Alaskan cruises or European vacations to contend with, and I was confident that all individuals involved would be accessible for a significant portion of the project.

Another positive benefit realized by the project, but not to the well-being of the team members, was the fact that work/life balance blurred, and individuals became very accessible. Responses to email queries would come at all times of the day, night, weekend. I guess when Netflix fails to entertain, then project work will be able to pick up that slack.

Project B: The biggest positive would probably be the comradery that we found. When navigating something so uncertain and unprecedented, it was really nice to have a set of coworkers who were right in the thick of it with you. We set up a casual no-agenda call for Citisofters three afternoons per week and found a lot of humor and levity in getting together each day to talk about work, life, and how to stay sane under lockdown. We miss the face-to-face interaction with each other, but by having a standing meeting, we’re being intentional about fostering an environment of trust, transparency, and comradery.

How did your communication style and cadence change to begin this project?

Project A: Communication style does not necessarily change but the medium will. We all manage communicating key messages via email, meeting, or fly-by as a quick discussion. These considerations still exist in the current environment but have been displaced or supplemented with Skype, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.

Project B: We’ve experimented with a lot of meeting formats and collaboration tools along the way. We’ve found something that works pretty well these days: each morning we do a daily stand-up across workstreams, each week we hold a management meeting, and three times a week we have an internal meeting. Outside of meetings, we use Microsoft Teams chat to keep in touch informally.

It’s definitely a challenge to keep everyone looped in and we’ve had to formalize our communications much more than we would in an office environment, but the program is right on track which I guess speaks for itself.