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Eileen Marx 4 articles
Residence: ZA Johannesburg
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The Global Alliance PMOhackathon: Debunking Remote Working Myths

Introduction: The Impact of COVID-19 on business as usual or rather post-COVID-19

Many organizations across the globe began with digital transformation programs long before the COVID-19 pandemic was known to us. They prepared for changing markets, to meet fast-changing consumer and customer needs and for superior competitive positioning. Products mainly stayed the same, but digital transformation started influencing client access and communication channels, buying habits and product distribution. It involved all stakeholders in organizational value chains and affected, in some way or another, manufacturing, processing, packaging and client and customer engagement. The one buying habit that changed irreversibly is the ability of consumers to do personal business at all hours of the day.   

To transform to the extent required by the new world we live in is not easy. The approach many organizations are taking towards digital transformation only slightly differed from their past innovation programmes. These innovation programmes were complicated and expensive and would typically follow an engrained pattern of traditional practices. It would start with an elaborate analysis of business and innovation solution proposals, mainly based on costs, appropriateness of the solution in a somewhat predefined environment and alignment with existing technology landscapes. All of this would take place within a strategic framework that worked well in the past. Still, most organizations were soon to realize that the real digital world did not follow known processes and thought patterns. It sometimes entirely and abruptly changes the way commerce is done. It is riddled with complexities and does not respect past “golden rules” or “silver bullets”.   

Nothing could force this reality on the entire world in the way COVID-19 did. In a short space of time, slow and over-engineered business proposals that could take months if not years to design, implement and roll-out were challenged. The identification of risks, inhibitors, dependencies and other challenges that would typically be part of elaborate business cases needed to be dealt with through new ways of thinking and communicating. Cautious and smooth transitions that involved intensive transformation and change management plans and lots of face-to-face debates had become an impossible luxury.   

COVID-19 challenged the business approach we have relied on for centuries. Within days a new business model had emerged on a global scale, and it forced certain levels of digital and business transformation. International “social distancing” drives, for instance, did not discern between varying levels of organizational readiness. The need was for an unprecedented and worldwide change that propelled all organizations into a new set of rules. Organizations had to adapt quickly with the critical objectives of profitability, minimizing customer impact and finding a new and sustainable equilibrium. Employees at all levels urgently needed to be provided with technology and off-site support to actively continue with their roles in organizations. Multi-year plans in some cases had to be compressed to almost immediate deliverables. 

Finding Solutions: PMO Global Alliance #PMOhackathon

At this time, mid-month-4 of the pandemic, we were all still consumed with COVID-19, the statistics, the increased infections, the unfortunate casualties, restrictions on movement, regulations and updates from leaders. Contrary to all this, the PMO Global Alliance initiated a #PMOhackathon. 

The invitation from the PMO Global Alliance appealed to me. This initiative involved finding business solutions for COVID-19. With a bias towards driving solution without being deterred by the many possible problems, I became keen to partake. Spending time with the PMO Global Alliance organization in the past and as a judge for the Global PMO annual awards, I have come to know that their initiatives never disappoint. 

The word hackathon was a bit intimidating. I had no idea what to expect and wondered what skills I needed. With registration behind me and information flowing from the organizers, I became more inquisitive and eventually a bit consumed. I soon realized that the hackathon would have a business focus and specific skills such as programming systems would not be needed. The “aim of the game”, I learnt, was to develop practical virtual solutions for each of the eight business categories that were pre-determined by the organizers. 

The kick-off webinar welcomed all participants and introduced the technology we were to use. We were provided with some guidelines and were wished good luck. Five hundred participants entered the hackathon. People were from different backgrounds, cultures, geographic locations and time zones. Formal project structures were not assigned, and a deadline of one week was given. My first reasonable reaction was WOW! And the next HOW?

It was then that I realized that while the business world was turned upside down, this event did the same for project management disciplines as we know it. Entirely suitable for the crisis the world was dumped into by COVID-19, I thought. 

On day one, there was a flurry of discussions on all the categoric channels. After that, it seemed like some participants withdrew. However, many were fired up and driven by the challenge and the need to contribute. Regardless of all the boundaries of country, culture, time, industry and remote interactions, the incredible happened. After a day of very confusing chatter on these channels with participants jumping from one channel to the other channel to find their place, a natural order took shape. Teams automatically came together through shared priorities and values. By day two, these teams were so well cemented that the organizers had formal project team structures for each project. High-quality mentors and tutors were assigned to various projects. They gave excellent support and mentoring and, in some cases, participated as project team members. 

The remaining self-motivated people worked long hours. During this time, I was again reminded how potent a motivator it is to contribute to society at large and at the same time live out your passions. Without much push from the organizers, teams met deadlines and documented their solutions in a presentation format with a voice recording on YouTube for judges to evaluate within a week.

The proposals ware high-level given the short time. Still, they were innovative with solutions that were practical and applicable to the PMO Global Alliance and the COVID 19 business environment. It is undoubtedly a basis which contributors could enhance and further unpack.

Learnings: Debunking the myths surrounding virtual teamwork

  • The active participation of committed individuals confirmed that virtual working is possible and can be successful. Still, it does require self-motivation, passion and tremendous discipline if a busy home is to be used as an office. Least of all, it requires a shared organizational vision.
  • Regardless of location, culture and nationality,  having the same vision, the teams were productive and worked together seamlessly within a matter of hours. 
  • It was possible to get international subject matter experts almost in an instant, again debunking the myth that physical attendance of experts is mandatory. 
  • The diversity of the participants from across the globe enriched mindsets and opinions and resulted in good outcomes. 
  • It is not true that expensive and expansive technical solutions are required to mobilize all business operations. Tools are available, ready to use and not expensive. 
  • Saying this, however, we acknowledge that some legacy and complex business systems may need adaption, which will take time and may be costly. We have learned lessons through COVID-19. These transformations do not have to follow the tedious, risk-averse, rigid pre-COVID-19 processes. Innovation and solutions thinking should lead the process.
  • Close relationships can be built, and team cohesion forged with the use of digital technology. The hackathon, with its time limitations combined with a shared goal, bonded working teams much faster than physical participation could. With no travelling time and traffic jams, our time was productively used to devise solutions together.  
  • Lastly, the strong bonds that were created will have lasting value. Weeks after the event, people and teams are still meeting online for coffee sessions, and they seem more than ready to tackle another challenge or have friendly discussions.

We know that business will be different post-COVID-19. After the hackathon and seeing what is possible, I am with excitement looking forward to the challenges that we will be presented with. A new world has opened for me. Questions and concerns about what life and business after COVID-19 would be, are now replaced with thoughts of endless opportunities that would never have been plausible in the pre-COVID-19 world. 

In summary, we developed several new lenses through which we see life. I have a better appreciation for industries that were prepared for COVID-19. Not because they could foresee the pandemic, but because they saw the intrinsic value of digital transformation earlier than people in other industries. For instance, banks and insurance companies had proven well-used digital technology infrastructures and their clients well shielded from COVID-19 disruptions. The medical fraternity had been using digital technology for scan images and patient records for a long time. Specialists were able to continue with off-site diagnosis and only need to be present during procedures that needed physical interaction. 

The best example is perhaps that of the entertainment and gaming industry. Not only is it surviving COVID-19, but it is flourishing. Their many “end-users” are being shaped by highly intuitive and consuming products. For years we have feared that isolation by technology will scar natural friendships and interaction with society.

Surprisingly, gaming youngsters have a variety of best friends crossing boundaries of race and location, giving them far more exposure than physical interaction could. They are being groomed for a digital future.

These youngsters will be the executives, clients and consumers of the future. Organizations that want to stay relevant will have to step up their own digital transformation plans. 

Published at pmmagazine.net with the consent of Eileen Marx