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Five lessons the pandemic taught businesses about digital transformation and program management

Authored by Kelly Dougan

When the pandemic hit, businesses faced a wave of ever-changing priorities so they could ensure employees were able to work from home and serve clients in a completely remote environment. With all of these changes, some digital initiatives went by the wayside, or were completely deprioritized. Other digital transformation initiatives shifted into high gear so client and workforce needs could be met.

Most companies had to shift the balance of their project portfolio during the pandemic to address these workplace changes. McKinsey reported that for North American companies, the average share of digital interactions increased by 24% from December 2019 to July 2020. Companies quickly reacted and, in most instances, were forced to speed up their transformation process. The need to go digital was not the only driver in this portfolio shift as new opportunities for additional budget also came into play. Many business leaders had to find creative ways to keep their doors open or to fund digital initiatives through new products, or by applying for government relief. Others had to shift budget to find ways to fund additional employee benefits such as childcare, or to find ways to enable the new work from home environment by bringing in Microsoft Teams or Zoom. However, quickly ramping up or slowing down digital efforts can strain any business over time. Companies without a strong digital transformation office (DTO) or project management office (PMO) likely struggled to implement solutions during the pandemic. So, what lessons did we take from the pandemic that could help us should another crisis arise? Are there things we can learn from this to improve the PMO structure overall? The short answer is, yes, and here are a few things to consider:

  1. Ensure your projects align with your strategic priorities
    During the pandemic, plans and roadmaps went out the window and teams had to be very selective when determining which projects they would start, stop or continue. Adjustments had to be made everywhere. Just as many teams did as the pandemic started, and before you consider new tools or changes in process, open up your portfolio and do some quick re-planning. Take a look at all your projects and first ensure that they still align with your strategic priorities. Are there resources, tools, platforms or processes you need to get back on track with your digital plan?
    Perhaps there are items that can help you become more strategic moving forward. Certainly, during the pandemic many businesses looked to quick fixes to keep business operating. And, yes, some solutions may have closed a temporary gap, but is it really worth continuing on with? Conduct some re-planning as COVID winds down to ensure all your projects align with your goals and strategic priorities moving forward.
  2. Don’t be afraid to clean your digital portfolio closet
    At the height of the COVID crisis, plenty of businesses started cleaning their ‘digital portfolio closets’ and took a good look at what digital tools and solutions they have. Reviewing what tools you have and what tools you need should be a regular practice of the PMO. Don’t hesitate to eliminate a tool if its purpose no longer supports the goals of your organization and make room for some of the innovations your organization could use.
  3. Use a rolling calendar when planning and budgeting
    Does your PMO use the fiscal year to dictate budgeting and planning? If yes, you aren’t alone. Most businesses use their fiscal year to dictate what their next year’s projects will be. However, the reality is most digital projects can run over several fiscal years. Using a rolling schedule, such as a six-quarter rolling calendar, can address the timing of projects and allow for greater flexibility in planning. Luckily, the pandemic hit early on in many businesses’ budget cycles. What if it started in October or November? It might have been even more challenging for companies to ramp up new projects at the end of the fiscal year. A rolling quarterly schedule where you evaluate existing and proposed projects on a quarterly basis provides a structure, so when a change needs to happen fast, you can pivot quickly.
  4. Conduct a project health check
    This ties directly to the rolling calendar planning process. When you are evaluating the success of your program on a quarterly basis and looking into how they are performing, it allows you to determine which projects you need to invest more or less in. So, when disruption strikes or a new digital innovation hits the virtual shelves, you have a sense of where to lean in, where to back off and where to be proactive with all digital initiatives. If businesses had already been doing this leading up to the pandemic, it might have made it easier to make the right adjustments on their project portfolio.
  5. Requalify what is in, and what is planned
    When implementing new solutions, how many projects can you successfully run at once? How much risk are you willing to take on as those projects are run? During the pandemic, businesses had to consider what was realistic for them over the next year, the next quarter and the next month. As things start to reopen, your company’s outlook may be vastly different than what it was a few months ago. Open up your project portfolio, requalify what projects you have and determine if they can be successfully managed over the next six quarters. If not, make some adjustments or push a few out until you feel your organization has the right resources available to see the project through to the end.
    This can be something your company practices as new projects are introduced, or ongoing projects are evaluated. When you are requalifying, note how any initiative would impact existing tools, solutions and processes. Outline any risks and share mitigation plans across teams. Think about what other projects are planned at that time and what dependencies exist. Pandemic or not, too many projects at once could drain resources or slow down progress and failure to consider dependencies could create a ripple effect on systems or data. Qualifying and requalifying projects is crucial step in ensuring your project portfolio remains strong and manageable.

    While every business faced unique challenges during the pandemic, it is our hope that you have come out of it with minimal disruption and were able to quickly adjust to the challenges brought on by the last year. Even if you had enough foresight to address some of these items as offices reopen, remember them as you expand your digital transformation efforts, review and rebalance your project portfolio and prepare for any challenges the future holds. Baker Tilly can help you navigate technology decisions, support the structure of your PMO and find ways to help implement or re-develop your digital transformation.
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