Co-ordinating an €9.4M international project with 10 partners spread all across Europe is difficult at the best of times. However, the current COVID-19 crisis suddenly brings a completely new challenge.
Lockdowns have affected all of the project partner countries, with each having different policies on easing restrictions. Therefore, a current 10-week lockdown in GB could translate into a 14-week period when other affected EU countries are taken into account.
This impacts on everyday work as sub-contractors, suppliers, technical support etc. are closed and critically we are not receiving information and updates from them. It is difficult to plan and co-ordinate in a vacuum. For most, in this current situation, it is a case of makeshift and make-do but that does not mean doing nothing.
Doing nothing or the ‘batten down the hatches’ mindset and trying to ride out the storm is not an option. When managing an international project you can’t wait until your hand is forced, being passive is not a strategic option, nor is it a project-deliverable option. In spite of the difficulties arising from the COVID-19 restrictions, we remained proactive, scrambled virtual teams and digital activities together, and worked to anticipate obstacles before they appeared, or worked around them when the obstacles landed and also put in place a process to deal with many of the unknowns.
In order to maintain the good progress made by the project so far, we devised a 8-stage plan that not only ensures GenComm can remain open for business but also return quickly back to full working capacities, schedules and loads. The stages are designed specifically to provide guidance for each partner and also externally for all stakeholders.
The stages can be viewed as ways in which we can work around COVID-19 issues, if required by the partners to ensure continuity. In order to help prepare for the unknowns and maintain momentum during uncertainty we developed 3 options for each deliverable. This ‘triple lock’ approach ensured that we would not end up in a project hiatus or cul-de-sac and would have alternative workaround routes for the project to keep it going.
The outworking’s of this plan is our ‘mission critical’ platform and details how we can continue to deliver on all project aims, objectives and outputs. We will also capture how we are continuing to employ innovation and digitalisation processes to explore capabilities, identify gaps, strengths and weaknesses and importantly identify potential differentiators to maximise the project deliverables for all.
In the initial weeks of the lock down period, the team carried out four critical analytical steps on the project - triage, adjust, stabilise and sustain. These first four stages are related to immediate crisis management, activating all Belfast Met and partner organization’s resources to protect the business fundamentals and operate with enough capacity to fulfil only the highest-priority needs. Critical to the success of this phase was getting all the partners on board.
Looking back now those first 5 weeks of the pandemic induced social isolation, it was hectic, everything was up in the air, there was no direction. The key to success in this phase was communication and getting all the partners to focus. Partners were concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic would shape their lives. Most were stuck by the uncertainty of the answer. Continual, open and transparent communication from the coordinator provided a certainty and was critical at getting all the partners onto the same page, focussed and agile. This helped move the project and partners from shut down ‘inertia’ position to where they started to look at alternatives, develop a makeshift, deliver a make do, importantly project movement.
Stages 5 to 8 establish a project bridge to our new normal. They run in parallel to stages 1 to 4 and build on the fundamentals of crisis management that have been established in these stages. The parallel path and overlap in the model is deliberate and reflects the need to have resources applied to internal and external in order to maintain the project. These 8 stages identify and capture the different sets of internal and external resources which are required to manage and explore different trajectories in a coordinated fashion.
As with all plans when it was initially drawn up, it was to capture "what we need to do list." However as we have started implementing it has now moved into the ‘what we have done’ in order to meet the requirements of each stage or in some cases ‘what we did’ as a workaround and is now developing into ‘what we need to do.’ In practice all looked great on paper until we started to get down to work and found that in order to get what we wanted and where we needed to be was anything but straightforward and indeed at times messy but not broken.
Stage 1: Triage the landscape
With the crisis imminent in Europe in early March, we triaged the project defining the critical baseline data and analysed this to enable maximum project operations. This step provided immediate project and partner wide visibility into any changes that were needed to maintain operations.
During this stage 1 process, partner company Energia, the Work Package lead on Investment 3 the wind to hydrogen pilot, immediately formed a Business Continuity Team which looked at all areas in the company. This included the hydrogen business as they have several live, high-profile projects and the objective of the team was to establish the status on each area of the project.
This confirmed the number of key contracts for their Work Package including; Electrolyser, Compressors, Storage Trailers, Project Management, Funding and Supply Agreements. The parties for each agreement were identified together with key contact details including the escalation process.
A brief description of these contracts was defined including, locations, deposits paid and status before the start of the crisis. A business risk analysis and impact summary matrix were developed showing Risk Impact, Probability and Mitigation covering each key contract together with a full finance risk summary. This Triage step helped management to direct any resources to the highest priorities and greatly helped in the development of Stage 2 of the Crisis Management Plan.
Stage 2: Adjusting to the new norms
Following stage one, we then looked to see what adjustments were critical to the project and how these could be implemented. In this stage of the plan we focused on core project principles, closed off all non-essentials, and implemented new project specific requirements.
Critically, we adjusted and moved to new communications structures and platforms internally and externally. With the EU Projects team in Belfast Met we have extensive experience and a track history of international collaboration and remote management. With all travel prohibited we moved all partner, management and technical support meetings online utilising a wide array of IT channels and support. Importantly the Belfast Met IT team and support had ensured that we were well equipped for the tasks and provided continual remote support. It was not an easy step to make especially with all working at home balancing family life with work and struggling with some IT connectivity being under par. In the absence of any working at home protocols, we utilised some short-term makeshift approaches including fluid working times, split meetings, evening meetings and capturing some input off line when problems occurred.
Achieving open transparent and comprehensive communication in the whole process is key to our continued successful monitoring, evaluation and management of the project and this is even more important during the lockdown. Remote video and audio links are crucial, we are afterall a tactile group and it’s nice to see and speak to partners regularly. Internally, we implemented thrice-weekly team meetings and updates; externally we increased the regularity of the team conference calls and added additional webinar support. Communication built confidence whilst reducing friction, fragility, and fear for all partners and stakeholders.
Again, we had to build in some workarounds, as it is not easy working at home when you have to balance home life and work life in one arena and young children making the odd appearance. Getting to a good home working place takes time and we built in allowances such as late meetings and after hour’s deadlines to accommodate home life.
Another point is the further communication with the suppliers of the outstanding components of the two investment work packages. Here too, communication has been switched to video calls. After about two months, this "new" way of communication has now successfully proven itself.
External stakeholder engagement was also increased in order to provide information, updates and clarity including explanations; this step ensured continued confidence in the project. A further example of our adjustment can be highlighted in our new digital newsletter. Previously we would have produced a dual copy for electronic and standard circulation. Now we are redesigning the newsletter improving the digital layout and graphics to reach an online audience, to encourage more reader loyalty and utilising several social media campaigns per edition.
Our German partner IZES is in charge of work Package I2 - solar to hydrogen. During the adjustment phase, IZES have continued the theoretical work on the approval procedures as well as the paper work for the SWOT analysis regarding battery electric vehicles (BEV) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). The contact with the supplier of the hydrogen refuelling station was maintained and in some cases even intensified through the establishment of regular video calls, as there are still safety-related issues to be clarified, all of which are due to the requirements of the local approval authorities.
After the lockdown in Scotland, the resulting hardware related to the Hydrogen refuelling station work will be restarted shortly. However, due to the delay and the continuing travel restrictions in Europe, the September 2020 deadline for the final completion of the hydrogen refuelling station can no longer be met. According to current information, an extension of at least six months is necessary to bring work package I2 to a successful conclusion.
After a weather delay and a COVID 19 infection at the building company, which caused a construction stop of about 6 weeks, the work at the construction site of the hydrogen refuelling station has been continued since the second week of May. The completion of the work is thus ensured before delivery of the hydrogen refuelling station.
Communicating changes and the way partner organisations were affected and how the project overall was impacted was also key to ensuring the team functioned coherently. Any changes that we made were communicated internally and externally, with complete clarity, sharing our vision and providing explanations on the reasons for change were provided. Again, this continual process whilst very time consuming meant that we, the lead partner, were able to adjust and manage the project.
Stage 3: Building stabilisers
During the stabilising phase we continued with data gathering, information and iterative reviews on stages 1 and 2. These stabilisers or business applications stage allowed us to quickly leverage this data to extract insight, make data-driven decisions and take the best actions.
This continual process ensured we had the latest updates and data to support informed decision making, enabling short-term immediate and medium term operational planning. Stage 3 allowed us to develop a wider functioning governance model with shorter decision cycles capable of immediate response and to adjust baseline as and when necessary and importantly communicate this to the team and partners as part of our evolving strategy.
French partner INSA, and other work package leaders, carried out extensive data gathering internally and externally. Sometimes this couldn’t be achieved so workarounds, closing gaps utilising educated guesswork helped bridge the gaps. This data was used to continually evaluate and inform proactive decision making, adjusting priorities where appropriate. The partners also used this information to continually evaluate stage 1 triage and update as necessary. Processes were implemented across the project to convert data flow and access to short-term immediacy and medium term decisions. Wider more flexible governance models were developed with revised and adjusted baselines and this evolving strategy was communicated effectively.
Kieran McLaughlin from NI based partner TK Renewables states ‘It certainly wasn’t easy during this challenging period, gathering data from partners to facilitate the development of a Commercialisation Plan and SWOT Analysis for a hydrogen based economy. In the absence of core data, we were able to make iterative adjustments including sourcing secondary data references and utilise these. Persistence paid off and we were able ensure accurate and consistent compiled data flow.’
Paul McCormack GenComm project co-ordinator stated ‘The steps taken in this stage were proactive. We did not sit back and wait for things to happen and then react. We led from the front providing clarity amid the pandemic induced confusion. This adjusted rigour and discipline deployed within the lead partner team then fed across the project and was increasingly understood and utilised across the wider project team.'
Stage 4: Sustaining the project beyond
This stage of the plan is a proof point of project organisation and external stakeholders especially Associate Partners, and the Community Hydrogen Forum. As we worked to sustain the project in collaboration with all partners we put in place a virtual support mechanism that was accessible to all and ensured that iterative adjustments based on data and remote working demands could be implemented seamlessly.
Sustaining the project was critical. The Met project team developed a comprehensive remote working strategy and plan that was used as the blueprint for the project. This plan included all activities, dates, deadlines, time allocation, options, teamed responsibilities, a comprehensive internal/external communications plan and financial management plan.
We are not at the end of stage four yet and in a current climate where all is still in a state of flux, this is an ongoing and iterative process. Commenting on this sustaining phase of the plan Dr Rory Monaghan from National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) stated ‘As a pan-European project, GenComm was in a good position to adopt video conference meetings and remote working. The main outputs of the project, the Community Hydrogen Forum and the Decision Support Tool are online. The team working to develop them, in Ireland and the UK, saw very little change to their daily routine. GenComm is especially equipped to sustain itself in the COVID-19 world.’
Stages five to eight:
Move to the New Normal
Post COVID-19 crisis there will be no ‘back to normal.’ How will the COVID-19 pandemic shape our lives in years to come?
We are in uncharted waters and as such have no ‘project pole star’ to navigate by. Those anticipating a return to pre-pandemic normality may be shocked to find that many of the previous systems, structures, norms and jobs have disappeared and will not return. As we all look to adjust to an emerging new world, digitalisation is playing a bigger central part in our lives.
We are using the outputs and data from the first 4 stages of this crisis management plan to develop a new route for GenComm. In the absence of any clear external direction we are ‘grasping the nettle firmly’ and planning the cardinal points for our own GenComm sat nav. We are building certainty into the project from the bottom up with the partners delivering the reference points.
Stage 5: Alignment to the new working conditions
In times such as these it has to be recognised that external changes will impact and as a result will have project impact. We felt it was critical that the project pro-actively reacted to these impacts so as not to leave the project vulnerable. By being ‘on the front foot’ the entire team continually horizon scan for any impending changes and plan in advance of these in order to lessen impact.
Having completed stages 1 to 4 the project team were able to carry out internal realignment of functions commensurate with the new working environment and as a result deliver new options for all the project team and ensure that by staying proactive we never reached a stage where there were no options on the table.
Just as others were being forced to take action to continue operating, so did GenComm. Project Co-ordinator Paul McCormack who stated, ‘Ultimately we drove the alignment around technology-enabled solutions and opportunities. This allowed us to successfully align and develop strategic direction and hopefully differentiation.’ Stakeholders responded positively to these changes because it provided project wide clarity of intent and confidence.
Regular internal and external communications, updating all stakeholders, ensuring all are informed and up to date have been implemented. This stage also recognises that temporary work changes need to be implemented, challenges and opportunities addressed and protocols designed and applied in order to sustain the project. With the social distancing regulations in place first level control verifications and partner visits could not happen, however, we were able to rely on the foundations set in place in 2018 and enhance these with greater digitalisation of processes.
Peter Smyth the Financial Controller for the project in Belfast Met stated ‘The array of reporting structures and mechanisms, initiated and embedded by Belfast Met at programme commencement, remain virtually unchanged during this current COVID climate. They are robust, still fit for purpose and operational across our collaborative network. The ongoing provision and flow of quality partnership financial data allows informed and effective decisions to be made. The decision making process, concerning best way forward, is greatly assisted by the effective communication strategy in place throughout the partnership and is furthermore reinforced by the invaluable support provided through closely forged links with SEUPB and the INTERREG NWE funding authority'.
With changes being developed all partners are working to build their individual, organisational and collaborative GenComm project plans and ensuring that these are an integrated fit as GenComm moves to the new normal.
Implementing the structures in this alignment stage, Isabelle Polaert from INSA stated, 'From 13th May 2020, INSA will re-open in planned, controlled phases. Work at home is compulsory for whoever can work at home. New timetables and deadlines will have to be devised; people will come back to work progressively from 20% to 33% of the workers until June 2020. Lab experiments will start again progressively with priority being given to PHD students who have experimental work to do, including GenComm PHD student (M. Quezada) and engineer (Y. Kouhili) are allowed to come back 2-3 days/week and work in the lab. Permanent GenComm workers will go on with work from home with planned regular internal and external meetings in place to ensure the project is still operating correctly.'
Many of these changes may be temporary and last only as long as necessary and the temptation will be to slip back into old habits. However, some may, in time prove to be extremely useful in ensuring continuity and may end up being a permanent fixture in the project management toolkit; therefore, these are being kept under constant review.
Member Company HyEnergy aligned their work programme to accommodate and maximise the resultant options from the external changes. CEO Ian Williamson stated ‘Having been through this process, I think we all recognise that returning to how things were before COVID would be welcome. However, in the face of adversity we had no options, we have learnt new skills and work practices which have ensured continuity. In some cases, these have delivered additional benefits be it in productivity via avoiding the daily commute or by increasing contact time with our families and loved ones. We will likely have a hybrid of old and new practices in a future post COVID world.’
Stage 6: Proactive and responsive design-led initiatives
In this stage, we reflected on project fundamentals. We did a full internal project examination to explore if we could redesign strategy to achieve the same outputs and explored the alternatives. We have designed in all the lessons learned during the first four stages and have created a project and team resilience to mitigate unknown future circumstances and developed a model to capitalise on opportunities.
German partner IZES highlights how they are trying to circumnavigate obstacles and getting workarounds developed. The system assembly in the manufacturer's workshops can only be done with a greatly reduced team. Due to isolation regulations, only two fitters can work on the system at the same time. But in the case of still open, special, location-related safety related questions that may arise during the hydrogen refuelling process, IZES individually and in collaboration have searched for alternative solutions within Germany and prepared and proposed concepts in advance.
Wulf Clements from IZES stated ‘As travel restrictions still exist, concepts for the handling of the fabric acceptance test (FAT) via video and test-data-streaming are currently being considered. If a workable solution can be found, we hope that the delayed delivery of the system could be compensated at least partially, despite the great loss of time caused by the national shutdowns.‘
One of our key opportunities emerging from this stage is to get training and upskilling programmes developed for the H2 and Low Carbon engineers, technicians and electricians in order to sustain this development. This is critical as many employees are on ‘furlough’ at present on the current job retention scheme and this provides an intervention opportunity that we can utilise. As part of this process, we are seeking external support for this work and will carry out initial gaps, and needs analysis.
Part of our work to date in this field has highlighted the need for a ‘blended’ delivery to upskill those already in employment as their employer seeks to diversify. To this end, we aim to tailor all the material, support, delivery and implement a structured support/follow up process fully integrating a beyond blended mechanism.
In the post, COVID-19 crisis there will not be a return to pre-pandemic normality; many of the previous systems, structures and jobs have disappeared and will not return. It is therefore imperative that in order to help kick start the economy and to take full benefit from the emerging low carbon economy that all training tools developed will be future fit in design, content, delivery and accreditation.
Stage 7: Transform
Now with the project future design described at the high level, we have started to detail the steps, methodologies and processes necessary to make it happen. This plan includes key transformation steps, options that will help us move to the creation of an executable set activities/time-frame necessary to deliver the complete project.
We will start implementing the model we have developed in the previous step to keep all team, Associate Partners, Community Hydrogen Forum (CH2F) etc. informed. As part of this process, we are also examining what key transformation partners and processes we will require to help create and deliver the series of activities required to make a successful transformation.
Stage 8: Amplify
By responding quickly and effectively to the crisis and being proactive, we will maintain our project agility, flexibility, and innovation. During this stage we need to manage all areas of the new plan effectively and monitor closely, ensuring milestones are achieved with all KPIs achieved with no additional resources or reserves.
In this stage, we will look to see if we can develop other areas, steps or technical tangents that are more exploratory to assist and maintain momentum. It is critical that we keep the innovation engine switched on to deliver optimisation from our in-built agility, resilience and ability to adapt.
Paul McCormack project co-ordinator stated ‘This stage is proving vital in supporting and driving internal project innovation and especially delivering diverse project impacts. As we maintain agility with the partners, we can continually drive micro-level investigations of the challenges faced and maintain vigorous internal relationships.’