Lessons from the ECI 2020 Digital Forum: Managing large tech projects during the pandemic

ECI's portfolio tech leaders on Zoom meeting

ECI recently brought together digital leaders from across our portfolio for networking and best practice sharing after a year like no other. The 26 tech leaders who joined the ECI Digital Forum (with the added pressure this year of no one wanting to get their virtual technology wrong!) discussed a number of challenges and themes that had emerged during the year. 

One of those key themes was how, for many, 2020 was actually a great opportunity to drive positive change, even while reacting to rapidly changing business and customer demands. This was demonstrated by the fact that tech functions across our portfolio achieved great things during the year, for example at 4ways the business built and rolled out a new core business system (PACS) with IBM Watson Health Imaging allowing them to improve efficiency and embrace the opportunities presented by AI. 

Tech functions have also been crucial to solving key business issues through lockdown. For example, Travel Chapter rapidly developed digital customer journeys and functionality to adjust to regional lockdown rules. This prevented their operational teams from being overwhelmed due to high levels of customer calls, and solved logistical challenges around adapting to evolving rules.

What are the top tips we learned as how to manage large tech projects remotely? 

1. Scope effectively 

This isn’t exclusive to the pandemic but effective scoping is crucial to help you navigate uncertainty. These is inevitably scope creep when situations change, but trying to get as tight to scope as possible will help with much more effective implementation.

The advice from across the portfolio to improve this, was to ensure you try and engage people as early as possible. Bringing people in too late to the project and then recognising different requirements is often how timelines and budgets shift longer and higher. Getting all the relevant stakeholders involved early on, and throughout, in the process will help to keep things tight and hold everyone to account. 

2. Ensure teams know how their work is impacting the business

As any tech team will tell you, 2020 hasn’t been an easy year. Whether it was transitioning an entire office to work from home, delivering sprints from your bedroom (not of the Joe Wicks kind), many will have seen an increase in their workload, incredibly short timelines, alongside a need for a different approach to collaboration. 

Dan Kearney from Travel Chapter told the Forum about how, whilst the pressure was immense, the company ethos really shined through at this time, because people could see how the work they were doing was impacting their colleagues. For example, they had always operated their refunds and cancellation policies over the phone. Within a week of lockdown the team had set up a self-serve option on the website to enable guests to re-schedule or cancel their break, massively speeding up the process for customers but also making life significantly easier for their colleagues. The ability to see the difference you were making was fundamental to align the teams in a difficult situation, and it’s something Dan sees as very important to maintain that now life returns to a closer semblance of normality. 

3. Be focussed 

In a fast-growing technology or tech-enabled business, tech teams are often inundated by demand from the business, and this has never been truer than in 2020.

It makes it all the important to work with the business to prioritise where to focus tech resource, and to ensure that the tech team is taking on stretching, but achievable targets. This is something that Dan Kearney said had worked well for the Travel Chapter team throughout the course of the pandemic, and something that they will carry forward as it enables the tech function to deliver the highest impact projects for the business in a dependable manner. If it feels like you can’t possibly deliver all the projects on your plate, chances are you can’t and it needs to be reviewed and stripped back. 

4. Don’t forget change management 

You have to think about people, not just the tech. How are you going to train people and roll out projects when you can’t be in the same room together? The advice from the digital leaders was that you need to absolutely prioritise who needs to know what, and make sure you spend a lot of time (1-1 where possible) getting people up to speed. 

People can already feel isolated and overburdened when working from home, so it is even more important than ever that you bring people with you. For example, Andrea at KB Associates, discussed their use of “Friday bites” of relevant information so as not to overload people in one go. 

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