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Managing the Unmanageable

The year 2020 has already been an extraordinary year for all International Student Projects. After the four successful seminars in Switzerland, all the projects were eager to take off for the most important event of the year: the onsite seminar! No one would have ever expected that the COVID-19 pandemic would have such tremendous consequences not only for the projects but for the whole world.

For the first time in the history of these prestigious projects, the onsite trips of Insight China, Focus India, connectUS and exploreASEAN were cancelled. As this is unprecedented, the teams have been facing new challenges and adapting to the new circumstances. Despite the obvious disappointment, all four teams are working hard to offer added value to their delegations and stakeholders.

Insight China - early risk assessments and multiple reinventions

Insight China was of the first teams to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early February, it was evident that the project would not be able to travel to mainland China. This was a major disappointment for the project team, delegation and lecturers – an understandable reaction, considering that the Insight China Team had worked tirelessly and without end for months to offer the best experience possible for the delegation and partners.

With hindsight, it seems that Insight China was fortunate to address COVID-19 so early on. In the beginning of the year, the team already conducted risk assessments, considered alternatives, and prepared their stakeholders for a possible cancellation of the onsite trip.

During this first phase, the project reinvented itself multiple times and several alternative locations were taken into consideration. At first, an onsite trip to South Korea and Taiwan was considered. However, due to a sudden rise of confirmed Coronavirus cases in South Korea it was dropped and Insight China continued using all its resources to tailor the trip to Taiwan and the cities of Taipei, Taoyuan, Kaohsiung, and Taichung.

Unfortunately, this alternative plan also had to be cancelled eventually when the number of cases in Switzerland rose so significantly that it became impossible to guarantee that the delegation would be able to enter Taiwan and complete the planned visits. Despite all of this, and due to the constant communication with sponsors, airlines, and onsite companies, refunds for all delegation and project members have been secured and the project is well set up for the next iteration in 2020-21.

With communication taking place exclusively online, Insight China's abilities to adapt, reinvent, and cooperate have been tested as never before. While there are still certain obstacles to overcome, the team is confident it can bring the project to a favourable end.

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Lukas Nussbaum working on the communication of Insight China from home.

Focus India – enhancing their adaptability

This new situation has demonstrated the adaptability of the Focus India project and communication team. Within a very short time, the team developed a crisis plan and rearranged their project objectives. The new mission of Focus India 2020 is a smooth liquidation process and the main objective is to close the year without any debts. This procedure not only requires patience but also good negotiation and communication skills.

Focus India still wants to provide added value to their stakeholders and has revised their communication concept to keep stakeholder value as a priority. The team learned that particularly during challenging times like these, it is crucial to communicate transparently, clearly and in a timely manner. Relationship management is at the forefront of Focus India’s priorities.

To proceed with the project in the most effective manner, one of the first challenges the team had to overcome was the smooth transition to a digital working environment. Although the team members are digital natives, the complexity of exclusively working remotely required alternative ways to hold meetings and keep each other updated. Efficient virtual working not only requires the right technology, but also continuously high motivation and open communication among all project managers. Teamwork has become more important than ever and the team realized that distance does not impair effective collaboration.

The learning effect during this adaptation phase has been immense and the team regards this situation as a valuable experience. Not only have all team members improved their management skills during the COVID-19 crisis, but they are also learning how to take effective measures in stressful situations. The team is highly motivated to reach their new goals to satisfy their many and varied stakeholders.

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The Focus India project virtually discussing the measures for the upcoming weeks.

connectUS – a solution-oriented approach and immense commitment

Two weeks before departure, the onsite seminar of connectUS was cancelled. Simultaneously, companies in the USA and Canada started to call off the planned visits. Finally, the USA closed the border and the decision was final.

The fact that the connectUS journey could not take place caused great disappointment for all project as well as delegation members. Since July 2019, the project team had worked constantly and invested enormous energy, ideas and passion into the project to make the journey an insightful and unforgettable experience.

However, calmness and serenity were the order of the day as there were many tasks to be done. After several meetings, the project team had to ensure smooth communication with all parties involved. It was important to take away the frustration of the delegation members and other stakeholders in order to maintain a good and healthy relationship within the project. At the same time, the project team was given extraordinary tasks, such as organizing refunds, liquidate the project, or handling requests from various stakeholders.

“In times like these, it is important to continue to give your best and show immense commitment, even if the desired outcome is no longer possible. Also, one should take responsibility for the project and bring it to a successful ending.”

Project Team Member, connectUS

Since there was no predefined plan for such a scenario, the project team had to act quickly and, in a solution-oriented manner. This required not only good teamwork but also a high degree of adaptability, optimism and flexibility.

Despite the unexpected challenge, the project team has learned a lot and could grow on a personal as well as professional level. Their professionalism and confidence in the project were constantly maintained and the future of the project has been ensured.

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connectUS project team during a virtual meeting with their supervisor Anita Graf.

exploreASEAN – Overcoming the crisis with the right mind-set and abilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on the exploreASEAN project and beyond. The massive scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability has made it challenging for the project team to respond. Indeed, the outbreak has the hallmarks of a landscape crisis resulting in a high degree of uncertainty due to its enormous scale and overwhelming speed.

Realising that the project faced a crisis was one of the most difficult phases of the project. As the crisis did not arrive suddenly but rather grew out of familiar circumstances that masked its nature, overcoming the normalcy bias was a challenge on its own. Having recognised the challenge, there were two other issues that the team realised would arise: unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

This challenge has truly required the team to think out of the box, making routine emergency plans obsolete. Predefined response plans did not offer a solution on how the team ought to proceed, rather it was a matter of mind-set and attitude that determined success. Following this, five attributes were found to be considerably helpful: deliberate calmly reflect on the crisis, bounded optimism, clear assessments and anticipation before acts, empathy, and effective communication.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested leaders and individuals all around the world. This test of leadership in a crisis is an unprecedented challenge but also an incredible opportunity for everyone in the exploreASEAN team to grow.

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Lukas Tadeu at home writing articles for the exploreASEAN website.

Further information

Website Insight China

Website Focus India

Website connectUS

Website exploreASEAN

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