For many brides-to-be, the news that the National Wedding show would be postponed to later in the year was an inconvenient, yet essential by-product of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Scheduled to take place during the first weekend of April 2020, the ExCel centre in East London was preparing to host thousands of future happy couples to help make their dream weddings become a reality. But instead of wedding suppliers showcasing bouquets and bridal dresses, the 115,000m2 venue would be transforming into a fully functioning hospital facility over an extraordinarily short time frame.

In just 9 days, the London branch of NHS Nightingale was born.  A modern logistical masterpiece ready to admit and treat patients badly affected by COVID-19.

Since the build, many have criticised the project as highly wasteful from an economic and resource perspective, (a view cemented by the low rates of patient submissions onto the wards). However, I firmly believe this was not a consequence of poor planning or bad strategic decisions.  

This blog explores three key principles which have been central to the operational success of the hospital’s build. Although projects of similar scale and speed are synonymous with crises, when stripped back, these three principles can form the fundamental building blocks of successful project management and be applied to all projects, regardless of size or circumstance.

Go back to basics

At the start of every project there is a moment of realisation where the journey ahead feels impossibly long. As the planning phase begins and the muscle memory of a Project Manager twitches back to life, it is not uncommon to feel a nagging sense of the unknown as you visualise what direction your project will follow.

After receiving the phone call asking him to mobilise potentially the second biggest hospital (by bed capacity) in the world, it would be fair to assume this is exactly how Colonel Boreham felt as he visualised the task ahead. Despite a 27-year career in the British Army building field hospitals in war zones, he had never constructed something of this size. Not to mention while facing the persistent threat of COVID-19, poised to sweep across the nation.

What is interesting in this scenario is that there were no fancy Gantt charts or project planning tools in sight. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves, made a brew and started to manually draw up floor plans whilst ringing round contacts to get a team together – all within a matter of hours. By drawing on his experience he put in place a simple yet solid framework, whilst ensuring there was enough flexibility to quickly and easily enable future changes. The key takeaway being that, all too often we see Project Managers spending weeks strategising to create the perfect plan, when sometimes the simplest approach (which can be moulded and adapted along the way) is the most effective.

All too often we see Project Managers spending weeks strategising to create the perfect plan, when sometimes the simplest approach is the most effective.

Communication, Coordination, Collaboration

With every project, once a plan is in place the next phase of the journey is the build. In just 9 days a space designed for exhibitions and examinations transformed into a site set to house 4,000 hospital beds. It was rigorous and effective project management which coordinated and aligned the many moving parts of this programme.

As a notoriously cash-strapped entity, the NHS had to find a way to create a fully functional and safe environment for very sick people, under severely restricted timeframes. Quick collaboration between teams of architects, engineers and clinicians had to take place. As an example, one of the biggest challenges was to design and build the site to be as hygienic as possible to prevent the spread of infection. Having access to medical research explaining how the virus could exist on surfaces in the form of droplets, architects could map ward structures to minimise the flow of infection and design the walls and floors in a way that made them particularly easy to clean.

Being able to rapidly pull together different skillsets and subsequently generate solutions in a short amount of time should be a function embedded across all successful transformation projects.

Being able to rapidly pull together different skillsets (and subsequently generate solutions in a short amount of time) should be a function embedded across all successful transformation projects. Clarity through coordinated conceptual thinking and effective channels of communication meant the NHS could achieve rapid project delivery on a vast scale within an incredibly short timeframe.

Innovate to make the unimaginable become possible

The sourcing of hospital beds, ventilators and medical supplies was critical to NHS Nightingale’s success. But, as retailers began to shut shops and production lines grounded to a halt, the procurement of these essential items suddenly became much harder. Rather than turning their backs on the devastating impact of a global pandemic, manufacturers across the UK proved that when faced with a challenge, ingenuity can yield innovative results at a pace that would not normally be contemplated. Very quickly, companies such as Dyson and the McLaren Formula 1 teams had designed and tested new ventilators. Whilst many retailers, including the Whitby Gin distillery, repurposed their production lines to produce hand sanitiser.

The quality and speed of innovations produced to help the NHS was exemplary. Showing the importance of collaborative design and rapid prototyping within projects. The ability to quickly draw up a product and iterate under constrained timelines forces you to prioritise a small number of features that deliver the biggest impact for the project; ultimately saving time, effort and money in the long term.

The ability to quickly draw up a product and iterate under constrained timelines forces you to prioritise a small number of features that deliver the biggest impact for the project; ultimately saving time, effort and money in the long term.

So was NHS Nightingale worth it?

As I write this, NHS Nightingale will be placed on standby due to the reduced number of patient admissions. Despite government officials labelling this development a success, others have not been so positive. Was NHS Nightingale worth the gargantuan cost and effort?

Some may be critical of the build and consider it to be a waste of public money and resources. I firmly believe that this proactive demonstration of ingenuity and collaboration has protected the NHS in the short term. NHS Nightingale will play a role in helping the NHS resume normal service in the near future.

With a significant backlog of patients requiring other treatments that were put on hold amid the peak of the pandemic, the NHS is still at risk of facing significant pressure. Especially if we do experience a second peak. Whilst perhaps the strain on resources, most notably financial, may raise doubts of the effectiveness of the project, NHS Nightingale is arguably an essential safety net that may, directly or indirectly, save lives.

How can we apply this thinking to businesses?

Adaptability. This has proven the NHS can shift from being a cumbersome and bureaucratic entity to a service that can quickly innovate. NHS Nightingale is a reminder that problems and developments arise, and priorities must pivot. The ability to shift focus to a different goal, perspective or intention is key to a project’s success. This is essential to make use of the time, money and effort already committed.

Project Managers should recognise that this transformation is not exclusive to projects of such a vast scale. Referencing the efficient build of NHS Nightingale, projects of all size can be mobilised at pace using the three basic principles outlined above as a guide to ensure success.

Remaining adaptive and responsive to change is how businesses and projects succeed.

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