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2021 and beyond.... 5 Disruptive Trends in Project Management


Author: Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute

In the next five years, the world will see more projects than ever. The reconstruction of the economy, healthcare, social care, and society at large after the devastating global pandemic crisis, will be unprecedented in human history. According to McKinsey[1], Governments’ have announced $10 trillion in reconstruction funds just in the first two months of the crisis, which is three times more than the response to the 2008–09 financial crisis. These are millions of projects, which will need millions of project managers.

2021 is going to be the confirmation of The Project Economy, a term I conceived in 2018 when working on my earlier book, The Project Revolution, How to Succeed in a Project Driven World.

However, despite this positive outlook, significant trends will put at stake the project management profession that we have learned to know in the past 40 years. We should consider these signals as an urgent call for profound change in our practices and a much needed in our competencies. A small price to pay compared to the unique opportunity that the project management profession has to lead what I call our new world driven by change.

Today, about 70% of projects fail to deliver their objectives. What if we commit to doing much better? If we increase our success ratio from 30% to 60, we would be adding approximately the GDP of China in benefits, imp act, value, and social good.

These are the five most important trends I see for 2021 and beyond:

1. The end of Job Descriptions, the start of Project Roles: The move from a world driven by efficiency to a world driven by the change will have enormous consequences in terms of strategies, culture, organisational structure, competencies, compensations, etc. More and more work will be carried through projects. The Richards Group is the largest independently owned ad agency in the US, with billings of $1.28 billion, a revenue of $170 million, and more than 650 employees. Stan Richards, its founder, and CEO removed almost all of its management layers and job titles, leaving only that of the project manager.[2] The Richards Group is not an exception. One of the most significant impacts of this unprecedented disruption will be the end of job descriptions, which almost every organization has had for the past 30 years, and will be replaced by project roles. Today most employees don't work on what their job descriptions state; they work on the changing priorities, the strategic initiatives, the focus on the clients, and delivering value to their organizations. They actually work on projects. Employees very soon will be assigned a role in a project, and once the project is over, they will be assigned a role in another project.

2. From Project Manager to Strategy Implementation Professionals: It's about the competencies to succeed in the Project Economy. My latest research for the current book I am writing, the HBR Project Management Handbook[3] (to be published in Sep 2021), clearly shows that senior leaders see project management as a core competency and invest in them over 2021 and beyond. 

Project Competencies are in much demand

However, project managers will need to learn new skills, and evolve to become what I call strategy implementation specialist. They will need to start working on the project earlier on, within the innovation phase, facilitating ideation and using design thinking techniques to ensure that the best ideas are chosen and are developed into products that generate value through the right project management approaches. With the slow absorption of project management tasks by AI (see trend #5), most manual tasks will be replaced by leadership, strategic, and value creation competencies. The main challenge was that before, there was no course to help project managers, scrum masters, and managers to make this step change in their careers. I am proud to say that over the past two years, I developed the first global online course and certification as part of the Strategy Implementation Institute. 

3. Expanding our Toolkit, it is not a waterfall or agile; it is both and more: Many of us grew developing and implementing project management methodologies with the idea that one size fits all. Meaning that all projects will need to follow the same methodology, the same project life cycle, the same templates... In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the focus was on traditional waterfall methods; in the 2010s, it moved to Agile; all projects then had to follow an agile approach. Today we know that this is wrong; you cannot have just one method to address all the projects and changes you have in your organization. In 2021, we will see the evolution of implementing projects into a set of tools, which will include agile practices, traditional project management practices, and some design thinking, innovation, lean startup, program management, and change management. Depending on the type of project, project managers should be able to apply one tool or different techniques simultaneously.

4. The Project Management Office: Evolve or Game Over: The second big trend is the end of the PMOs as we know them for about 40 years. During this period, PMO's were set up as a group in a hierarchical structure, either reporting to the CIO, CFO, or the CEO. However, hierarchies are structures of the past; today, most organizations look for more agile settings, with fewer management layers, promoting project-based work and self-managed teams. Therefore PMOs need to change urgently. I see two essential evolutions. First, PMO's should move to cover strategy and transform into strategy implementation offices. Second, we need to develop agile PMOs, temporary entities that will assist in traditional and agile projects. Once the project is over, the PMO should transition into running, operating, or selling what the project has produced and delivered.

5. Artificial Intelligence will disrupt the project management task; we have to embrace technology. According to Gartner, 80% of the project management task will be taken over by AI by 2030[4]. Most projects are managed with Microsoft Project, a software launched in 1987, more than 30 years ago. Project Portfolio Management tools offer more advanced features, but far from being applications benefiting from the latest technologies. Based on personal research, in 2021, we will start seeing some algorithms that can predict the success rates of projects, validate the projects' scope, and automatically design a project plan in a few minutes. Losing a significant part of our current tasks as project managers might be scary for many; I see it as a vast opportunity to switch our focus on more added-value activities and drive an increase in project success ratios.

Finally, I want to share a global challenge and new aspiration for our project management community for 2021. Today, about 70% of projects fail to deliver their objectives. We urgently need to step up and significantly increase the project success rate. Considering that every year approximately 48 trillion US dollars are invested in projects, we fail to deliver trillions of benefits, value, and impact in organizations and society at large. It is colossal, unbearable, and embarrassing. What if we commit to doing much better? If we increase our success ratio from 30% to 60%? Just imaging the amount of value that we would be adding to the world, approximately the GDP of China in extra benefit. Imagine if we do that not only in 2021 but year after year.

The project economy is here. The world needs top project managers more than ever. But we need to adapt and grow fast. Let's not waste this unique opportunity!

“There are fewer “low-cost” ways of working more inclusive, impactful, motivating and inspiring than being part of a project with an ambitious goal, a higher purpose, and a clear fixed deadline.” Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez



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