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The project economy requires investments by project managers to realize the future we want

February 24, 2021

Two years ago, the new CEO of the Project Management Institute (PMI), Sunil Prashara, qualified the world as “being projectified” and coined the Project Economy. The large change initiatives in organizations are managed with projects. IBM’s Cindy W. Anderson added in her article Welcome to the Project Economy (2019): “The projects in these organizations, and others, are being led by people with a variety of titles, solving a variety of problems in industries big and small, and across all regions around the globe. The Project Economy has room for all of them.”

In early February 2021, NK Shrivastava and Phillip George conducted a PMI webinar Looking Forward to Project Management in 2021 after a Turbulent 2020. The undoubtedly well-intentioned key trends, I believe, underestimate the real needs in the project economy.

  1. Project delivery will continue to be impacted by COVID-19
  2. Cybersecurity projects will be as important as ever
  3. Demand for project managers will increase
  4. PMOs need to innovate to stay relevant
  5. Design Thinking approaches will be integrated by project managers
  6. The use of Kanban will increase on projects
  7. Agile and DevOps approaches need to integrate further
  8. Quality engineering will take precedence over quality assurance
  9. Agile teams will be more distributed than ever
  10. Agile coaching and transformation services will rise

One project has come to a standstill due to the pandemic, while other projects have just started to solve emerging problems. How literal and wry is one person’s death, the other his bread. Think of the projects at pharmaceutical companies to bring a highly effective vaccine against COVID-19 on the market within a year, the projects to develop a Corona notification app, organize source and contact research, set up test and vaccination lines, or to organize corona proof in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In projects such as the Dutch Corona notification app and the serious data breach in the application that the public health services use to register source and contact research, the importance of information security became painfully clear. The importance of cybersecurity may well have increased.

I recognize the increased demand for project management competencies, but do not see PMOs as independent entities that remain relevant through innovation. Apart from a PMO in 2017, I can easily do without it for two decades. Design Thinking is one described, simple technique to facilitate the divergence and convergence of ideas. The suggestion that project managers are going to integrate this technique (s) requires explanation and context. A key trend is an exaggeration in this.

Using Kanban and projects in one sentence makes you rethink your field of expertise. Kanban originated as a signaling technique in assembly line work in production companies. Bottlenecks, such as a machine that has come to a standstill or stalled, must be resolved as quickly as possible to resume the flow of continuous production. As a contrast to repetitive activities in the Operations of an organization, we realize in projects the new products, services, or processes that will change that. Not as assembly line work in accordance with a configuration script, but a risky temporary company that wants to get from A to B based on good or even emerging approaches and deliver the required results.

The call to integrate Agile and DevOps suffers from the same problem. Agile is an umbrella concept of frameworks, techniques, behaviors, and principles to make people, teams, and organizations agile in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous outside world. A multidisciplinary team develops something. This can be done in many ways, for example with an agile framework such as Scrum. By subsequently asking the team to also take care of the management and maintenance of the delivered items, Dev(elopment) and Op(eration)s are brought under one organizational roof. If you have delivered a good product, you don’t have to worry about it much afterward. As the parties involved, you know the most about the product, so it is logical that you can and can also provide a next version, an improvement, or change. If you have delivered rubbish, you can also clean it up yourself. This can be about software, but also about renewing and managing a section of motorway.

Building in quality instead of testing is commendable. With more and more working from home worldwide during the pandemic, the claim that Agile teams (meaning: development or DevOps teams in organizations) are spread over the workplaces of all individuals involved is an open door. This does not go without a struggle, it makes a considerable appeal to the people who have to provide coordination, leadership, and integration and shows daily how much you miss non-verbal cues in communication and collective learning becomes a source of headache.

And yes, with all those organizations on the move to implement and improve agile ways to work (together), there is a temporary or permanent need for coaching and change management. I do not see the direct link with project management key trends.

Megatrends for project managers looking beyond the obvious

If you really want to contribute to a better, more beautiful, cleaner world, check whether your project actually means something for themes such as:

  • COVID-19
  • Climate crisis
  • Civil, civic, and equality movements
  • Shifting globalization dynamics
  • Mainstream Artificial Intelligence

These five megatrends described by Cindee Miller et al on PMI’s Voices of Project Management on February 11, 2021, may take place outside of your bubble. At major Dutch banks and top 3 insurance companies, we think that everything revolves around software, everyone works agile and project managers are passé. The fact that I provide monthly project management training on PRINCE2 via the Capgemini Academy raises questions. Is PRINCE2 still in use? So yes. Otherwise, organizations would have no need to let their people do this training (s) and pursue certification.

Admit it, on your resume it is more interesting to be able to report that you have made a significant contribution to one of the above-mentioned megatrends than just another back-office migration, implementation of pieces of legislation, or the revision of an online dialogue for the application of an insurance product or a loan?

What skills are needed now and in the future?

The British project manager, author, and speaker Peter Taylor distinguishes three types of project managers (I also wrote about it in 2019 and the words are in full force in 2021):

  • accidental project managers (through harm and disgrace, rolled into the emerging field more or less by accident. Peter Taylor is an example of this);
  • educated project managers (project management as an element in the curriculum, a career move, colleagues with the necessary training and practical experience. I am an example of this myself);
  • intentional project managers (students who already choose to become a project manager, immediately do major project management and are able to lead projects from their entry into the labor market. As a people manager and trainer I regularly come into contact with such ‘energetic folks’).

The September 2019 New Statesman published an article Investing in 21st-century skills. This taps into the intentional project managers and points out how to prepare young people for the project economy by engaging in technical and social skills, daytime practice at work, as well as in volunteering, and other out-of-hours projects.

I think it is cool to work with young people in their twenties who have already led projects with PRINCE2 in their training, have a master’s in Innovation management, or have already learned to deal with conflicts, lead teams, or presenting convincingly. I prefer to put them on the track to lead projects instead of wasting time on typical young professional roles at an IT consultancy company as a tester, junior business analyst, or project assistant.

Regardless of the type of project manager you count yourself on, it is important to remain relevant. In the promotional video of the project economy, the change “From frameworks to whatever works” comes over. For me, it typifies the transition of project management. Do not dig (too) long in the past if you are looking for the future of project management (such as John Verstrepen, Roelof van der Weg, and Ben van de Laar in The project manager in translation: looking for the future of project management, 2017). On the shelf with the professional literature, new books such as Psychological Project Management 2nd edition or Citizen Development: The Handbook for Creators and Change Makers would rather belong than the upcoming seventh edition of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide).