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The 2021 Project Management Report

We surveyed 220 project managers to better understand what it’s like to work in project delivery. In this original research, we share some brand new project management statistics. You’ll learn:

  • What delivery approach is the most common
  • How many project managers have considered leaving the profession
  • Why the top career goal for project managers is not what experienced professionals want
  • How many projects a project manager runs
  • How many people in an average project team
  • What keeps project managers up at night
  • And lots more.

Ready to see what we uncovered? Let’s go.

1. Hybrid is the most common delivery approach

Sixty percent of project managers are using hybrid methods to deliver their projects. Hybrid approaches are a blend of predictive (e.g. waterfall) and iterative (e.g. Agile) methods together.

Typically, a project is set up with predictive planning to mark key deadlines and provide a structure for the whole piece of work, with sprints or iterations taking place within that structure.

Teams choose and use the best approach for them.

Interestingly, hybrid is the most common delivery approach across project managers at all levels of experience. It’s not something that only people who identify as ‘experienced’ project managers get to do. These days, leading hybrid projects is very much the norm.

project approaches

However, this finding is markedly different to what VersionOne found in their 14th Annual State of Agile report in 2020. Their research found that only 9% of Agile practitioners were using hybrid methods. This probably speaks to the self-selecting nature of the survey respondents in both cases.

Our research showed that 10% of project managers are using Agile methods and 30% are using predictive approaches.

2. Nearly 1 in 5 project managers have considered leaving the profession

Thirty-seven percent of respondents have considered leaving project management in the last year.

In the group identifying as having ‘some experience’, 41% have considered or seriously considered leaving.

It’s a little less for those identifying as ‘experienced’, as only 35% of that group had considered or seriously considered ditching the job.

considered leaving project management graph

Overall, 63% of all respondents said they hadn’t thought about leaving project management.

This isn’t a great picture for the profession. When over a third of people doing the job have spent time thinking about whether to quit, we should be asking ourselves what we are doing to make project management such a challenging role.

3. The top career goal is certification

The top career goal for project managers is gaining a certification. Over 20% of survey respondents said that was their goal for the next 12 months. Within this group, 52% are managing between 2 and 5 projects.

Nearly 40% of project managers are in the market for a new job. One in five said they were looking for roles outside their current company, and 19% said getting promoted within their existing firm was top priority for them.

Within the group looking for promotion, 64% are managing between 2 and 5 projects.

top 5 career goals for project managers

Career goals were broad and varied. The top 5 career goals for project managers are:

  • Get certified: 21%
  • Get a new job outside of my current company: 20%
  • Get promoted within my company: 19%
  • Work on bigger projects: 17%
  • Deliver high quality projects: 7%

Within the group that said they want to work on bigger projects, 64% are managing between 2 and 5 projects – perhaps a sign that they’d rather have a workload of fewer, more significant projects.

Other answers that got more than one response included:

  • Be recognized for my work and contribution
  • Improve how project management is done in my company.

PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2020 statistics show that only 47% of organizations have a defined career path for project managers. Perhaps that’s why so many people want to take their development into their own hands, earn a certification and get a new job.

Quick win for PMOs: Ask who wants to get certified next year and make it happen. There are plenty of low-cost training options and courses delivered virtually that will help your team earn their credentials.

This was a free text question and respondents could type in whatever they liked. I have aggregated results where there was a common theme.

4. Experienced project managers want new roles

As we’ve seen, the top goal for project managers is certification.

But when you break it down by experience level, experienced project managers would rather have a new job.

career goals for experienced project professionals chart

Forty percent of project managers who consider themselves experienced are looking out for a new opportunity, either an internal promotion or the chance to find a new role elsewhere.

I’d conclude from that the majority of experienced project managers already have the certifications they want, or if they don’t have them, have no intention of getting them because their experience speaks for itself.

The Arras People Project Management Benchmark report for 2020 says that around 50% of UK employees joined their current organization in 2016 or earlier and that 22% of project professionals changed employment in 2019.

Maybe it’s time for a change – time will tell whether the global pandemic of 2020 has changed people’s position about moving jobs.

5. Most project managers run between 2 and 5 projects

Nearly 60% of project managers are running between two and five projects. A small group – 11% – are running six to ten projects and 15% run more than 10 projects.

number of projects chart

Across all the data, it was clear that the majority of project managers sit within that two to five projects range, managing multiple projects at the same time. However, experience level does play a part.

81% of project managers identifying as ‘not experienced’ are managing two to five projects. This would suggest that new project managers are given a number of things to run – hopefully with adequate support to do so.

More experienced project managers than the other two groups are running over 10 projects: 22% of experienced PMs have over 10 projects on the go.

6. Most project teams have between 6 and 10 people

Nearly 40% of project teams are made up of 6 to 10 people.

Having managed small teams and large ones, I can confirm that number makes sense to me as the perfect sweet spot! Enough people to know them personally and ensure accountability for the work, and not too many to lose the personal touch of engaging the team.

project team size chart

7. Experienced professionals run larger teams

The survey shows that experienced project professionals are the ones typically running larger teams. Nearly 80% of experienced professionals run teams of over 6 people, with 39% leading teams larger than 10 people.

Individuals who identify as having low project management experience run more smaller teams: 55% of ‘not experienced’ project managers lead teams of under 5 people.

project team size graph

8. Project managers have wide-ranging concerns about their work

The survey asked people to write in their biggest concern about their project(s). The responses were varied and difficult to summarize: everyone has unique challenges that cover lots of the project management topic areas.

Here are some verbatim responses from people who had not considered leaving the profession:

  • No direction from leadership.
  • Schedule. Always schedule.
  • Not being given the most accurate information to work with.
  • Ensuring that others within the wider team are aware of the benefits of the processed we need to use to make the project successful. Colleagues are not ‘project’ savvy and just do things without the proper planning or recording.
  • They take too long because operational people are overwhelmed and cannot do their part.
  • I have so many, I am worried that I will forget something.
  • Managing a business that wants agile development against waterfall commitments.

Here are some responses from people who have considered leaving project management:

  • It often feels as if these stakeholders, despite having requested and business cased the project, want to remain arms’ length until it’s delivered.
  • Third party vendor (software and cloud provider) does not deliver on promises. Horrible.
  • Too much work, not enough hours in the day.
  • Executives, directors and even managers have no idea how much could be done if our project managers were given more autonomy and they would hold their people accountable to deliver on time. I can tell you for sure, some of the worker bees complain they are overworked, but they waste so much time being uninformed about our products, customers and business.
  • Poorly performing team across organisations who are not accountable to anyone.
  • My company offers the world to customers, then expects me to deliver a technical solution that isn’t ready!
  • I’m not capable of completing them, ever.
  • Impossible timelines agreed to by upper management/too many projects at the same time.

I am asked to skip or rush many of the planning steps and go straight to execution due to arbitrary deadlines set by company leadership. They view those things as a waste of time but are then baffled when I struggle to report on the status of a project that wasn’t allowed time for proper planning.

Honestly, I could have personally written all of those at one or other point in my career. These are very common struggles and yet they still make me want to cry. Why are businesses putting people in this kind of position? There are tools, processes, methods and structure out there to stop, but I think it often comes down to lack of awareness or – frankly – greediness amongst the senior levels in management who just want everything now and have no idea what it takes.

Basically, poor leadership and lack of strategy puts people in these positions.

9. Project managers don’t worry about project failure

Of all the 220 free text responses, the word ‘failure’ didn’t appear once. ‘Fail’ appeared just the one time:

My biggest fear right now is that I have my nice, neat schedule but build is constantly running behind because the PMO has all the exact same resources to use for all of our projects. It feels like stakeholders say yes to everything from our internal customers because otherwise “IT always says no, we’ll just go and do it on our own” and then they spectacularly fail at it and want IT to come clean up their mess.

project management word cloud

Project managers have more urgent, daily worries than if project failure is on the horizon. A lot of the concerns raised do speak to the larger, underlying worry that they might be somehow responsible for increasing the project failure rate in the organization, but it is not expressed in those terms.

People talked about managing constantly changing requirements, lack of access to the right people, competing priorities, lack of ownership and governance, and more.

You will no doubt recognize those things as reasons why projects fail, and they are what keeps project managers up at night – perhaps because we know things don’t have to be this bad if only there was a commitment at all levels in an organization to do projects better. We recognize the value of project management in helping to deliver strategy.

10. Project managers want to ditch the documentation

Project documentation comes top of the list of tasks project managers would love to take off their To Do list.

Twenty percent of project managers say that documentation – in all its forms – is the task they wish they could see the back of. Responses ranged from weekly reports and progress updates (“writing stupid reports that nobody reads”) to creating documents for customers and spending time on PowerPoint presentations.

project manager tasks graph

Note that the figures on this graph don’t add up to 100% as this was a free text field. I have grouped responses into themes, but there were many individual responses that don’t fit in these categories and can be considered ‘other’.

The two next categories both involve the team: 11% wished they could get rid of the overhead of meetings and a further 11% said chasing the team for updates was top of the list of things they wanted to ditch.

Interestingly, the thing about meetings that cropped up the most in the verbatim responses was the effort of having to schedule and organize them. “I work with a lot of busy people and it can be challenging and frustrating to find a common time that works for everyone,” wrote one respondent.

project management task word cloud

Some project managers are having to chase team members far more than would be considered normal, and some teams need more chasing than others. There’s an “endless follow up on agreed tasks of deliverables outside [the] core team,” wrote one individual.

“Making people behave like respectful adults,” wrote another. “Trying to pry info out of team members so the project can move forward,” said someone else. It’s depressing having to work with a team member with a poor attitude, whatever is causing that behavior.

There were many instances of “herding cats” and “nagging” – not things project managers want to be known for, but an unfortunate side-effect of some of the situations we find ourselves in.

Many of the more administrative project management practices, like documentation, managing meetings, and preparing reports are part of what we have to do – it’s the role of the project manager. The takeaway here is that the more we can streamline, automate and delegate to colleagues who need to build the basic skills, the more experienced professionals can ditch the admin and start to add strategic value commensurate with their salary.

Conclusion

The state of project management is a mixed bag. While other surveys look at project success rates, project performance and the organizational impact of projects, I was more concerned with uncovering what life is like for a project manager doing the job. And it’s tough out there.

People are managing multiple projects, often in organizations that do not set them up for success. They want career progression and development, but it feels as if businesses aren’t offering it. Will these statistics help shape the way you approach leading and motivating your team this year?

For support with all the messy parts of leading projects, join the only project management community aimed at helping you deal with the bits the textbooks don’t talk about. Learn more about Project Management Rebels.

Notes

This was a survey with 220 responses, carried out during 2020. Individuals self-selected to take part in the online survey survey and selected their own experience level. The survey was promoted to newsletter subscribers and across social media channels. Only 11 people identified as not experienced, so that data set was very small and may not be representative for any broad conclusions.

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project management report

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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