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Project Management Trends [2021]

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There’s no denying that project management today looks different to how it did even 5 years ago. Project management trends shape our profession. We see technology evolving, new tools, consolidation, innovation and more.

Trends come and go, or they stay with us and evolve into new ways of working that stick around and become “the way we do things around here.”

Change is inevitable – we all know that. So what are the emerging trends in project management that are going to shape how you do your job in the future? And how can you benefit from them? Well, I have the answers for you.

How Project Management is Evolving

The trouble with trends is that you might not notice they are happening. Often, ‘trend’ is shorthand for the prediction of a gentle evolution. You just carry on doing your job and you don’t notice the world shifting under your feet.

Until it’s too late.

How many of our parent’s generation found themselves less desirable at work because they were seen as anachronistic? I don’t want you to be in that situation.

The way tech, economic, social and environmental considerations are evolving – heck, even the way public health affects workforce planning – will impact the way projects are run.

Leaders need to know how the world around them affects the work they are doing today, and how to plan to captialize on those trends in the future.

Ready to find out more? Here are the top project management trends for 2021 that are already shaping the world of project delivery.

Project Management Trends You Need To Know

1. Artificial Intelligence and RPA

This won’t be news to you: everyone is talking about AI being a powerful trend for the coming years. There are lots of applications for this in project management software including:

  • Identifying potential risks through natural language search
  • Improving risk assessments
  • Testing risk response
  • Allocating resources and resource levelling
  • Intelligent, real-time scheduling
  • Automating mundane and repetitive tasks as Andy Crowe explains in this article
  • Improving consistency in process and decision making.

However, AI is more likely to be suggestive rather than active, as Dennis Kayser points out in this podcast on the DPM website.

Remember the paperclip in Microsoft Office?

Clippy was early suggestive AI, bringing you “helpful” suggestions. It was so helpful that Time declared Clippy one of the 50 worst inventions of all time.

AI is coming to the tools you use, but let’s hope that the developers have learned the lesson of the doomed paperclip.

Bots are another aspect of this: if you’ve had auto-responses through Facebook Messenger or used a Slackbot then you’ll have seen them in practice. I think there are some good uses for this such as opting in to receive status updates, sending team member reminders and so on.

RPA is Robotic Process Automation. It’s a way of automating repetitive tasks and it’s having a bit of an impact on the PMO community. As a way to save time, it has huge potential, so expect to see more of that in your Project Office.

Why is it important?

Tech is always evolving, and if you want to stay relevant in the marketplace, you need at least some understanding of what’s happening to the tools you use.

Ultimately, AI, bots and RPA are there to make lives easier for project teams, streamline tasks and give us more time to do the stuff that robots can’t do.

What you can do

  • Look at how you can leverage the AI capabilities of the tools you already have.
  • Look at how you could adopt new tools with automation and AI features to speed up repetitive work and data analysis.

2. More Agile and Kanban

Agile is no longer a ‘trend’ – especially since we’re now 20 years on from the Agile Manifesto. It’s a reliable, repeatable way of working that brings huge benefits to the teams that do it well.

However, it’s still not widespread or adopted reliably and effectively.

There’s a trend, in my opinion, towards more intelligent adoption of agile methodologies in a way that better suits your context. For example, more Kanban for operational teams – shock! Non-project teams using agile tools to get work done! And Scrum of Scrum style set ups for larger organizations looking to scale.

Why is it important?

Today, more than ever, we need flexible ways of working.

We have to be able to change and adapt to market conditions, but the type of work we do often needs input from specialists, meaning the ‘traditional’ multi-functional and self-sufficient Scrum team doesn’t work for every project that would benefit from Agile methods.

What you can do

  • Be brave with your tailoring. Flex your agile approach to truly suit the needs of the team members.
  • Share your agile knowledge with people outside your immediate team. Ops teams and others can benefit from a smart way to manage their work.

3. Customization of Project Management Tools

Customization is where you can tailor your messages effectively to the audience to the point that they think they are getting a more personalized service, but without too much work behind the scenes.

It’s another consumer trend. When I first wrote Social Media for Project Managers, I was reporting on consumer trends that were making their way into the business environment.

When the book was updated and reissued as Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, we saw that a lot of the consumer uses of social media were firmly embedded in collaboration tools: think features like chat, file sharing, liking and gamification etc.

Perceived customization is another example of a growing consumer marketing and tech trend that will find its way into how we manage change.

Why is it important?

It’s a different take on tailoring your approach and communications to suit the audience. Within project management tools, I want to see the things relevant to me. My sponsor wants to see different things, like real-time information on progress and budget.

It’s all possible with a few clicks and a smart set up. One-size-fits-all doesn’t cut it any longer.

What you can do

  • Look at how you can customize your project management software to present data intelligently to different groups via reporting and dashboards.
  • Ask stakeholders how they would like to receive project information and customize to the best of your ability to make it relevant (and therefore more likely to be read).

Need advice choosing the right tool? We’ve partnered with software comparison portal Crozdesk to bring you expert suggestions. They’ll call you to find out your needs and then recommend products to fit — massively cutting down your time to shortlist suitable project management software.

4. Soft Skills over Credentials

Long-time readers will know that I believe certification schemes to be useful, but not the only thing that a successful project manager needs.

As in the past, we’ll see soft skills valued more highly – perhaps valued more highly that credentials. As the demand for project management work grows, certification schemes are a simple way to differentiate candidates.

But knowing a methodology isn’t the pinnacle of achievement, as Kevin Longergan points out in this article.

Why is it important?

The trend towards valuing soft skills is important because as automation and AI bring advanced features to our tools, much of the ‘technical’ bits of project management can be done by software.

I see a day in the not too distant future where you plug your task information into a tool and out pops an estimate, based on the last 12 projects using the same resource and qualitative data on past performance.

That means your interpersonal skills are more important than ever – the shift is to project managers being awesome at stakeholder engagement, conflict resolution, change management (more on that later), negotiating, influencing and all the things that tools aren’t (yet) capable of doing for us.

What you can do

  • Take a 360-degree assessment to work out where you have gaps and consider what (if anything) you want to do to develop your competency in those areas.
  • Look up courses in the areas you want to develop or talk to your manager about professional development opportunities.

Read next: 15 easy-to-do types of professional development

5. Emotional Intelligence as a Differentiator

Emotional intelligence is one key skill that it’s worth calling out because it’s about how you operate in your environment.

Your project environment is a complex socio-political web of interactions, populated with people who know what they want, most of the time. And those wants don’t always play nicely together.

Why is it important?

Emotionally intelligent project managers are in demand. The exec team need to know that you aren’t going to do or say something to upset anyone.

What you can do

6. Tailoring Project Management Methodologies

With the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition, The Standard for Project Management and the PRINCE2 manuals both discussing tailoring more thoroughly than ever before, project managers have more flexibility to adapt project approaches to their environment.

But do project managers have the skills to tailor their approaches?

Tailoring requires professional judgement. It requires being able to differentiate between the benefits of Agile, waterfall and blended approaches, understanding the pros and cons of each. You don’t get that from reading a book.

Having spoken to a lot of project managers over the last year, formal training seems harder and harder to come by, and more and people are having to take responsibility for their own career development. And this is a global project management trend.

Why is it important?

Mentoring is one way to take control of your own development needs, and I think the complexities of your project management environment will encourage more managers to seek out mentors and coaches for themselves and their teams to learn from others.

That makes tailoring decisions easier, because you’ve got support and past experience to draw from as well as your own theoretical knowledge.

Oh, and that is something I can help with, if you are looking for a professional project management mentorship scheme.

What you can do

  • Look critically at the project management methodology in use and consider if it really fits your project. Make conscious decisions about how to work effectively.
  • Find a mentor with experience to help you make tailoring choices.

7. Hybrid Project Management

Are you waterfall or Agile? Or something else?

I think it matters less and less with each passing year.

What matters is whether you can get the job done in a way that works for your business. If that’s a blended approach, and I’m seeing that more and more, then good for you. If pure Scrum works, or you’re totally a waterfall shop, then as long as you are seeing results no one is going to care.

If project success rates are going to go up – and they really should – then value and business benefit are where we should be putting our energy. Not into what template you need to use or whether it’s a ‘risk log’ or a ‘risk register’.

Why is it important?

Hybrid project management works – we know that. This trend is important because ultimately business value is the only thing that matters.

As project managers, we want (and need, if we care about our careers) to deliver something brilliant that is valued by the organization. Who cares how you get there? Methodology is not a competition.

What you can do

  • Don’t be snooty about agile or non-agile – whichever side of the fence you come down on as a personal preference. You can combine them and still get the work done. We’re all friends in project management, and we all have the same goal: delivery.
  • Be open and collaborative. Work with your colleagues to learn about their best practices and bring your knowledge together to create the perfect solution for your teams.

8. Integrating Change Management for Project Success

Too much of project management focuses on building and completing something. There’s not enough focus on whether the people receiving the ‘something’ are actually ready to work with it.

Change management is the forgotten discipline of project success.

You might be lucky and have change managers working in your business. Or you might be like most of us and have to do the change management as well as the project management.

Communication is one of those cross-over areas that relates to both project management and change management as disciplines. We need to communicate about the project’s progress, but we also need to communicate what’s happening and why it’s happening to the people affected by the change.

Without change management, your project will struggle – and it might even fail. A successful project embraces change management, even if the only person doing it is you.

Why is it important?

Here’s an example of how project communications are changing, and how we can tap into that for better change management.

Cisco predict that 82% of consumer internet traffic will be video by 2021. If that’s what your stakeholders are doing on the internet outside of work, how do you think they are going to want to get status updates and briefings at work?

Research by Vidyard and Demand Metric reports that video converts better than any other content type. In other words, it shifts behavior. It gets people to buy or sign up or whatever.

And my own research during winter 2017 shows that getting people involved in projects is still the most challenging part of getting work done. Stakeholder relationships are a huge area of concern for project managers.

Video shifts behavior? I’ll have some of that please.

Yes: video is coming to employee communications.

To a certain extent, it already is. Some companies are already using video as part of staff onboarding and training.

What you can do

  • Read up on change management – learn what it is and how to best apply it to projects.
  • Take a change management class (like my fab workshop which has loads of templates and support resources included).
  • Look at your project schedule and consider whether you have truly incorporated enough change management activities (and time/budget for those activities) in the plan.
Recommended Training
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9. Leading Remote Teams

If nothing else, the pandemic of 2020 has shown us that remote teams are an effective way of working. Businesses that resisted the shift to Zoom meetings are now embracing the flexibility that remote teams give them.

Project managers need to be competent in leading remote teams and working with colleagues online.

Why is it important?

Remote work gives you flexibility. It stops you having to rely on people who work in your local area and means you can draw on subject matter expertise from wherever the best people happen to be.

In the APM Salary and Market Trends survey 2020, 66% of respondents reported than flexible working was an important criteria for how they chose their job. People want flexible options for work.

It also minimizes our impact on the environment by cutting down on commuting, gives us more time in the day (which many people then spend working instead of traveling) and improves work/life balance.

What you can do

  • Brush up on your virtual leadership skills.
  • Think about how you are going to run remote team meetings and workshops – it is different to holding meetings face-to-face.
  • Assume trust in a remote team, but consciously try to build it as well.
  • Make sure you’re alert to burnout in remote teams. Research from Gallup shows that nearly 80% of full-time employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes.
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10/19/2021 03:32 pm GMT

10. The Rise of Business Integrators and Online Business Managers

There is a whole new category of project managers whom ‘our’ profession is overlooking: that of business integrators, online business managers. We could even include virtual assistants and PAs in there.

A business integrator is someone who works with a business owner to bring all the moving parts together. Often involved with business ops and creating processes to set up a business effectively (and keep it moving) they also get involved with projects.

An integrator can be the second-in-command for the small business owner, managing a lot of the day-to-day project stuff and ensuring stakeholders and team members have what they need to keep the project moving forward.

Online business managers also have a large element of project management in their role because so much knowledge work these days is project-led.

Why is it important?

More and more people are having to do project management – or choosing to do project management – as part of their role. The project profession can’t afford to overlook this group or leave them behind.

What you can do

Look out for people in your organization doing project management informally, and support them where you can. For example, run a lunch and learn, offer to be a mentor and share resources. Having said that, don’t assume that because your job title is ‘project manager’ that you know more about their work than they do. They are highly competent, skilled individuals, so no patronizing allowed.

Now you’ve seen what’s coming in the short term, why not check out what the future of project management holds for us? Get ready… more change is coming!

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