Project Management has been a skill utilised for centuries with many of the wonders of the ancient world assumed to have some kind of formal project management roles and processes involved.

Many of those same skills have persisted through to more modern endeavours with rapid evolution coming through the twentieth century such as when the first Gantt Chart was developed by Henry Gantt in 1917, through to when Scrum was named a Project Management style in 'The New New Product Development Game' (a paper by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, Harvard Business Review, 1986). The twenty-first century shifted the paradigm even further with the Agile Manifesto in 2001 and in September 2012, the International Organisation for Standardisation published "ISO 21500:2012, Guidance on Project Management''.

So with hundreds of years of evolution behind it, what does Project Management really mean and what will it look like in 2021 and beyond?

What is Project Management?

Definition: What is project management?
Definition of Project Management

Project Management can be described as the use or application of knowledge, utilising specific processes and tools, to manage processes and resources to achieve an outcome. If you look up the various definitions of Project Management you will find multiple variations on these same themes but to be honest, the definition will always be different depending on your project so it is really up to you.

Projects exist in everyday life and could best be described as a series of tasks or activities that need to be completed in a sequence to achieve an outcome (such as moving house, planning for a holiday). To help get started and achieve the outcome, any of us will employ basic project management techniques to help plan the project and achieve the outcome such as creating a ‘To Do’ list to create and track completion of tasks.

Where Projects are established in an enterprise (a business or entity) the stakes are invariably higher – more investment, more risk or more complex tasks and dependencies. As a result greater skills are required to manage the Project and more experience is required allowing greater control and predictability of issues and assurance of outcomes (hence the many job titles like Project Manager, Senior Project Manager etc.).

In a traditional Project Management environment, tasks are predominantly one-off and sequential (one task finishes before another one starts) which is why they are often referred to as Waterfall Project Management. The processes in these types of projects are therefore linear and managed in a sequential Project Lifecycle.

In an Agile Project Management environment, the tasks become mostly iterative and adaptive. While many of the critical Project Management Processes are the same (or have similar intent / outcomes) such as resource management, risk management and benefits or outcomes management, a critical difference is they are adaptive based on the ongoing feedback loops the agile project will generate.

It is important to note that Project Management skills are very specific and are distinct from other roles in a project such as Scrum Master. It is fine to have one role perform multiple functions in a small organisation or small project as long as the skills required for each function are individually defined, as are the processes of each function. In order to have full visibility of this and to manage the quality of Project Management, incorporate all relevant functions, knowledge areas and processes into your Job Description documents.

What are the critical Project Management skills for 2021?

As mentioned, Project Management has been around for a long time and many of the processes, whether they be Agile or Waterfall have been embedded into standard operating procedures for most organisations. However up until recently, Project Management has been based on a principle that the project team is predominantly co-located. Project Management processes and artefacts that rely on high-touch collaboration can be done through workshops, meetings and stand-ups where messages can be easily relayed and, most importantly, verified as understood. It has also been easier to have physical inspections of quality or incremental value realisation to ensure the feedback loop is as small and short as possible.

Over the last decade or so, the concept of co-location has been challenged with a global marketplace and talent pool as well as diversity in teams across multiple locations whether they be team members such as component manufacturers or even some of your users. Despite this there has always been the concept of a HQ or central team site where the golden source of project information can be managed (i.e. the office where the stick-notes are all over the wall) which is possibly where the hiring of the Project Manager is done out of as well.

The slow slide to a more dynamic and virtual approach to Project Management has turned into a full tilt avalanche in 2020 with some key trends now emerging:

  • Remote working to ensure business continuity – Human contact and collaboration will always be necessary however an operation must be resilient to withstand disruption. Given a Project is a temporary operation, the concept is no different especially given they are time-bound in nature. For a Project Team this will mean co-location in a system (such as Jira) or collaboration tools (such as Slack) rather than in a particular site which will in turn open up the team environment to anyone, anywhere rather than based on proximity to HQ.
  • More focus on short time to ROI - Given the uncertainties created by the events of 2020, Project Management is likely to be far more focused on shorter phases with clear return on investment or ROI per phase. The longer the time from initiation to go-live, the greater the likelihood that the initial assumptions could change and disrupt the plan as well as erode value.
  • Digital Project Management – Like any business process, Project Management processes will need to be digitised end to end to support the new way of working.  This will mean greater use of PPM tools that support certain processes within the Project Lifecycle.   Where many project teams may have relied on only task or schedule management tools as well as enterprise collaboration tools in the past, they will no longer be adequate in 2021 and the PPM eco-system will be imperative as part of your Project Management structure.

As a key takeaway on this topic – don’t let yourself drown in the ocean of content that exists on Project Management, the various methodologies and the processes. Understand your project needs and your constraints as an organisation, and then tailor the approach you think will be most successful. Iterate and adapt from there and as always, learn as you go.

Project Management FAQs

What is project management?

Project Management can be described as the application of knowledge while using specific processes and tools to manage resources in order to achieve an outcome.

What is agile project management?

In an Agile Project Management environment tasks become mostly iterative and adaptive. While many of the critical Project Management Processes are the same such as resource management, risk management and benefits or outcomes management, a critical difference is they are adaptive based on the ongoing feedback loops the agile project will generate.