21st century project management is fundamentally different from 20th century project management. Yes, there are still start and end dates, activities and deliverables, and budgets and project teams. But the management of those project attributes is different. And if you don’t understand those differences, your projects will struggle in the 21st century business environment.
Project Management Has Been Around for Ages
Now to be clear, project management has been around for thousands of years. The pyramids in Egypt, the Roman aqueducts, and the Great Wall of China all had project managers who planned and organized the work. They may not have had the title “Project Manager,” but someone was in charge. As far as we know, none of them held the PMP credential. Since Henry Gantt did not introduce the Gantt Chart until the beginning of the 20th century, that was not available to them. And we are certain that none of them used either Microsoft Project or Primavera. Nevertheless, the projects were successful.
So if projects were successful thousands of years ago despite not having project managers with a PMP, Gantt Charts, or project management software, we can conclude that project management is more than just tools and certification. There are components of the business and project environment that must also be considered. So if the business environment of the 21st century is markedly different from the 20th century, it follows that project management must also adapt to the new reality.
Let’s start with a definition of project management. I will cite the one used by the Project Management Institute, “Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” This definition illustrates the point that was just made. Project management relies on knowledge, skills, tools and techniques. If these change in the business environment, the project management practices should also change.
Early 20th Century
Let’s consider some of the ways that the 21st century business environment is different from the 20th century business environment. At the beginning of the 20th century, Fredrick Winslow Taylor and scientific management was all the rage. This meant that activities were planned in detail and standardized. Everything was planned and tracked. Performance targets were set and measurements were seen as the key to good management.
This was a perfect environment for the introduction of the Gantt Chart and Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to plan and control project activities. Organizations were hierarchical and functions operated in separate “silos” that were managed for functional excellence. Techniques like Critical Path were introduced to analyze and optimize project schedules. Other techniques like Earned Value Management came along and provided strict accountability for cost and schedule on every aspect of the project. Project management was now part of scientific management and all managers were expected to be able to use these techniques
Late 20th Century
In the latter part of the 20th century business was transformed by computers and revolutionary changes in communication and transportation technology. These advances in science led to changes in how business systems operated. Computers dramatically improved the performance of almost all products, processes and systems. Communication and transportation changes resulted in almost all industries becoming global and operating 24/7. With respect to projects, the speed of change and the decentralization of project teams compounded the effects of project complexity and urgency. To address these issues, companies turned to project management certification and new project management tools and techniques that managed complexity.
At the end of the 20th century, project management had reached a new level of professionalism. It was now a recognized management discipline and career field. Project managers had to manage complexity in a fast changing environment. They were often required to operate both strategically and tactically. Sophisticated project management software applications were used on large and small projects.
In addition, an entire industry had sprung up around project management. Many project management consultancies, training programs, books, journals, magazines, and certification programs abounded. Researchers were analyzing projects to identify best practices and project management gurus were out on speaking tours. Not to mention the numerous project management software applications which were on the market. Project management was no longer an additional duty of operational managers; it was now a stand-alone management discipline.
We are now well into the 21st century and we can see further business transformation. Big data and the internet of things is transforming business again. In the 20th century it was impossible for a manager of a global business operation, or even a global project, to have all information about all activities instantly available. Therefore, management disciplines focused on how to discern business performance and issues from summary information or how to infer it from a narrow slice of actual real-time data. But that is all changing.
Companies can now get real-time data about all business processes, including what is happening at customers or suppliers, and make that information immediately available to managers. Computers can be constantly sifting the data looking for special conditions or patterns that the managers specify. And decision and actions can be implemented faster than most people can keep up with. The role of the manager is changing. The manager must now spend their time engaging with customers, suppliers, and employees to ensure alignment of activities and interests. The arts of negotiation, motivation, conflict resolution and empowerment are the hallmarks of good management, not directing, controlling, and analyzing.
This is especially true for project managers. The project management tools and systems can now do all of the analytical side of project management. However, the diverse and decentralized project teams need a project manager who is focused on the team alignment and integration. The project manager must build a relationship with team members to ensure they are appropriately engaged.
For those of us who started project management using the methods of the early 20th century (which in many cases were still the standard until the 1980’s) and have gone through the transition to the methods of the late 20th century, the thought of another transformation is daunting. But that is the reality of our today’s business environment. Will we still have certifications and project management software applications – of course. But those will just be tools in the tool box, not a measure of project management acumen. Project managers will be totally connected with technology – but the technology will not be what is managed, rather the technology will be the enabler for the project manager to work with stakeholders and team members. The more technically advanced we become, the more important the inter-personal relationships become.
So the new 21st century project manager is first and foremost a “people person.” They are great communicators and motivators. Yes, they are technically savvy with respect to the use of project management software and communication technology. But these are just tools, the discipline of project management is not resource alignment and empowered engagement across functional and organizational lines.