The Evolution of Project Management

The evolution of project management

Yad Senapathy, PMP November 09, 2022

Project management has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. I guess you can say that about a lot of professions, because of the impact of technology, but in project management there are more factors at play. It started with the emergence of Agile as an alternative to traditional, plan driven project management (often referred to as waterfall). While Agile started life as a way of delivering software development projects, it is now a mainstream approach that lives alongside waterfall, increasing the ability to choose the right approach for the right project. More recently Agile and waterfall have been combined in a number of different hybrid variations, further diversifying the number of approaches that can be used to deliver projects and changing project management.

But there is more to the evolution of the discipline than simply new methods of working. There has also been a fundamental shift in the purpose of project management and that's far more significant. When I started working as a project manager the holy grail was to deliver a project on time, on scope and on budget - the so-called triple constraint. Today, there is a recognition that, while the triple constraint may be an effective way of controlling work, it has nothing to do with defining success. Instead, successful projects are the ones that deliver 'on benefit'. That is to say, they allow the organization to gain the business performance improvements that were the reason why they invested in the project in the first place.

To use a simple example, consider a new product development project. Regardless of whether it's delivered using waterfall, Agile or hybrid, the goal is to deliver a solution that customers will respond positively to, generating sales, capturing market share, and improving company revenue and profitability. If all of that happens, no one will care if it was a little bit late, a little bit too expensive, and a little bit light on features. On the other hand, if it delivers all the bells and whistles on the exact day it was supposed to and for the exact budget allocated but the product doesn't sell, well, then it's a failure.

Navigating the Evolution: The Transformative Shifts in Project Management

Organizations are increasingly recognizing that there must be a connection between the work done on the project and the work done to leverage the output of that project - the operational work that occurs downstream of the project. If these two elements are not closely aligned, the likelihood of organizational success is greatly diminished.

There are implications to this. The structure of projects must be more flexible, even in a plan driven approach. With technological advancements are redefining what is possible on a regular basis, with increasing competition in virtually every industry, and with shorter customer satisfaction windows than ever before, it is impossible to accurately forecast what the 'perfect' product output is when planning occurs twelve months or more prior to completion. Instead, project management must embrace greater levels of change, driven not by variances in performance, but by the need to maintain alignment between the work being done and the purpose of that work from a business benefits standpoint.

All of this means that project management must be much more of a business discipline than has historically been the case, focusing more on delivering something that can be leveraged by the business owner or customer to improve performance. The focus must be beyond the work required to generate outputs and more on the work required to deliver something capable of generating outcomes. Project managers, and their teams, are becoming owners of business success, engaged in ensuring there work is helping the business succeed.

At the same time, the work of project management on a day to day basis is changing. Modern project management software is much more powerful than ever before. It automates much of the work of tracking and reporting that formed much of a project manager's working day in the past, lightening the administrative load and freeing project managers to focus on their teams. This, in turn, is resulting in a project management role that is much more focused on individual and team leadership, and much less on work management. Project managers succeed by creating an environment where their teams can work effectively and efficiently, and by providing those teams with the information and context required to deliver solutions that are best able to enable business results.

This is a far cry from the days of managing defined work plans against a fixed schedule and budget, and personally, It has made project management a much more valuable and rewarding discipline. It has also changed the type of person who can excel in project management. Today's project managers must have strong business acumen, be exceptional leaders, and be comfortable with uncertainty and change. They must trust in their abilities to deliver, confident in the relationships they have developed with all stakeholders, and willing to be accountable for key decisions made in less than ideal circumstances. They are much more focused outward from the project toward the stakeholder community than was the case previously.

This evolution continues. Just as project management today is very different than it was even five years ago, so it will be different again five years from now. Technological advancement continues and is driving significant change - emerging and disruptive technologies from artificial intelligence to green energy will impact virtually every industry and will force organizations to further shift project delivery to maintain the best possible alignment between the work done and the purpose behind that work. Business transformation will become a continuous process and that in turn will make effective project execution even more critical to organizational success. This will result in projects that are shorter, minimizing the delay between the identification of an opportunity and the delivery of a solution. It will also result in even more reliance on project managers to deliver outputs aligned with outcomes - the shorter timelines and faster pace will leave little room for mistakes.

There has never been a better time to be a project manager. The discipline is more important to organizations than it has ever been before with project managers truly making a difference for their employers. At the same time, it's a discipline that is evolving much more rapidly than many other professions and will continue to do so. If you want a rewarding challenge, continuous variety, and a chance to make a real difference then project management may well be the right career choice.

yad senapathy
Yad Senapathy, PMP

Yad is not just the leader of the Project Management Training Institute (PMTI). He helped to write significant portions of the project management standards worldwide. He is helping PMI right now in reviewing, directing, and leading the development of the 7th edition of the PMBOK Guide to incorporate the most monumental changes to project management standards in 35 years. He shares his wisdom with readers via the PMTI blog.

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