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Economies Run on Projects

Project management has never been so important.

Written by Philip Baker
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As the volume and complexity of projects continue to increase globally, project managers have become essential across organizational and functional boundaries, requiring individuals with the ability to inspire and energize teams for higher productivity and more innovative solutions.

At the dawn of the discipline of project management, carefully planned projects would initiate a series of cascading steps that would lead with dependable consistency to the successful completion of projects, the predictable productivity of companies, and the reliable growth of the economy overall.

Twentieth-century productivity gurus like Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor revolutionized organizational efficiency with their focus on standardization and annual planning cycles, driving industrial growth and tremendous value along the way.

But much of that seems to have changed in the twenty-first century. Productivity growth in Western economies has stayed relatively flat, despite the impact of powerful new technologies and the arrival of the internet. And while efficiency is still the name of the game, project managers now contend with a host of complicating factors outside their control, like complex international value chains and ever-shifting market demands.

If the birth of project management took place at a time of steady progress and a clear vision of the future, where success could clearly be measured by deliverables and deadlines met, today’s project management confronts a brave new world. Tasked with meeting the demands of an increasingly uncertain future, the discipline now focuses on continuously transforming the business while using an intricate blend of science and art to drive new technology adoption and faster product development.

Embracing a Project-Driven Future

Thus, the need for projects—and project managers—has never been greater. The Project Management Institute (PMI) sees the value of project-based activity growing from $12 trillion in 2017 to $20 trillion in 2027, while employing 88 million people in project management roles worldwide. McKinsey estimates that $130 trillion will be spent in the coming decades on projects to combat climate change alone.

Despite this growth, however, the discipline of project management remains undervalued by leaders, a fact that has kept the recent success rate of projects at alarmingly low levels. The Standish Group’s CHAOS report revealed that only 35 percent of projects are successful[EP1], while a survey of senior project managers concluded that projects overrun their budgets and schedules by 30 to 45 percent on average. Meanwhile, PMI research has shown that poor project performance leads to an 11 percent waste in investment.

While the ramifications of these shortcomings are difficult to overstate—not just in financial terms but also in missed opportunities and societal impacts—these challenges underscore a burgeoning opportunity for the field of project management. The success of today’s companies and economies depends not only on new technologies but also on the new approaches to managing the projects that implement these technologies—and the trained project managers equipped to see these projects through.

11 %

PMI research has shown that poor project performance leads to an 11 percent waste in investment.

Balancing Flexibility and Structure

In contrast to last century’s linear conception, contemporary project management, according to former PMI global Chairman Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders, where unexpected challenges can send teams spiraling backward even as innovative solutions propel projects forward unexpectedly. Often shorter and frequently subject to revision, today’s projects cross organizational and functional boundaries, increasing the difficulty of coordination while further straining traditional approaches.

That’s why organizations are using hybrid project management approaches that combine aspects of traditional waterfall methodologies with agile practices. This allows project managers to customize their approaches as they focus on the unique project needs and specific organizational environments. PMI’s latest research confirms the growing adoption of hybrid frameworks, with a 58 percent increase over the last three years, from 20 percent in 2020 to 32 percent in 2023.

Critical to an agile approach is its focus on continuous improvement and iterative progress through short cycles called sprints. Rather than top-down project plans, an agile approach prioritizes close collaboration and direct communication across teams and stakeholders as a way to stay responsive to feedback, evolving requirements, and unanticipated challenges.

Hybrid approaches allow organizations to be organizationally ambidextrous, says Nieto-Rodriguez, in that they can employ a phased traditional approach for well-defined components and an iterative agile approach for uncertain ones. In this way, today’s organizations are able to revamp legacy systems while simultaneously bringing innovative services to market.

58 %

PMI’s latest research confirms the growing adoption of hybrid frameworks, with a 58 percent increase over the last three years.

Soft Skills Take Center Stage

As today’s project managers explore the possibilities of the hybrid approach, several key trends are radically shifting the landscape of project management. Most notable perhaps is the enormous amount of data that complex projects currently process. Interpreting that data has transformed the way projects are managed and sped up the adoption of digital technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain.

Recent Gartner research revealed that the latest technological advancements, particularly in the field of generative AI, are automating many traditional project manager tasks, such as resource utilization tracking and business case creation.

Despite the increasing use of AI automation, however, Gartner expects the project manager role to be one of the fastest-growing positions within project management offices (PMOs) in the upcoming years. Given the scale of technological change taking place, Gartner also expects a full two-thirds of what project managers do today to be revamped by 2026.

All this points to the most significant trend in project management today, which is the growing recognition of the importance of soft skills. As the Gartner report authors note, the lesson is that “while AI offers promising benefits for project management, machines will never be able to replicate the uniquely human aspects of the job, such as relationship building and stakeholder management.”

As projects become more technologically complex and cross-functional, project managers need strong leadership, communication, and problem-solving abilities to build trust and foster collaboration as they navigate the challenges of managing diverse teams. This means enabling transparency to improve the flow of information—from updates about the latest project disruptions to important insights—across traditionally siloed and fragmented work landscapes.

This also highlights the important role project managers have when it comes to motivation. Projects often provide team members with a sense of purpose and accomplishment, particularly when completed successfully. Skilled project managers have the ability to inspire and energize teams, leading to higher productivity and more innovative solutions.

Strengthening the Project Management Workforce

With the demand for project managers already high, recent PMI research has shown that organizations—aware of a potential global talent crisis—are investing in next-generation capabilities building to ensure that they meet their project goals. As discussed above, many of these skills emphasize the uniquely human aspects of project management. While project managers will still be creating business cases and working with the latest technologies, increasingly center stage will be their skilled decision-making—across people, data, and technology—and ability to have a cross-organizational impact through coaching and team building.

“Work and strategy are intertwined because it takes good work to design a good strategy,” says Joe D’Mello, president of management consulting and training firm Exequity Inc. and a PMI Authorized Training Partner. “Working right makes organizations successful. How does an organization work right? What is the nature of work? Work is the lifeblood of an organization and a fundamental determinant of organizational success. Roughly speaking, work is either of a routine nature or non-routine nature, with project work tending to fall in the non-routine category.”

Routine work can often be repetitive and includes tasks like reading email, weekly meetings, and other administrative tasks with a high degree of predictability. Non-routine work is less predictable and can include project-like endeavors such as developing and launching a new product, a merger of two companies, or construction of a new airport. 

“Projects are often major vehicles for change. A project manager should strive to be an instrument of positive change,” says D’Mello, who also is an instructor within the Project Management: Strategy Essentials Certificate at the University of Chicago Professional Education (UCPE).

UCPE’s online project management courses provides students with the essential technical and interpersonal skills they’ll need to master the theory and practice of project management today, and to readily adapt to a future in which project management will be elevated and transformed by Agile approaches and technologies such as AI. In an elite research setting, students get direct experience using the latest tools and techniques as they consolidate their understanding of the strategic and operational aspects of project management. Not just test prep, but rather a full educational experience led by industry experts in a PMI-certified program, this project management certificate can take students to the top of their fields. Take the next step and register to one of our upcoming courses today.

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A Competitive Advantage You Can Take to Work

With a flexible online format, active-in-industry instructors, and short course timelines, our Project Management certificate can get you on the fast track to advancement.

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