Project Management Institute

Ahead of the curve


by Tom Sullivan & Cyndee Miller :::: illustration by Ian Whadcock


Our entire profession has been spun on its head. That demands new tools.

—Dave Prior, PMP, Valtech, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA

The cataclysmic economic events of last year slammed into every organization out there—yet most of the greatest minds in business never saw it coming.

You just never know.

But that doesn't mean project managers can afford to keep toiling away in their bubbles, never bothering to think about what's down the road—especially these days.

The slump will undoubtedly spark seismic shifts in the way organizations are run. And that seems to be setting off a call for changes in project management itself.

Look no further than the basic project management toolkit, says Dave Prior, PMP, senior consultant at Valtech, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. Nothing new has been added since the emergence of critical chain management—before Google, the iPod and The Agile Manifesto.

“Our entire profession has been spun on its head,” he says. “That demands new tools.”

In 2010 and the years to follow, globalization, technology, sustainability and a multitude of factors we can't even fathom yet will continue to transform the project management landscape.

“The core values of project management are timeless and don't change. But what does change is the external factors that we deal with,” says Elaine Bannon, chief engineer, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Michigan, USA and contributor to Project Management Circa 2025 [Project Management Institute, 2009]. “In project management, one of our jobs is to really look ahead and anticipate what those key external factors are going to be, and then manage—and project manage—around them.”

Those who will emerge victorious will have cultivated a deeper understanding of the complexities of an interconnected world—and the skills to deal with them.

No one can truly predict what will transpire tomorrow, let alone in the decades to follow, but one thing seems certain: Project management as a discipline will need to evolve and adapt at a hitherto unseen pace.


Before any evolution or revolution can begin, the first issue at hand will be dealing with the lingering effects of the economic downturn and preparing for the uptick—if there truly is one. Different sectors will rely on different approaches, and some will be slower to recover than others.

The recession will have a lasting legacy for the U.S. construction industry, for example, which had practically ground to a halt, says Kermit Baker, chief economist at The American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C., USA.

“The way it's lining up now, it looks like this will be a fairly modest recovery,” he says. “We can expect that there will continue to be a lot of pressure on costs for possibly the next three to four years. There will still be a lot more focus on things like value engineering and how you manage costs more effectively in an environment with limited project options.”

There is some hope glimmering on the horizon as governments around the world pour yen, dollars, euros, pesos and yuan into big-budget construction projects aimed at improving the infrastructure—and the economy. In the United States alone, the Obama administration claims its US$787 billion federal stimulus program has created about 80,000 jobs in construction as of late October. And it says those numbers will pick up as more complex projects start to launch.

At the same time, government spending sprees inevitably mean more pressure on project management.

“There is massive dissatisfaction with the success of delivery in large infrastructure projects. The need for project management has crept up the political and corporate agenda,” says Harvey Maylor, PhD, director of the International Centre for Programme Management at Cranfield University, Cranfield, England.

He points to several recent reports that indicate a lack of reliability.

“Such widespread problems do highlight the need for change in both the project management approach and also the conditions in which projects are being managed,” he says.

“There is a realization now that organizations cannot just outsource project management,” Dr. Maylor says. “They have to get better at doing it themselves and become intelligent clients.”

TIP In the brave new world, project managers should be using mashups,

“blending things that don't necessarily go together to make something better,” says Dave Prior, PMP, Valtech, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. Taking his cue from pop culture, he cited Danger Mouse's The Gray Album that blended The Beatles and Jay-Z. But he argued that it's not just for hipsters. Mr. Prior, for example, relies on his own mix of The Art of War, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai and A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), with a dash of agile.


The discussion over how project management will have to morph to meet the needs of the future is already emerging—and it isn't necessarily going to be pretty.

“There is a big debate now about whether project management is working or not,” says Naomi Brookes, PhD, a Royal Academy of Engineering and European Construction Institute professor of project management at Loughborough University, Loughborough, England.

One of the hottest areas of debate centers on an increasingly global project landscape.

“There is a real groundswell of demand for insight into cross-cultural project management issues, and the bodies of knowledge do not cater to that,” Dr. Brookes says.

With teams scattered around the world, project managers must learn how to adapt to different perceptions in areas such as time, hierarchy and leadership, she says.

What's “seen as the right thing to do in some cultures is quite reprehensible in others,” Dr. Brookes says. “How project management deals with that will have to be addressed.”


Project managers on the ground “need to stick to their company's core values, yet at the same time understand and deal with the cultural differences, the language differences and everything that comes with the global organization,” says David Pericak, contributor to Project Management Circa 2025 and chief engineer at Ford Motor Co.

For companies with multinational teams, it adds a whole other layer of complexity.

At Ford, “we're now in a situation where we're dealing with the United States, China, Europe, everywhere—coming together to do these projects,” says Ms. Bannon.

That leaves a big, gaping hole in terms of tactical knowledge. And companies will have to contend with combining their processes with long-standing local ones “in the near future, as we truly embrace working globally,” she says.


This is going to be a pivotal decade of transformation, but the changes won't come easy.

—Ian Cavanagh, Ambir Solutions, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

“For those of us who have been involved in global programs, there are times in the morning when you have to get up at 5 a.m. and have a meeting, and then you're there until 8 or 9 p.m.,” Ms. Bannon says.

So what's a global project manager to do?

“Do you have a two-shift project management crew where certain people actually start working later in the workday so you're not burning people out?” she asks. “It's a shrinking work environment. There are fewer people, and now we're asking them to work those kinds of hours—it really isn't going to be sustainable.”

Another option is to have duplicate positions in different countries, which addresses time zone as well as cultural issues.

Clearly, there are risks.

“Our striving to be more efficient by going global can become a detriment to us because if we execute it poorly, you can actually be more inefficient than you were before,” says Mr. Pericak.

Even with all the dangers, globalization will be the “overriding factor” in the next two decades, says Bopaya Bidanda, PhD, co-editor of Project Management Circa 2025.

“The one thing I'm certain of about the future is that the project manager will have to be adept at leading a global team, bringing complex projects to fruition under dynamic conditions and doing so cost-effectively,” says Dr. Bidanda, professor and chair of the engineering department at University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

“Projects are going to become increasingly complex, the conditions are going to be more dynamic, and the world is going to become more flat,” he says. “And I think corporate leaders in the next 20 years will be the ones who can manage global projects and ones that can manage seamlessly, and equally effectively, whether they are in San Francisco or Shanghai.”

Although it has been a hot topic for years, project managers will continue to grapple with cross-cultural communications, says Ian Cavanagh, CEO at the Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada office of Ambir Solutions, an IT services company.

“Globalization has challenged us, particularly in the IT sector, and we've seen mixed results in projects where global collaboration was undertaken,” he says. “The greatest opportunity for improving outcomes with global teams will lie in understanding the complexity of the issues facing us and particularly how we handle the ‘three Cs'—communication, context and culture.”


The outsourcing boom of recent decades has also created shifts in the roster of global power players. As some Asian corporations have transformed into cash-rich stalwarts, they're now in a better position to rival former sponsors on equal footing. And in traditionally lower-cost countries, Western influences and rising standards of living are having a growing impact on project management.

“This is going to be a pivotal decade of transformation, but the changes won't come easy,” Mr. Cavanagh says. “Every corner of the world can compete in IT today, and those businesses that don't consider their options for outsourcing will be challenged to compete. In the global offshoring sector, India is still dominant, China is emerging fast, and Eastern European and other Asian countries are now growing in importance.”

Those competitive pressures are a major driver of change in project management.

“We can expect India and China to do something similar to what the Japanese companies like Toyota did, working with quality standards in the 1970s and 1980s—adapting Western ideas and working out how to produce things more effectively,” says Patrick Weaver, PMI-SP, PMP, managing director at Mosaic Project Services pty Ltd., Melbourne, Australia.

“You have lower cost bases, highly educated workforces and radically different business cultures than the West,” he says. “The Chinese and Indians will most likely take project management concepts and apply them to their businesses in remarkably different ways based on concepts of harmony and collaboration rather than control and competition. If the rest of the world doesn't improve its game, the competitive imbalance will grow even bigger and the advantage will quickly shift from West to East.”

India's construction industry is already morphing, with a “significant increase in attention now on implementing safety regulations, environmental management and planning, and risk processes,” says Russell Waugh, head of oil and gas at Leighton International, a project development and contracting company in Mumbai, India.

Returning expatriate Indians are playing an important role in those changes, leading a shift away from more patriarchal business models, and potentially pushing up costs in tandem with quality.

“What we're seeing now in India is the beginning of a trend—away from the concept of simply relying on large numbers of relatively cheap and largely untrained labor, and building with lower costs, but at the expense of quality and timeliness—to a more balanced approach, which says time is important and it's worthwhile to spend money on technology, mechanization and training, and pay people more to ensure that they can deliver a quality product on a shorter and more certain schedule,” Mr. Waugh says.

What do you think the future of project management looks like?

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Project management isn't just crossing borders, it's heading into whole new sectors.

“We're seeing a trend where project management is going places that it's never been before, such as investment banking and the leisure industry,” Dr. Brookes says. “They want to introduce changes, and if you want to change, you need to project manage it.”

The downturn is raising the profile of project management in new industries across Central and Eastern Europe, says Piotr Plewiński, PMP, CEO at PM Experts in Warsaw, Poland.

“We have been very surprised by the interest from unexpected quarters such as non-governmental organizations, government bodies and the pharmaceutical industry,” he explains. “Uncertainty about the future economic outlook is going to increase demand for project management services.”


The recession may have prompted companies to slash costs and source projects to cheaper locations, but pressure from regulators and consumers will mean a continuing push to integrate sustainability into project practices, says Joseph Sarkis, PhD.

“The larger multinationals can't afford to neglect environmental sustainability and they are increasingly developing green supply chains,” says Dr. Sarkis, professor of operations and environmental management at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. “This means other companies working for them will have to follow suit.”


Uncertainty about the future economic outlook is going to increase demand for project management services.

—Piotr Plewiński, PMP, CEO, PM Experts, Warsaw, Poland

Not everyone is prepared.

“Some industries, such as marine and forestry, have good auditing and industry standards for green supply chain management,” Dr. Sarkis says. “Others, such as the electronics industry, are under pressure to produce better standards and auditing policies.”

With regulations on the rise, project managers must apply due diligence every step of the way.

“Project leaders working with global suppliers need to understand very well the markets they are working with and include regulatory experts on their team,” Dr. Sarkis says. “It can be very costly—as we saw last year in China with the food scandals—to source from the wrong suppliers.”

Along with a higher price tag, the push to greater sustainability translates to greater responsibility for project managers.

“Sustainability efforts and sustainable manufacturing will make the role of the project manager more critical, and it will also make the project more complex because it takes a great deal of effort to design a product, process or project that leaves the environment with no signature or stamp,” says Dr. Bidanda.


True change takes more than sweeping statements and predictions—it also requires a healthy dose of action. A push for that kind of change is starting to percolate within the project management community.

In the very near future, project managers will need to develop a more sophisticated skill set instead of relying on the same old tools and techniques.

“It might sound provocative, but project control tools do not control anything,” says Mr. Weaver. “They are like old maritime charts—a rough approximation that you know is wrong, but not how wrong. We need to train people much better on how they can use tools like a schedule to positively influence project outcomes.”

The project management profession will need to place more emphasis on training practitioners in practical skills and helping them “gain in intelligence and proficiency,” Dr. Maylor adds.

“Practitioners need to move from just delivering products to delivering value. Project managers often have to deal with high levels of complexity—social, political and technical. This complexity is not covered by the current project management methods,” he says. “We have this assumption that ‘everything can be a project,' but you need something very different for a three-week project than one that lasts 30 years. We need to introduce guidance and wisdom based on evidence of what works and what doesn't.”

And that needs to start happening soon.

“The definition of project management and its value will change most likely in the way that project managers own what they do,” says Mr. Pericak. “It's all about ownership, and as we look forward and understand how diverse and complex things are getting, we need more ownership by the people who are running the project. Also, as we look at the reduced work force, we're going to have people be more systemic thinkers and really own what they do throughout all the stages of a project.”

As the global economy changes, project management will no doubt have to change. The only question is how. Or as author Kurt Andersen so eloquently writes in his book Reset [Random House, 2009]: “This is the end of the world as we've known it. But it isn't the end of the world.” PM

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