What will project teams look like in 2020?

Joanna Newman and Nigel Williams, PhD

Fracturing job markets and the end of “jobs for life” mean that project, program, and portfolio managers have an unprecedented opportunity to control their own career path as they please.

Perhaps they become a project/program/portfolio manager for hire, looking for the most technically challenging roles. This could be running a series of projects independently for multiple simultaneous companies, also known as a portfolio career. A portfolio career can encompass a variety of projects within the same company, industry, or in a basket of related industries. Project/program/portfolio managers can also follow a more traditional career path of gradually gaining wider responsibility.

In this paper, we describe four future scenarios of how project managers and their project teams engage with one another, and explain the research process we developed that combines observational social media analysis, secondary, and primary data from key respondents

These opportunities are open for all project team members, which presents a new series of challenges:

  • How to quickly build functioning virtual teams that may only exist for short periods
  • How to create effective executive sponsor engagement quickly and effectively
  • How to get the attention of subject matter experts (SMEs) who may be distracted by other “more interesting” projects
  • How to motivate team members that have different commitments to the project


Scenarios can be defined as possible views of the world, described in narrative form. Schwarz (1991) defined them as a tool for aligning companywide perceptions about alternative future environments. Porter (2008) took a similar approach and defined them as an internal (organizational) consensus about the future business environment. In contrast, Schoemaker (1995) envisioned scenarios as a disciplined methodology for imagining possible futures. This view is also held by Ringland and Schwartz (1998), who defined scenario planning as a component of strategic planning to help manage future uncertainties.

This suggests that scenarios can be viewed as both a consensus-building approach, as well as a tool to explore possible future business environmental conditions. These scenarios can also take different forms (Henchey, 1977). Possible futures are scenarios that may materialize, but are unlikely. Plausible futures are more likely as they attempt to project current trends into the future. Probably futures are a synthesis of current long-term thinking on a given topic or issue.

They can be used to guide organizations as they provide a context in which managers can make decisions. A common misconception is that scenarios can predict the future, resulting in disappointment when the envisioned event does not occur. While they do not provide a definitive guide to the future, understanding them can only help managers to respond to the outcomes of current trends.

The idea of scenario planning has a long history of private and public sector development (Amer, Daim, & Jetter, 2013). The Rand Corporation pioneered an early version of scenario planning for their client, the U.S. Military in the form of Future-Now thinking. This approach attempted to generate imaginative reports that envision the future based on detailed technical analyzes done in the present. The term “scenario” was adopted from then then Hollywood term for screenplay. Later in the 1960's the Stanford Research institute applied a similar approach for private sector clients such as Shell, IBM, and General Motors (Voros, 2001). In the 1970s, organizations began generating and deploying their own scenarios for internal planning. Shell, notably, used scenarios to prepare responses to oil price fluctuations that occurred in 1973 and 1976. While the use of the technique declined in the 1980s, there has been a recent re-emergence in the use of the technique (Kok et al., 2014).

As complex, uncertain endeavours, scenarios have been employed in project management. However, their usage has been mostly tactical. They have generally been used as a tool for identifying incidents that may influence project and program schedules (Pollack-Johnson & Liberatore, 2005). In a related role, they may form part of Risk Management processes to model the nature and scale of future uncertainties (Chapman & Ward, 1996). Since scenarios have not been used in this role before in project management; given the current, dynamic external environment, there is an opportunity to apply this technique to helping project managers prepare for the future.

How Do Scenarios Work?

Scenario planning focuses on trends and forces in the external business environment, oriented toward those that may affect a given organization. Practitioners have applied an Event-Pattern-Structure approach to organize information (Van der Merwe, 2008). Events can be defined as major business occurrences, such as major government policy changes. Patterns attempt to put the event in context as repeated or related occurrences can suggest a trend. Finally, these trends may be driven by larger underlying forces that have future implications.


Exhibit 1: Event-pattern-structure framework.

How are Scenarios Created?

Scenarios are usually generated in workshops or meetings with relevant industry stakeholders (Lehtola, 2007). Facilitated discussions are initiated on the trends that may affect the industry. The group or groups can continue discussions until a number of uncertainties are identified. These uncertainties are compared and combined to build possible scenarios.


Exhibit 2: Scenario planning processes.

For this research, since we sought to produce scenarios that represented a broad range of project managers, a modified four-step process was followed. First, social media was used to understand the current discourse of project managers. This data was then analyzed to identify underlying uncertainties. Scenarios were then developed from these uncertainties that were then elaborated as complete narratives.

Social Media Scan

While scenario planning generally draws on the perspectives of a small number of participants, we sought to establish an open, repeatable process that may provide useful insights to project managers. Social media provided an ideal opportunity for such a process as it enables the observation of narratives about project management in a form that can be archived and analyzed (Ngai, Tao, & Moon, 2015). We first examined the overall landscape of social media and Twitter was identified as most active PM Platform. Twitter acts as the host of an open Community of Interest in PM as online social relationships (friends/follower) are not required to view postings(Kwak, Lee, Park, & Moon, 2010). It is the setting for a number of open tweet chats about particular topics, for example #Pmchat. It also acts as a platform for sharing content links to other social media platforms such as Linkedin, Facebook. Using the site Sifter.com which has access to the complete “firehose” of all tweets, Project management related topics generate over 30,000 tweets per month usually under the hashtags of #agile, #pmot, #pm, #pmo. We archived the tweets under the most popular hashtags, #agile and #pmot over a period of 3 months. We then isolated conversations or information exchanges in the form of retweets and replies as they represent content that was considered important enough to be promoted to other users. The online Platform, DiscoverText, was used to perform an automated text analysis (text mining) of these interactions to identify key words and topics.

Overall, we found that the topic of agile dominates project management social media conversations with the following areas discussed on Twitter:

  • Techniques: content and opinions related to agile project management planning and delivery techniques
  • Outcomes: content and opinions on the benefits/challenges of adopting agile in an organization
  • Talent: content and opinions on developing agile project managers
  • Entrepreneurship: content and opinions on adopting an agile mindset to start new organizations

Exhibit 3: Agile areas of interest on social media.

As agile is predominantly used by IT and related industries, we sought to compare trends from this area with the overall IT industry. Within this domain, the issue of information security has attracted significant professional and media interest.

Big data has been defined as datasets that have three characteristics: volume, variety and velocity (McAfee & Brynjolfsson, 2012). Overall, there is an exponential increase in the amount of data generated by organizations. It was estimated in a 2012 study that 2.5 exabytes of data was created daily, an amount that will double every 3 years (Sagiroglu & Sinanc, 2013). This volume of data creates issues of storage and managing access to stored information. A related challenge is that the data is not homogenous, but heterogeneous, consisting of a high variety of types. This poses another challenge, as it is difficult to interpret the mix of numerical, text, and video data generated by organizations, institutions, and individuals. Finally, an increasing amount of this data is generated in real time by sensors, websites, and mobile devices, causing the challenge of velocity. These “big data” databases have a scale and complexity that are generating significant challenges for organizations, as they are difficult to secure. High profile leaks of government, organizational, and personal data have made information security an issue that may influence future project management activity.

Scenario Development

The next step was to develop scenarios based on the overall forces of agile and information security. To provide some context for the agile and information security forces, we interviewed professionals in each industry to get a deep qualitative understanding of the drivers, barriers, and uncertainties of each issue.

From our discussion with agile professionals, the following issues were revealed:

The respondents identified differences between agile driven versus agile influenced companies. The former were located in fast moving, data driven industries such as IT, and the latter in regulated industries such as infrastructure. Driven organizations embraced the ethos and approach of agile, incorporating the concept as a lens that shapes overall strategy. In contrast, influenced organizations adopted specific techniques such as scrum or Kanban as a tool to solve specific project management problems.

Organizations also adopted differing approaches to embedding agile in the organization. Enterprises may use a top-down, senior management directive to quickly adopt agile, while others followed a bottom-up organic approach. For the first type, commitment was made by senior professionals and implemented using external resources such as consultants; while in the second, there is a slower, internal, employee-guided learning process that precedes organization wide commitment.

A concern by agile influenced organizations following the latter approach is the perceived loss of management control. For agile influenced organizations, this is a particular issue as they are embedded in a network of relationships that require them to provide defined responses to stakeholders like regulators, customers, and suppliers. However, the perceived governance uncertainty of agile projects and programs makes it difficult to provide such responses. This limits the degree to which they will embed agile in the enterprise, limiting it to a competitive tactic rather than an approach for organizational transformation. The information from both the social media scan and the interview responses were expressed using the Events, Forces and Trends framework below:


Exhibit 4: Agile uncertainties.

A discussion with information security professionals also revealed underlying drivers and forces.

Respondents indicated an increased awareness of information security issues by senior management, with some organizations positioning it as a strategic competency. In addition to the sheer scale and complexity of data that is currently being accumulated, the proliferation of mobile devices creates new challenges for organizations. While earlier repositories of organizational data were accessed by company-owned and managed devices, employees and customers now expect to use their own devices. This trend of Bring Your Own Device has exponentially increased the number of points by which organizational data can be lost or stolen, resulting in increased challenges for information security professionals.

Within large organizations, this challenge is exacerbated by intercultural differences within organizations. Aspects of the organization, such as finance, may follow a risk-averse path of centralized device management while others, such as marketing, may seek increased access to data by customers. This is an additional issue for information security professionals as regulations need to be created that meet organizational requirements while enabling departments to respond to sector-specific challenges. Finally, emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things have the potential to generate streaming data at a scale that dwarfs existing sources. Information security organizational regulations will have to be radically reconfigured in the near future to meet these challenges.

We summarize these information security uncertainties below:


Exhibit 5: Information security uncertainties.

After performing our initial analysis, we sought to rank them by degree of uncertainty and impact. Overall, the areas that were determined to have the highest uncertainty and impact are:

  • Agile path of adoption
  • Information security regulatory control

Scenario Elaboration

Combining these forces, we were able to generate four possible scenarios for project management as presented below.


Exhibit 6: Scenarios.

Project Management Everywhere

Project managers act as integrators and translators who deliver complex, uncertain initiatives by adopting new ways of working co-opted from different industries.

In this scenario, agile approaches are applied across the organization, and are an accepted way of working for operational activities across all functional silos. Agile will likely have evolved to encompass elements of Scrum and Kanban (also known as “Scrum-ban”), Continuous Improvement including elements of Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), and other elements of lean methodologies.

Companies adopting this agile approach will have a full working set of principles, tools, and techniques for all elements of their business. Business as usual (BAU) projects, once ignored by project management methodologies as they were “operational,” will be run as projects, perhaps using continuous improvement tools and techniques. In the project management everywhere scenario, projects run for every initiative in the business, regardless of whether they are traditional projects (as per A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition or these BAU improvements. As such, the demand for project managers grows exponentially, and their required knowledge base expands. Project management capability will be seen as a signifier of a high-performing organization and can in itself be used as a sustainable competitive advantage.

The 2015 PMI Talent Triangle identifies three key areas that employers need project practitioners to support for their long-range strategic objectives that contribute to the bottom line. It is a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise (Exhibit 7).


Exhibit 7: PMI talent triangle.

Similar growth opportunities exist for program managers and portfolio managers at the requisite level of industry knowledge.

The challenges in the Project Management Everywhere scenario are the sheer scale of opportunities project, program and portfolio managers (PPPMs) will face. They will need to architect their career paths and continually invest in their future to stay ahead of the curve. Luckily, PMI will be there to help them learn the skills required and the PathPro (https://pathpro.pmi.org/) tool.

A secondary concern is to ensure that the governance of these agile projects is designed to cater to the range of project within an organization and that it is not too light or too heavy. The information ecurity policies of the organization support the project and the project governance requirements and are not inflexible to the changing needs of projects. Internal and external stakeholders support projects in line with the governance expected of the project.

Project Management Silo

Embedded in departments, PPPMs struggle to cope with the increasing complexity of the environment.

In the Project Management Silo scenario, project management maturity is not hindered and projects run to deliver the organizational strategy. However, information security acts as a control mechanism to raise barriers at each stage of project development and can actively impede knowledge sharing across the organization.

Agile approaches are understood as a way of delivering projects faster to market, but are not adopted outside of their traditional software development vertical, as concerns over regulatory compliance are not met sufficiently.

PPPMs operate in a highly constrained fashion, and have little need of wider contextual learning, other than enhancing their knowledge relating to developments in their particular industry. Project teams function as a group of individuals focussed around a common goal, with little buy-in from component Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who join and leave the project as it dictates.

The challenge with this scenario is that a high-performing culture is dependent on the people involved, and cannot be created using standard techniques.

Mobile Project Managers

Working on a number of short-term contracts, PPPMs move between organizations.

The Mobile Project Manager scenario is the most interesting for project managers as they move to portfolio careers, acting as subject matter experts (SMEs) within their industry knowledge and experience. Projects are fully agile and can be traditional projects or business as usual (BAU) operational improvements.

PPPMs manage projects exclusively and simultaneously, and are in demand as they pick and choose assignments that interest them. They act as activity “merchants” carrying innovations from one company to another and are hired on their expertise and experience in line with other SMEs.

The challenge for PPPMs in this scenario is that they will likely be in competition with other global contenders for substantial and prestigious roles and, therefore, will need to be thought leaders at the top of their profession.

A more practical concern is the need to rapidly coalesce project teams into a functioning whole. Project members are unlikely to be co-located and will probably be participating in a virtual capacity. In this context, project managers will need to be able to build trust between team members, who are perhaps spread across multiple countries, quickly and effectively.

Tools they can use to accomplish this include:

  • Arranging an in-person project kickoff and team bonding activity
  • Actively encouraging additional communication between team members using online collaborative tools
  • Creating an environment where team members can resolve language definition roles definitively, perhaps creating their own glossary of project terminology

Stakeholders (executive and otherwise) could also be operating in a mobile capacity with many engagements across or within organizations. Therefore PPPMs must learn effective techniques to understand stakeholder types and common communication requirements.

The challenge in this scenario is in the information security domain. They will need to authenticate access from many different team members with heavily restricted access to corporate information that is strictly time-limited, while supporting all project deliverables.

Frustrated Project Managers

Embedded in organizations, project managers struggle to cope with the increasing complexity of the environment.

Perhaps the least appealing of the scenarios, PPPMs are actively hindered by regulation, both externally-driven (delivered by the information security domain), and internally-driven as organizations like the appeal of agile, but are not fully comfortable with it. The lack of portfolio career options means that project managers are, in essence, embedded in the organization, sharing heavily censored industry knowledge when possible. SMEs are not part of project teams, and deliver work packages as dictated, although forces outside of the project's control can adjust this without due consideration. Stakeholders are available to the project as required, though may have other agendas regarding project success.


Scenarios are not meant to be predictive, but are useful tools for encouraging organizations to prepare for the future. The ones presented here are not exhaustive or representative of all possible futures and, of course, alternative scenarios can be generated using the same forces described here. Further, the future will not evolve in a deterministic manner and may contain components of each of these scenarios. For project managers, the scenarios described here may form a part of designing personal and professional strategies. Specifically, project managers need to monitor the underlying drivers and uncertainties described in this paper.

A useful starting point will be the emerging set of national and international regulations around privacy and information security. They will form the framework within which all organizations will need to operate. If they are crafted in the form of barriers, then the Frustrated Project Manager/Silo Project Management scenarios may be worth revisiting or examining in detail. If they are crafted as enablers, other scenarios may be applicable.

For agile, lessons may be learned from earlier adoption of formal project management. Professional certifications have already emerged which may grow in the future, building a community with a common language and expectations. National standards may be developed for agile or the ideas can be incorporated into existing standards for project management. As agile continues to develop, more organizations may adopt components or frameworks from this approach, resulting in a further proliferation. Project managers would do well to monitor metrics relating to this growth rate that may suggest either agile's emergence as a universal project management approach, or as relegated to a niche within particular industries. In addition to numerical metrics, social media can provide rich qualitative insights about agile and information security issues. Project managers can begin monitoring online groups and joining weekly discussions, such as #pmchat on Twitter that can provide early notification of industry developments.


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© 2015, Joanna Newman and Nigel Williams, PhD
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



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