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The 4 Big Issues In Project Management Today

large__6955642395Every so often project management goes through a phase where certain big issues pop out and you see them discussed everywhere. A while back it was project management offices. In the past I’ve noticed ongoing debates about benefits, ethics, processes, stakeholder management and so on. They are the sort of topics that crop up in magazines, at conferences and around the water cooler at the office.

Today, the debate seems to be split. There isn’t one big topic – we are at a point in time where we are facing multiple issues and they all seem to be happening together. Let me explain what I think the 4 big issues are in project management today. Then you can decide if you agree, or if there are more to add to the list.

Issue #1: Leadership

Actually, if I had to put my finger on the one single issue facing project management today I would say it is leadership. That’s why I have put it at the top of the list.

Project management, I think you’ll agree, is traditionally about following best practices, methods, adhering to standards and adapting them where necessary and using processes to move an idea from the concept stage through to delivery and implementation. There are lots of steps and things to consider along the way, but project management is concerned with, well, managing a project.

Leadership is more than that. It’s said that if management is concerned with doing things right, then leadership is concerned with doing the right things. Leaders typically have a bigger picture view. They look at things holistically and there’s a different focus on teamwork, communication and motivation. While the project manager does all these things the leader approaches them from another angle, that of setting tasks into context.

I am noticing a shift towards project managers stepping up and becoming project leaders. Even if they don’t get that title, and they still work under a project sponsor, there is more focus on setting goals, helping teams understand the business case, seeing the benefits and putting the project into the organisational context. This has partly come about because we no longer have spare capital to invest in projects that might not deliver anything or that aren’t tightly aligned with business needs and strategic goals.

Project leadership is also in response to the growing professionalism we see in every area. People don’t want to be micromanaged. Command and control structures don’t work. We need different ways to work effectively with university leavers who have different expectations of the workplace than the generation before.

Leadership helps tie all those strands together. Project managers who can’t operate in a leadership capacity when they have to are going to struggle in the new economy.

Issue #2: Risk

Risk management won’t be a new concept to any experienced project manager but there’s a definite focus on risk at the moment, largely as a response to a difficult economy. Companies are risk averse in many areas because precious investment needs to be spent on things guaranteed to give the best results. But on the other hand, more companies are taking greater risks to be first to market or to pilot new technologies that might give them a competitive advantage. There is a risk to innovation, but it is one that many businesses are prepared to take. Risk, after all, can bring significant reward.

Basic risk management models have traditionally been very static (assessing impact and likelihood on a simple chart) but over the last few years we have seen a move towards more mature methods of assessing risk. In fact I’d say that these have always been around but mainly in use on the largest of projects. Today, improvements in technology and lower costs mean that everyone can take advantage of risk management simulations or risk profiling tools.

There is also greater understanding that risk is not a one-off event. You have to constantly manage risk, and the human elements of it are also more understood. This ties in neatly with stakeholder management (or engagement, as we are seeing it referred to more and more): people are the critical element at play when it comes to measuring and managing risk. What someone thinks is a low risk project will seem unfeasibly dangerous to someone else.

Risk is one area of project management that will continue to evolve as we get better and better at spotting potential problems. That, of course, relies on detailed lessons learned and the willingness to actually learn from the risks we encounter. That is a completely different topic!

Issue #3: Value

I am noticing a shift away from benefits towards value – what’s the difference? I hear you ask. Benefits are tangible things that are delivered as a result of a project: faster call handling times, increased sales and so on. Value is more about the customer proposition: being easy to work with, feeling good about the brand, delivering something that works and that people appreciate. In short, it’s about customer-centricity (I wrote a whole book about it – you can look it up if you want to find out more).

Of course, benefits and value go hand in hand. But value is a more difficult thing to define as it relates to how people feel about the end product. You might have delivered something that doesn’t meet all the customer’s needs but they still value it.

You can make people feel valued during the whole project process by working closely with them. For me, value concerns the stakeholder relationship far more than benefits do. Benefits, I feel, are documented in a business case and delivered at the end. There isn’t that ongoing stakeholder relationship throughout the project that is required if you want to deliver something of value.

This is a debate I believe that could run and run, so let us know what you think!

Issue #4: Talent Management

Talent management isn’t at the bottom of the list because it is the least important of these four. In fact, it’s probably up there just under leadership, if you asked me to rank them. PMI have released figures that show there is a talent shortage and that there will be more project management jobs than people able to fill them in the years to come. I’m sure that’s true: we are moving towards a more projectised economy with knowledge workers doing unrepetitive tasks. There’s also a shift towards businesses running everything as projects and programmes, and a great focus on portfolio management for managing the operations and projects within a company. This is all really good stuff, but it takes people to do those jobs, and the people, the research would have you believe, simply aren’t there.

There is part of me that thinks this is convenient rhetoric. How many of those jobs will need a project manager? And how easy is it really to predict the future? It’s got to be virtually impossible to say now how many people will be working in project management come 2020 with any degree of certainty, surely?

There is also an argument to say that people in project management jobs aren’t necessarily trained and experienced project managers. I work with people who manage projects who don’t have the title of project managers. And with operational people who lead projects in their own areas who also don’t have the title of project manager. They ‘do’ projects because it is part of their role, and some of them even use project management techniques. But they aren’t credentialed and they don’t necessarily see themselves as project managers.

If we include these people in the statistics then it isn’t surprising that there will be so many people managing projects in the future. We all do, all the time, in and out of work. That’s like saying (rather facetiously) that if you don’t work on a production line doing a repetitive job, then you are a project manager.

However, if we want projects to be successful, whoever runs them, we have to make sure that those accidental and part-time project managers have the support and training they need. They should be able to turn to full-time, experienced project managers in their business for advice when they need it. They should have the same access to training, best practices and methodologies as everyone who has ‘project manager’ as their job title. If we want to address the talent gap, we’ve got to get more inclusive about defining people as project managers and helping them do their jobs to the best of their ability. After all, if we’re going to be short of ‘professional’ project managers we are desperately going to need these other project managers to be able to step up and take the slack.

As you can see, there are a lot of things here that could be debated for many hours, and I very much hope that they are. It’s important to talk about the issues and challenges facing project management today. If we don’t, we are hiding the problems and we won’t be able to take the discipline further. That’s not to say that these big issues have easy answers. In fact, it will be interesting to see how these discussions evolve over the next, say, 12 months. This time next year we might be facing completely different talking points. We’ll have to wait and see.

photo credit: Green Alliance

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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