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  • Writer's pictureKevin Murphy

Project Management Trends to Watch in 2021

This year will be different. It will be different because we’re tired. It will be different because we’re still a little scared. It will be different because we really don’t know what the future holds now more than ever. And that’s OK.

In years past, we’ve lived and died by our forecasts, predictions and hard-held beliefs about the year to come. But the way the business world reacted and adapted to the pandemic of 2020 has turned all that on its head.

Planning for the future to anticipate the way business sectors will behave in the coming year has value. Still, after enduring the events of 2020 and witnessing the way it threw our precious predictions out the window, we’re left wondering what it all means for project management trends in 2021.

We could argue that trend number one is: there are no trends, but that just wouldn’t be fun. The fact is, last year taught us a lot about project management, what works well, what doesn’t work well and how we can better prepare for the future. But perhaps more than anything, 2020 was a glaring reminder that nothing, even our best-laid plans, is guaranteed.

Last year was hard, but the lessons we learned during the pandemic laid the foundation for great things to come in the world of project management. Here are our predictions of project management trends in 2021.

Trend #1: Change Management is Crucial

Surprise, surprise, the first trend has to do with change. But after last year, how can it not?

You have to anticipate, expect and plan for change. Period. There hasn’t been a single plan in the history of project management executed in the way it was originally intended. This simply doesn’t happen because there are far too many variables at play. Everything from your suppliers to the weather to the political and economic climate can change at any time. And we haven’t even mentioned the impact your team members, volatile human beings who seldom perform as expected (for better or worse), have on your outcomes.

It’s not a matter of if change will happen, but when. According to the International Project Management Association, 63% of organizations include change management in their project planning. Unfortunately, only 30% of those respondents believed their change management to be truly effective.

Trend #2: Complex, Strategy-Driven Projects

In 2021, many businesses are regrouping from a year of turmoil. They are shifting focus, reorganizing and preparing from the top down so they’re ready for the future.

Initiating complex, strategy-driven projects have taken a front seat, replacing smaller efforts to generate new products or improve a single business process. What we’re talking about is complete transformation — changing the organization and its operations at large.

Interestingly, startups and other businesses in the early stages of development are beginning to employ this type of project management more than they have in the past. They observed and learned from the missteps of larger, more experienced businesses in 2020 and they’re not interested in repeating history; they want to learn from it.

In many ways, these types of projects are being done to mitigate the effects of change. Leadership teams desire their organizations to become leaner, more agile, so the next time an unexpected storm hits, they’re ready at every level.

This is easier said than done as projects to overhaul an entire business’ strategy take a sophisticated understanding of the organization’s full range of projects, programs, product offerings and portfolio — a tall order, even for the most experienced project manager. Expect expectations to go up as leadership teams seek total transformation in 2021.

Trend #3: Agile Methods Take Center Stage

Agile development is well-known for its iterative, adaptable process. It breaks projects down into several short development stages, each with its own set of goals and benchmarks. But what really sets this process apart is its ability to change course when needed quickly. In uncertain times like these, Agile development techniques have never been more relevant.

Created for the software sector, Agile development works well because the final product isn’t put in a box. Instead, deliverables are left open-ended, encouraging constant change, customer input and innovation throughout the process. As business practices and climate continue to fluctuate, working with a flexible process is one of the keys to success.

Kanban boards are a part of Agile development that takes adaptability to the next level. They offer a set workflow process and cards to represent each task required to meet a development goal. During 2020, many project managers took their Kanban boards online to distribute workload and track team progress digitally.

Using a Kanban or Scrum board to visualize the work that needs to be done can help teams work more effectively, especially if they’re not working in the same space. Expect to see these and other Agile development tools in 2021 and beyond.

If you feel like your organization isn't ready to go fully Agile yet, or have concerns that Agile isn't appropriate for your particular industry or product, consider a hybrid approach. But as this TopTal article notes, "the project manager must find the right mix of methodologies that is appropriate for the product, team, and people who are going to be using them." Consider where and how you'll need to tailor these methodologies for your particular environment in order to handle potentially conflicting goals.

Trend #4: Flexibility for the Win

We’ve talked a lot about flexibility so far. And if there’s one thing 2020 taught us, it’s that flexibility is perhaps one of the most valuable assets a manager (any manager) can bring to their people and projects.

There will always be variables out of your control with the potential to change at any moment. An earthquake could disrupt production for an important supplier. A new law restricting your products or services could be passed. A competitor could emerge. The stock market could crash. Employees in your manufacturing facility could go on strike. And the list goes on and on.

When these things happen, what separates successful project managers from failures is flexibility. But this isn’t easy. Human beings aren’t designed to take things on the chin, adapt and move forward with a smile on their face and a skip in their step. Flexibility is, for most of us, a learned skill. But 2021 (and beyond) will demand it and those who don’t will be left behind.

Trend #5: Blended Teams

According to the Brookings Institute, nearly half of U.S. workers are doing their jobs from home. Granted, that number will decrease once the pandemic lets up, but it will continue to make up a sizable portion of the workforce.

You’ve probably already seen this trend on your own teams. Many haven’t had a choice in the matter as businesses have completely shuttered their commercial space, some with little intention of using their offices in their entirety again. But you probably have team members who need or prefer to work in the office, too.

Teams with a blend of home- and office-based staff will become the norm in 2021. If this is the case for your next project, take time to define communication lines, expectations about availability and any software solutions you’d like to use to keep the workflow moving.

Trend #6: Increased Reliance on Technology

Just when you think we couldn’t be more reliant on technology, you read something like this. But relying on tech isn’t a bad thing. In the face of a (post) pandemic world with many teams employing a blended staff, using technology to keep team members safe will be extremely important.

However, using remote work tech like Microsoft Teams and Zoom is just a small part of this project management trend in 2021. The real game-changer will come from increased use of project management software tools.

Remember those Kanban boards? There are several Kanban-based software solutions out there to keep communication lines open and team members on task. Asana, Jira and Trello are just a few examples of programs you may want to consider to improve your project management process in 2021. And because people are in the office less and at home more, many Kanban applications are mobile-ready and easy to use from remote locations.

Trend #7: People Skills are Paramount

People are working from home more than ever. As a result, project managers are turning to software solutions to motivate and organize their teams. But as we become more digitally distant, the project manager’s role as a leader and encourager becomes all the more important.

Your team, even though they may not be with you to say it, needs you. They need your empathy, understanding and encouragement. These are things a Kanban board simply cannot provide. Having the emotional intelligence to identify when a team member needs a little extra TLC increases team cohesion. Better team cohesion leads to a higher quality work product and raises your chances of a successful project outcome.

Your people, while they appreciate being able to work from home, still need you. Don’t hide behind a screen. Be there for them, and they’ll show up for you.

Project management trends for 2021 are certainly different than those in 2020 or even 2019. These changes aren’t disruptions; they’re opportunities. To learn more about how you can harness these trends to create opportunities for your next project, call the professionals at Greenshaw Consulting.

Contact Greenshaw Consulting today for a free consultation about how we can transform your business in 2021.


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