Project management is a slippery target. Once the realm of project managers (PMs) armed with a tracking tool like Microsoft Project, an office, a travel budget, and the 411 on excellent meeting space all over the globe, it has become a role — a mindset even — that’s better served by deep knowledge, leadership skills, negotiation tactics, and an empowered (and now probably remote) team.
Even before the pandemic hit, project management was going through a sea change. But the remote nature of our new normal has accelerated and morphed that change so rapidly that trends are going hot and cold before our eyes.
To get a bead on what’s hot — and what’s not — in project management, we spoke to PMs who are living at the cutting edge of this change. They share what trends are rising, which are falling, and what’s fantastic — or disappointing — about these trends.
The pandemic has pushed people — not just those in technical jobs — to use tools many have long resisted. And a funny thing happened. They got comfortable with them. They discovered that the digital tools we techies have been using for ages allowed them to be highly productive, while staying closer to home and family. After people go back to the office — in whatever fashion they do — this is likely to continue. And that is changing everything.
“The pandemic has been a catalyst,” says Jeff DeVerter, CTO of products and services at Rackspace. “Microsoft has seen two years of digital transformation — people moving to the cloud — in a few months. It’s going to be interesting to see how this will augment businesses going forward.”
Scott Bales, vice president of delivery and solution engineering at Replicon, agrees. “We can’t spend time with our customers — a loss that has impacted projects because being in the room offers a higher bandwidth conversation. But we gained video calls. Now, instead of seeing somebody for two weeks in person at the outset and again near the end of a project, you see them 100 percent of the time — online. This seems to be accepted as the norm now. That’s an interesting trend.”
“IT departments have always tended to adopt new stuff,” agrees Evans. “They move easily to things like JIRA, Slack, and Teams. But now we’re seeing wholesale shifts among more traditional departments. For example, a large Swiss bank we work with is rolling Teams out across their entire organization so they can have online team meetings, chats, virtual presence, and all the stuff that techies have used for years.”
Meetings have been fundamental to project management since the first project emerged from the primordial ooze. But 2020 might turn out to be their demise.
Long, in-person meetings are certainly falling by the wayside. Hastened by the pandemic, the trend was already heading under way. “Not long ago, project meetings could stretch to two hours, easily,” says Nancy Bechthold, vice president of service operations at NetSPI. “Now they’re as quick as possible.”
Even as recently as last year, everyone wanted to discuss things, solve problems, and brainstorm in big group meetings, she says. “Now people have so much coming at them, they just want a dashboard view.”
Kevin Evans, chief technology officer at ActiveOps, agrees. “Not long ago, a large project for us — an American bank or European healthcare provider — involved getting lots of people together in a room to talk. People would say, ‘I’m here! Here’s my status. I’m concerned about this. I have an issue.’ And the group would hash it out together.”
Not anymore. There are no in-person meetings. No big project launch gatherings. All of that is right out.
This shift has changed the nature of meetings, not just where or how they are held. “Now, they’re very much more checkpoint style,” says Evans. “Smaller groups arrive at a video meeting with mini potted solutions. People come in with, ‘My team have solved this problem,’ rather than, ‘We have a problem.’ It’s changed the dynamic.”
“Working remotely levels the playing field,” says DeVerter. “I was recently on a call with the CIO of a large global bank. In the past, I would have flown to his location, worn my best suit, and met in his fancy office.”
Gathering remotely removed the trappings of success and power that has historically defined this kind of high-level meeting. With no need for office space, travel budgets, or Gucci power suits, it came down to competence.
“He was in what looked the corner of his attic,” laughs DeVerter, “wearing a pullover. His CTO was in a T-shirt. A lot of what used to happen was built on tradition, presence, that sort of thing. Now, it’s all about how well you can back up what you’re saying.”
It is playing out in unhappier ways for people and organizations that relied on those trappings rather than competence. But this trend has already shown to be good for overall productivity.
“We will all be graded on our ability to produce as individuals and organizations,” says DeVerter. “A lot of companies have been measuring by presence. You could get by if you knew how look busy, clocked in at the right time, and had the right stack of papers or the right amount of email throughput.”
Given this, says DeVerter, “leadership should be putting everything on the table. They should be setting the bar and saying what the goal posts are so the team can run hard towards them.”
Cold: The project manager
“I do not have a project manager on the team at all,” says Maria Psaltaki, CPO at Infinity. “This is a trend I’ve seen in the last couple of years. If you are a technology business, are relatively small, and have an agile framework, there’s no need for project management role.”
The job title “project manager” probably isn’t going away immediately. But as the role of project manager morphs into one of leader, teams — with the help of tools like Jira — are taking on what was once the wheelhouse of the PM.
“It’s the democratization of the project,” explains Dan Lawyer, senior vice president of product management at Lucid, creators of Lucidchart. “The PM still has their role. But having more people accountable for their piece is helpful.”
This trend is largely driven by tools that allow visibility into the details of a project that was once held — siloed — by the PM. Now with tools such as Lucidchart, monday.com, Asana, Jira, and others, everyone can access the piece of data, status update, or knowledge they need on a task’s progress or a team’s issues when they need it — or as it happens. With the right tools, real-time data feeds directly into each person’s view of the project. The clarity of this allows the PM to rise out of the burden of gatekeeper toward leading and directing.
“We talk about PMs as orchestrators,” says Lawyer. “They’re orchestrating and enabling. There’s still a core hygiene role played by project managers that’s necessary.” The PM has an eye on a meta-picture of the project, sees the obstacles in its path, and knows when to direct a team toward action or solutions. “But it’s happening in distributed and democratized way,” he says.
Whether it’s taking a stand on racial injustice, recognizing that coworkers have lives outside of work, paying employees fairly, handling sexual harassment allegations responsibly, or responding to a pandemic, meaning is trending hot.
“Everybody jokes, ‘How are you making the world a better place?’” says Matt Burns, startup ecosystem leader at monday.com. “But I don’t think it’s a funny joke anymore. People want to know, ‘How are you making this world safer, happier, healthier? What are you doing?’ We live in a shared society and should focus on improving it.”
This isn’t something that can be handled lightly, either. Giving lip service to a social trend can easily seem disingenuous, like jumping on a bandwagon to get points you aren’t willing to earn. “The public will ask for receipts,” says Burns.
Now that we’ve taken location out of the workplace, he says. Meaning is likely to drive people’s reasons for choosing one employer over another, one location over another. “If you want to get the best diverse talent to grow your organization, they need to know they mean a great deal, they matter, that they’re making the world better,” Burns says.
“I think the biggest trend I’ve seen is around freedom of software selection,” says Matt Burns of monday.com.
There has been, for many years, he says, an attitude in companies of, get the job done. It doesn’t matter what you use. Pick what suits you and make it happen.
This has fueled an enormous marketplace of tools and has led to organizations where, sometimes, no two people use the same thing to stay on track. “I’ve worked with large companies that have thousands of different tools in use,” he says.
That’s changing. He has seen companies looking for standardization or consolidation into one system that serves everyone.
Some of the many tools are necessary, of course. “You could use a hammer to cut a sausage, for example,” he says, “but you’d have a bad time.”
“But a lot of tools have overlap,” he says. “I’m seeing organizations start to consolidate, especially in the past quarter. The future is around creating systems and processes that aren’t spread across 1,000 different silos.”
“When all of these tools are spread out, that means all the important information is also inaccessible by other teams or they don’t know where or how to find it.” But when they are housed in a tool that allows everyone access to all that data — without having to burden staff with the task of assembling it — productivity soars.
“Historically, project managers have been very task-oriented,” says Bechthold. “They had a project plan, checked in with a team, assigned tasks, and checked back periodically to see the status of those tasks.”
That style of project management is waning. And this is both an opportunity and a challenge for PMs. “We’re seeing project managers step into an actual leadership role,” she says. “They’re leading the entire team, in addition to leading clients toward the best course for success.”
This means PMs have to know much more than how to keep track of tasks, updates, and deadlines. They must understand the project, even the technical aspects of it, its legal requirements, and how it all impacts the business as well as the project. Perhaps a PM’s understanding doesn’t have to be deep, not on every topic. They may not be pressed to write code or author legal arguments. But they do have to know enough to ask the right questions or call a client’s attention to important issues.
“This is a wildly different set of skills,” says Bechthold. “It requires expertise as well as the ability to negotiate, mentor, and motivate. It also means they have to understand the business — and the client’s business.”
Cold: Office Hours
Work hours are so ingrained in our collective psyche that it took a global crisis to make us see they might not be necessary.
Burns says we have replaced “office hours” with something more human, that allows us to take care of work as well as home and self. It works better not only for working from home during a pandemic but also for a global workforce that operates in all time zones. He calls it “context.”
Once we achieved wholesale adoption of video calls, Teams, Slack, monday.com, and other tools that allow everyone let the team know their current status, getting context on what people are doing has replaced the assumption that if the clock says it’s work hours, everyone is working. Context has also replaced ‘if it’s after hours, leave everyone alone.’
Now that we’ve made that shift culturally — and remained productive — we probably aren’t going back.
“People can work in the morning, look after their kid at lunchtime, work a bit in the afternoon, look after the kid again, and work a couple of hours in the evening,” says Evans. “If that works for them, it’s fine. And given the nature of remote tools, it usually does.” This is a big shift. “You couldn’t have somebody in a traditional office setting roll into work at 10 o’clock at night,” he says.
“I was recently working with a cohort in Israel,” agrees Burns. “I knew it was late there. So before I reached out, I checked his ‘status’ in monday.com. He’d set it to ‘working but also spending time with family.’ I shot him a message and was able to give context that I was simply offering an update and wished him and his family well.”
Knowing that he could have part of his colleague’s attention — not all of it — informed both his approach and expectations. In that case, partial attention was all he needed. There was no need for a call or a meeting. The interaction happened quickly in an instant message. This is a scenario that’s playing out everywhere. “We have all become more accepting of people’s ‘context,’” says Burns.