3 Ways Project Management Has Changed Over The Past Decades (& Why You Need It Now More Than Ever)

2021 marks my 21st anniversary in this wonderful and ever-changing career of project management. I was one of those fortunate graduates who managed to get employed the very next year. I had always worked so starting official work was no big adjustment. I worked to get myself through university. So, when my graduation came, I was ecstatic. My life was beckoning.

My opportunity to get into project management came after a very short stint at an insurance company. It was a call-centre job where we handled queries from very upset pensioners who had not been paid their monthly pension. I had an idea early on in my life that God had called me for a specific purpose, I can assure you this was not it. I couldn’t help them most of the time and that 4-minute timer for every call was insensitive and it just got to me badly. So, I quit after three months.

In my quest to own my seemingly irresponsible behaviour, I told a family friend why I had decided to quit. I told him I had no doubt I would get another job but I just could not stay in a place where I was unhappy. Let me remind you that I was 22 years old and nothing in this zone has changed since. Needless to say, in that chat with the family friend I found myself what was to be the most fulfilling path and journey of my life as he introduced me to a project management company.

I therefore started out as a graduate intern, doing project administration for the more seasoned project managers and facilitators. One of the greatest perks of my job was endless training. The company I worked for had a project management academy. They were one of the pioneers in South Africa. I worked as a scribe in all the meetings and workshops. I did my job with great pride.

My eyes were wide open, every time. I grew to believe and feel that this is the path God had led me to. Everything felt right, even though all I was doing was serving other people, this to me felt like the ultimate opportunity. There wasn’t a training course I did not attend. In fact, I got to be a trained, qualified project manager and facilitator before I even practiced as one. When the opportunity came, I was ready to jump right in.

I was placed at a customer where I got to tag along with the senior project managers as we worked in the Project Management Office of a trailblazing company with incredible technology innovations for satellite television. The company remains a beacon in the South African business land scape but like many they have had to keep up with stiff competition and the ever-growing technological advances. No prices for guessing which company I am referring to. They gave me my first taste of the big league. I was diligent, my managers were happy and soon I was placed at a bank. Again, one of the most innovative banks at the time and still leads the pack in most instances. It wasn’t long before I was promoted to be a junior project manager. My career had just begun. I was changing, I was growing.

I spent most of the 21 years in project management, honing my skills, sharpening my competence and getting all the accreditations and certifications I needed to stay abreast. I am proudly a professional project manager, an achievement that came with a lot of studying and applying what I had learnt. It was seven years ago that I decided to leave corporate after an illustrious career in information technology within the financial services sector. I left as a Chief Information Officer for a division that touched across the global multinational bank. I had my fair share of lessons and gratification, but it was time I called it.

It was not just automatic that I would start a project management business, UYANDISWA Project Management Services. It was my purpose to use my experience and platform to help create jobs and be at the fore front of changing people’s lives through employment and providing them with some dignity. I hadn’t the slightest doubt. I was full of confidence because I was starting a business whose core offering was something I was well versed in. Change was upon me and I had to embrace it or face the plight of many who never fully live out their purpose or realise their full potential.

Think about whenever someone says the line, ‘you’ve changed’. Feels uncomfortable, right?
The idea of things shifting beyond all recognition scares most people—because humans, by nature, are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.

However, let’s be real here; evolution is a fact of life, whether it is to do with a person or to do with business. In fact, effective business at its core is just a collective of individuals working towards a common goal.

Which brings me to project management.

This often-unsung hero of business success is all about helping teams navigate the unfamiliar, and yet it has undergone its own unrecognisable evolution in the past 20 years. I have seen and experienced the changes.

Heck, almost 100 years ago, managing teams was a totally different beast to what it is today.

In the 1950s, project management was merely a mechanism to help streamline the rapidly growing manufacturing industries. There was very little psychology or room for adaptability required; in fact, it was largely discouraged in favour of rigidity and a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.
Did it suit the ultra-predictable local-centric workflow of the mid-century? Yes. Does it work in today’s fast-paced, multi-tasking, globally minded marketplace? Not really, no.

The fact is, change can make people uncomfortable at the best of times, but, as it is with all periods of transition, they’re usually for the greater good and all that may be required is just a helping hand to get people over the line to experience the greater good.

And when it comes to project management, here’s how I’ve seen things shift…

Big Data

The Wu-Tang Clan’s famous line “cash rules everything around me” might’ve rung true for the business world of yore, but when it comes to making power-moves in project management, nothing delivers results like data.

This is an industry built on efficiency. From researching a supplier’s output capacity, through to determining the training timelines for team members, we can use this data to predict trends and future events decades and even centuries in the future.

While our predecessors relied merely on experience and (in many cases) their wits, we are lucky these days to boost productivity based on reliable technology.

The results? Team members allocated to projects they’re best (and happiest) at, and the ability to decipher bottlenecks with clever “what if” analysis from Artificial Intelligence.

Big data enables those better planning scenarios and improved control whilst creating evolving and informed project ecosystems. Imagine a repository of knowledge where lessons learnt can be accessed and risk management techniques revisited and honed? As they say, hindsight is the best sight after all.

In a sense, modern project management is less about resourcing a project and tracking its success; rather, it is about spending the time up-front to collect enough relevant data to be able to predict the future such that resources, both human and financial, are deployed optimally, therefore eliminating waste, read Six Sigma.

Communication & Collaboration

Whether or not you think it is good that we are all always on our smartphones, the truth is that our ultra-connected world has delivered super-strides in the project management industry.

In the past, the connection between suppliers and management teams was siloed and left room for error, often resulting in massive budget blowouts and dare I say lots of running for cover as things fell through the cracks and the blame game took centre stage.

These days there are countless options for project management software and collaboration tools designed to make each team member’s role entirely transparent for all stakeholders. It has never been easier to bring teams together and reduce wait-times for questions and queries.

No more underperformance due to ignorance. If a team member needs guidance, their manager is only a click away. Feedback and clarifications are almost instantaneous. No more wasted time. Once a team member has completed a task, they can easily identify areas that need attention and everyone in the team has full sight of the deliverables and there can be no ambiguity about the definition of done.

And this neatly brings me to my next point…

Accountability

This new kind of ultra-transparent digital workplace has revolutionised one of project management’s largest challenges: underutilised team members. To put it nicely.

It can be the most brutally difficult thing about running a successful team. People can be creatively unpredictable and have periods of intense focus and then lags of underproductivity.
People can feel unsure of themselves or be subject to moments of pride, whereby they don’t want to ask questions for fear of looking inexperienced. They can also be overconfident and charge ahead in the wrong direction without pausing to clarify their decisions.

Modern project management has almost completely reduced the need for guesswork by making every team member accountable not only for themselves but to each other, with every person’s output visible to everyone else.

Yes, this is a long way of saying that nobody wants to look silly in front of their peers, however, when you’re dealing with people, truly complex in every way yet with great leadership, amazing things can be achieved, as a collective.

How Effective Project Management Can Impact Your Bottom Line

The reality is that the world shows no signs of slowing down, and as decisions get made faster, deadlines get shorter and are more complex, effective team management is more essential than ever.

Pair that with tighter budgets, and the stakes get even higher. Results are expected straight to the bottom line.

Many major businesses around the world have spent decades adapting their project management systems. Post the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing more and more companies rapidly transitioning their workflows to play catch-up. These changes are often scary and hard for people, however, in the long-run, businesses will see a massive improvement in output, leadership and overall happiness thanks to the well-executed principles of project management with change management running through as a silver thread.

The difference between those that have folded and those that are still standing to fight another day has been in the ability to adapt to change. There has been no bigger a shock to the system than the COVID-19 pandemic, in recent history. Those who embraced project management as a business imperative long before the crisis hit, fared better as they quickly adjusted their sails when the winds blew vehemently in their direction. The headwinds have been gusty but the tailwinds will be much sweeter and most welcome.

Where To From Here?

In the years that I have been in project management, I have seen the effects of change on teams, leaders and organisations. I have also experienced firsthand as a practicing project manager how conflicting priorities can derail even the most brilliant business case.

Change is not easy, it is uncomfortable, but the results are a marvel to watch. If there is one thing that this COVID-19 era has taught us, is that resilient teams will thrive. But it takes concerted effort to build resilient teams that deliver to the agreed objectives. Every leader is challenged, every employee shaken as loss has engulfed us all in a scale so wide and harsh.

I am proud to continue to lead UYANDISWA, a company of professionals who want to make a difference and enable change. I came full circle and taking on graduates and giving them an opportunity, exposure and experience remains a key component of what I do. We pride ourselves in our work and we are always adapting. It is not the awards and accolades that we are after the most, but the continued satisfaction of our clients as they breathe a huge sigh of relief, seeing projects come alive and strategy enacted.

We understand that change is hard, but these days, it is not just necessary, it is inevitable. You adapt or die.

Project management is a business imperative that will continue to set organisations apart. The good news is that clients don’t have to be experts at it. It is not their job, but it is ours.