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6 Project Management Trends Emerging in 2021

Industry Advice Management

With the advent of new technology and leadership paradigms, the project management discipline—like virtually every other industry—is undergoing significant change and evolution.

Read on to explore some of the most notable project management trends impacting the industry, and learn the best steps both project managers and non-project managers can take to adapt to these changes.

Emerging Trends in Project Management

1. Greater Reliance on Digital and Remote Teams

Project management, like other industries, is no longer strictly bound to the confines of a typical office. Due to a number of factors—including greater connectivity, changing corporate values, and the rise of the gig economy—digital and remote teams are more common today than ever before.

While the prevalence of remote work was already on the climb, the onset of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced an unprecedented shift. In an effort to protect workers and slow the spread of the virus, organizations across the globe have adopted new work-from-home policies that favor digital communication over face-to-face interaction. It is estimated that up to half of U.S. workers are now telecommuting and that this trend will likely continue even after the pandemic subsides, which will present unique challenges for project managers.

For instance, some business functions are more easily carried out when all members of a project team are co-located. Spontaneous collaboration, team-building, project alignment, and other project management tasks are simply more manageable when all members of the team are in proximity to each other.

However, this challenge does not mean that digital or remote teams are inherently counterproductive. Remote work offers many benefits including increased flexibility, which can help an organization attract and retain top talent from all over the world. 

Since the surge in remote work is likely to continue even after the global health crisis subsides, project managers must find ways to reduce friction or inefficiencies that might arise. Clear and open communication has always been a key strategy for effective project management, but it will become even more relevant as this trend continues to evolve.


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2. A Closer Connection Between Projects and Strategy

Traditionally, project management is an organizational tool used to work toward and achieve discrete goals, which might include the launching of a single product or service or the pursuit of a particular outcome. In this sense, a project is a temporary endeavor with a finite start and end, and the role of the project manager is to shepherd the project through to successful completion.

In recent years, however, the role of project management in many organizations has begun to expand. Project management is more than just a tool for carrying out discrete goals; the framework is now also being applied to broader strategy and initiatives.

“We know the importance of strategy and vision within the organization,” says Joseph Griffin, a certified PMP and associate teaching professor in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program. “But the question that always arises is: How do we execute? How do we make that strategy actionable?

It is “through the vehicles of projects and programs [that] we’re able to execute and make that strategy actionable,” he says. “So one of the big trends that we’re seeing right now is a focus on program and portfolio management, and how that is a mechanism for us executing the strategy and managing the strategy in an organization.”

For project managers who wish to put their skills to better strategic use within their organization, it is essential to understand the relationship between project, program, and portfolio management. Doing so will allow you to see how individual projects relate to each other and to overarching strategic goals, which can help you make smarter decisions for your organization moving forward.

3. Project Management and Change Management

Each year, an organization can go through dozens—even hundreds—of organizational changes. These can range from small adjustments to internal processes to total overhauls of a company’s products, services, supply chain, strategy, or structure. While this has always been true, the emergence of the novel coronavirus has forced many organizations to embrace substantial change initiatives while also completing previously existing projects.

Project managers are now frequently left managing not only their own projects, but the organization’s change initiatives as well. 

As shown in the most recent Project Management Survey conducted by the International Project Management Association (IPMA), 63 percent of organizations conduct projects that include at least some form of change management. The same report indicates that only 30 percent of these organizations believe their change management capabilities are “very” or “extremely” effective.

You may be wondering: What is a project manager to do? Luckily, there are steps that you can take to better manage your projects even in times of substantial organizational change. You can, for instance, develop a change management plan as a part of your overarching project plan, which outlines the steps and protocols that your team will follow. 

You may also find it beneficial to become more flexible in your approach to project management, perhaps by adopting a hybrid project management methodology as discussed below. 

4. The Emergence of Hybrid Project Management Approaches

In the not-so-distant past, project managers—and even entire organizations—typically pursued all projects according to a single project management methodology. While the specific methodology embraced may have varied among project managers or organizations, a reliance on a single framework was generally the norm.

In recent years, however, project managers, and the organizations they work for, have become increasingly adaptable in their approaches. Some have even merged different methodologies into hybrid approaches that are unique to the needs of their specific project or industry. The increased adoption of alternative project management methodologies such as Kanban, Agile, Scrum, and Lean have contributed to this shift, along with changing corporate values that allow for increased flexibility.

Learn More: How to Identify the Right Project Management Strategy

A growing number of companies are embracing hybrid methodologies. According to one recent survey, more than half of the polled manufacturers use a combination of different methodologies. The same survey indicates that those who use a combination also tend to be the most satisfied with their project management practices.

While there are advantages to specializing in a single framework, those who hope to continue evolving alongside the project management industry should aim to become familiar with all of the major methodologies they may encounter.

5. An Emphasis on Soft Skills

Project managers need a certain level of analytical and organizational skills in order to be effective in their roles, but a project manager’s job does not end with the completion of project scope and budget documents. At the core of their work lies an understanding of people and how to manage them in a way that will yield the best results. For this reason, possessing an effective array of “soft skills” can be equally as important as possessing the hard skills that are typically associated with the discipline.

Effective project managers must be able to anticipate the needs of their team, understand their hopes and motivations, and identify and remove roadblocks before they impact the progress of a project. 

The Project Management Institute’s (PMI) “Pulse of the Profession” report found that most organizations are now putting a nearly equal emphasis on leadership skills as they do technical skills. Data from the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report supports the need for these abilities, showing that social skills are ranked as one of the top skillsets employers look for in new hires and that this is likely to increase over time.

6. The Impact of Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics

As with virtually every other industry, project management will be impacted by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and proliferation of data collection and analysis that has characterized much of the 21st century.

Learn More: What Impact will Artificial Intelligence have on Project Management?

Exactly what this impact will look like is difficult to predict with certainty. However, most experts agree that some degree of disruption is unavoidable, a fact which the Association for Project Management discusses at length in their “Projecting the Future” report. 

One impact of artificial intelligence, for example, will likely be the automation of many administration-focused tasks that currently fall to project managers, including resource allocation, project balancing, and schedule and budget updates, among others. Another example might include the automation of resource allocation—a task that has long included varying amounts of automation. 

While some may be concerned about the impacts automation will have on the profession, these changes also bear great potential. By automating low value-add tasks, project managers can focus their efforts and energy on completing tasks that most greatly benefit their organization, allowing them to effect greater change and increase the likelihood of achieving the strategic goals of each project.

Project management professionals do not need to become experts in AI or data analytics in order to prepare for these changes, but they should aim to understand their organization’s plans for AI in order to anticipate changes in their roles and daily work.

Learn More: How Project Managers Can Prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Preparing for the Future of Project Management

Individuals who work in a project management capacity, or plan to do so in the future, should prioritize identifying, anticipating, and adapting to the changing needs of the industry. Even non-project management professionals can benefit from project management skills, considering project management is an aspect of most modern businesses and industries.

Learn More: 10 Project Management Tips for Non-Project Managers

Pursuing a Master’s in Project Management

One way to properly prepare for the future and stay abreast of evolving industry trends is to pursue an advanced degree in project management. In fact, according to the PMI, organizations are raising their expectations for project leaders, with more than half of employers requiring project professionals to hold some type of certification for their role. 

Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program offers students the opportunity to study under the guidance of industry professionals skilled at interpreting trends sharing related insights to their students in real-time. Experiential learning opportunities also offer a chance for students to practice addressing these trends hands-on through work in an organization within Northeastern’s expansive network. What’s more, students are able to customize their education to best fit their own interests or the needs of their particular industry or organization through one of ten concentrations.

At Northeastern, these project management concentrations include:

  • Construction Management
  • Leadership
  • Leading and Managing Technical Projects
  • Organizational Communication
  • Agile Project Management
  • Project Business Analysis
  • Analytics

Obtaining the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the face of these changes and challenges is easy with a Master of Science in Project Management from Northeastern.

Take the first step toward mastering these changing trends and breaking into the project management industry by downloading the free e-book below.

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This article was originally published in May 2016. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.