Projects in the 20th Century
Projects have existed for a long time. We could say a very long time. Of course, the concept of a “project” was not invented in the 20th century, but most of the project management theory has been developed in the 20th century. It seems like not long ago, but it was actually a much different world. A plant was built to produce the same widgets week after week, month after month, year after year. At that time, a project was a distinct activity, separate from the operation. Status quo was the norm, and change was the exception.
It is becoming difficult to manage with this view of the world. It was accurate enough to manage in the 20th century, but the context has changed so much. When things change, it is important to notice and adapt.
A dynamic world
The world today is much different. We live in a very dynamic world, with a fast pace of change and innovation. Change is everywhere. It is even the norm.
It has some impacts on key concepts. Many textbooks and frameworks are based on stability. You have the operations on one side, and a few projects to manage on the other side. The operations are stable, and then we must have change management. The choice of words is significant. It assumes that status quo is normal and that it is changes that need to be managed.
The truth is that today, building an organization on the premise of status quo may be the riskiest proposition. After all, how is it possible to succeed if we don’t evolve and the rest of the world is? Innovations will happen. There will be economic and social changes. Consumer preferences will evolve, and sometimes very rapidly. If the organization cannot adapt, it brings a significant risk of becoming obsolete, or beaten by others who are more proactive and able to quickly seize opportunities.
The world of operations designed to remain the same for twenty years is disappearing fast. Yet the full impact of this observation is often not fully analyzed. Many theoretical frameworks were designed to work in a stable environment. Today, it is difficult to take one year to study a problem, three years to create a solution, and implement it for the next 20 years. It will likely not last 20 years. Moreover, the environment will probably have changed so much in four years that even going live successfully will be hard.
Even the lifespan of a product is becoming as short as the life of a project. Think of a new smartphone, like the iPhone. By the time that it is released, the company is already working on the next model and already has an end date for its production.
Strategic value of project management
Organizations that are designed on the premise of a stable environment are challenged in a dynamic and changing environment. Organizational agility is now an asset. For many, it is even a fundamental requirement.
This is where project management becomes very useful and a strategic tool for organizations. It focuses on specific results achieved within a very defined timeframe. Project management helps organizations live in a world of constant changes, in which things must be designed or regularly redesigned.
This great divide between projects and operations is gone for many organizations. At the extreme, some organizations can even fully projectize all their activities. It is especially true in intellectual knowledge-based work. Designing a version of a software can be viewed as a project. For a marketing firm, each contract is a project. For a business consultant, each contract is a project. A web developer can manage his activities as projects. Even a web server maintenance contract can be managed as a project.
Questions for success
As a strategic project leader, it is important to understand the context of our projects. Not understanding the dynamics of the environment will bring a significant risk of project failure.
Here are a few questions to support our strategic thinking:
- Is your organization agile enough to succeed in a dynamic world?
- Have you implemented a governance structure for your project able to cope with a fast changing environment?
- Are you maximizing the use of project management?
- Finally, as a person are you constantly learning and evolving?
For more brilliant insights, check out Michel’s website: Project-Aria