For years the project management profession has been beset by niggling problems. Even today experts claim it is not fully accepted as a separate profession and therefore is starved of talented candidates or at least good recruits with the right mix of skills.
The challenge, they say, is that people know how to become engineers, architects and systems developers, but the path towards project management – the discipline that binds everything together – is much more elusive.
Gradually this issue is being addressed with more representation by lobby groups, better industry qualifications and the development of organisations with a remit to certify project managers. But the process is nowhere near complete.
And while these issues are being ironed out, new challenges are appearing. Each new twist in consumer technology, for example, seems to warp the job into a new shape.
Even highly qualified practitioners must go on learning or risk turning into the industry’s fusty dinosaurs
Richard Goold, partner at business transformation consultancy Moorhouse, says: “Project management will never be fully evolved as the very nature of the market will ensure that new skills and an increasing versatility from project managers are essential.
“It is not a cookie-cutter approach, but the ability to lead things that have never been done before, and against the backdrop of an evolving competitive, regulative and legislative landscape, which could change the course of what is planned with very little warning.”
With social media and 24-hour rolling news, people now have more direct ways to learn about major events and raise concerns. In addition, increased competition in the private sector and dwindling public-sector budgets require a complete rethink of how organisations are financed and run.
These and many other developments make project management a fluid concept. What it was yesterday is not what it is today. Even highly qualified practitioners must go on learning or risk turning into the industry’s fusty dinosaurs.
It’s really important they do. They are the people creating our transport infrastructure, constructing and safeguarding our buildings, maintaining healthcare systems, rehabilitating criminals, securing our borders, delivering global aid relief and making sure we are all fed, educated, protected and entertained.
Two relatively new concepts professionals must wrestle with are lean processes – doing more with less – and agile business – the ability to prepare for, anticipate and deal with changes to projects in a constructive way without the whole thing collapsing around your ears.
“The move towards agility and leanness is a feature that has been noticeable for at least the last five years. The hunger for these approaches in the public sector is now also gathering momentum,” says Peter Brookes-Smith, managing director of software developers Objectivity.
Agile and lean are both a response to growing awareness of the innate risks that come with large-scale projects. Dotcom crashes, property bubbles and financial meltdowns have served to make the industry wary and respectful of the dangers.
“Recently, the most noticeable change has been the increased importance accorded to risk management within projects,” says Craig Stephens at enterprise resource planning software business Epicor.
“This is a consequence of a more mature understanding of the nature of projects and a clearer picture in the mind of project leaders of what could jeopardise project success. It is also an acknowledgement that risk is an integral aspect to any project and a willingness to dedicate resources to tackle these risks.”
Building flexibility into project plans means they don’t fall over at the first sign of trouble. Committing to lean budgets limits overspend. An understanding of the risks involved helps professionals plan for a colourful tapestry of political, financial and technical problems.
Bringing these qualities together with strong leadership, open channels of communication and advanced project management software with other technology, allows teams to complete startling plans of great vision, scale and ambition.
The Olympics and Commonwealth Games in London and Glasgow are two famous examples of projects from recent history that were executed to acclaim. But these are just two internationally renowned achievements among many over the last few years.
“In terms of outcomes, the World Health Organization’s Global Malaria Programme has to be top of the list,” says Mr Stephens. “In 2014, it achieved a major objective set in 2000 to halt the growth in malaria incidences and malaria-caused deaths.
“The programme has faced major challenges from economic, political and climatic instability in many of the sub-Saharan countries that are the key targets for the programme. But clarity of purpose and commitment of the stakeholders has seen the damage caused by international neglect since the 1960s reversed.
“By developing standard approaches not only for prevention and treatment, but for capacity building, monitoring and control, the programme has enabled local malaria programmes to succeed.”
Paul Hilton, a technical director at management, engineering and development consultants Mott MacDonald, has another candidate. “The Lee Tunnel is a fantastic project being delivered with great success by Thames Water as part of their Tideway programme,” he says.
“Many Londoners are unaware that four shafts big enough to hide the Gherkin in have been sunk in East London. Through good collaboration and focusing on innovation, the contractor and designers were able to outperform on a very tight project.”
With feats of organisational excellence like these, it’s surprising to hear experts claiming project management has still to make progress. It is equally surprising to hear that professionals have as yet no route to chartered status, unlike accountants or surveyors, for example.
Matching project management to these more established and identifiable careers will take time, and it is arguably being thwarted by the changing role of what a project management professional does, as well as debate of what defines the role as separate from others.
“With more qualifications and a big move towards professionalising the industry currently in motion, we should see progress towards project managers who are fully aware of best practice and with leadership qualities that can deliver change matching the public’s aspirations,” Mr Hilton concludes.