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Five project management lessons from 2021

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2021 was another challenging year for project professionals, who have continued to navigate the complexities and uncertainties of the pandemic along with the teething problems we saw following Brexit.

However, as our guests on the APM Podcast have pointed out on many occasions, the most powerful project management lessons often emerge from periods of adversity. In this blog, I’m taking a look back at the past 12 months and presenting five of the key lessons from 2021 as told to us by our podcast guests. 

1. Be a voice for change on sustainability

The buzz around COP26 this year inspired many project professionals to grow their own understanding of sustainability and climate change, and learn how they can make a difference through their work. Giulia Jones, sustainability manager at Mace, and Paul Mansell, an independent major projects advisor, spoke to the APM Podcast about defining and measuring sustainability in projects.

“One key area [for project professionals] is to be a voice that is heard and take talking into action,” said Mansell, “because the great threat we face is greenwash, where there’s some great brochures talking about sustainable development, sustainability and so on. But what is the data and proof behind it that they’re achieving those targets? Individuals within projects, at whatever level, can be the champions.” 

Jones added: “Really, it’s about getting comfortable talking about sustainability and realising that you don’t need to be [an expert] to talk about sustainability with people and to raise it with your stakeholders. All project managers, when they set up a meeting and create an agenda for that meeting, should make sure sustainability is on the agenda – and don’t put it at the bottom. If you don’t want it to be an afterthought, then it can’t be an afterthought in how we manage our conversations.”

2. Your biggest risk is you

Our most-streamed episode of 2021 was our interview with Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, chair of major programme management at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. He shared his knowledge, expertise and practical advice on how projects can be better planned and managed, and why we should all watch out for optimism bias.

“We’re used to thinking about risk as something that comes from the outside… now I’m turning the whole thing around and saying forget about that; your biggest risk is you,” he said. “Risk is very much about human behaviour, and the problem is much more how we misconceive a risk than the objective risk itself. If you’re a project leader, your biggest problem is that you and most people on your team will be misinterpreting risks and specifically underestimating them.

“Human beings are optimistic. We look at the future through rose-coloured glasses. And, of course, if you plan a project that way, then there will be negative things that you overlooked, and there will be positive things that you thought would materialise that don’t. This is supported at an incredible level of statistical significance when we do statistical analysis.”

3. We need to get better at talking about technology

One of the suggested solutions to project underperformance is to harness the power of project data analytics and the associated technologies.

“Without a doubt, [project data analytics] is about improved decision-making,” said former APM chair John McGlynn in our episode ‘How to make better use of project data’. “Things like assessing project risks, forecasting completion dates – these are all things which data analytics will enable people to make improved decisions about. We’ve been collecting data for a long time; what we’ve been incredibly poor at is being able to capture that data and benefit the next project that’s coming along.”

Professor Naomi Brooks from the University of Warwick added that: “One of the key challenges we have is all understanding what we mean when we talk about these new digital technologies. Terms like artificial intelligence get bandied around without anybody really having a precise idea of what they mean. And that has a knock-on effect on our ability to understand and implement these technologies.

“When I talk about artificial intelligence, I’m talking about a system, object or entity which has intelligence not only to understand and analyse, but to actually make a difference in the real world. To get to artificial intelligence, we probably could get to the point where we don’t need project managers – but that is miles away. Because what we can’t do properly yet is understand project performance, and that’s going to be a foundation for any of these higher levels of computer automation that we’re actually trying to bring in.”

4. Whether your project is on Earth or Mars, the same principles apply

In February 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars. It cost $2.4 billion to build and will cost another $300 million to operate in its first year on Mars. Its mission is to seek signs of ancient life and bring back samples for further investigation.

In July 2021, Jennifer Trosper, NASA project manager for Perseverance, told the APM Podcast about the project management challenges behind such a complex and cutting-edge science project.

“We had constraints on the finances and the schedule and then we had this overlay of COVID-19, so the schedule got worse and the budget got worse, but we still had the same performance milestones. We still had to launch. And my advice is that, if you keep things moving forward, and always solve the problems that keep you moving forward, anything is possible.

“As project manager, my role in helping the team be successful is not necessarily one that’s about me. It’s about understanding that if I don’t use my team, then we are not going to succeed. I’m a systems engineer, an operations engineer and spacecraft developer, so sometimes it’s hard to keep myself from trying to solve each individual problem myself. Instead, it’s about utilising the team, because we’ll have a much better solution if we do that.

“It’s all about the people around us and getting the right people in the right places. I listen to everyone’s input. I also move people around or move people off if they’re not the right fit for the team. Being aware of who the people are, and even the tasks and the scope that you’ve given them, is really important to success.”

5. Communication is not a soft skill

Another project success factor that we explored on the podcast is communication. It’s a vital part of any project – the means by which we keep stakeholders informed and ensure that team members know their roles and responsibilities. And it’s taken on added significance in the pandemic. We invited expert Ann Pilkington to tell us more.

“The pandemic has made organisations and projects realise the importance of communication. Obviously, there’s been an awful lot to communicate, but also, we’ve had to switch how we communicate. Suddenly people are working remotely. We’re using electronic channels and we have lost some of that ‘water-cooler chat’. So, communication has come more to the fore and organisations really get it now, much more than perhaps they did before.

“One of my mantras is that communication isn’t a soft skill. We often hear comms talked about as a soft skill, and sometimes that sets up an expectation that it’s a bit of a ‘nice to have’. I think now we’re starting to realise that’s not the case. Also, calling it a soft skill misses the point that good communication is always grounded in research. It’s planned strategically; it’s measured and evaluated thoroughly.”

You can listen to the APM Podcast here.


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  1. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 10 January 2022, 10:30 AM

    Mike, thanks for the pleasing knowledge share, appreciated it. I think it would be interesting c. one year in the future and to look back on similar themes to see how we together have advanced on the five topics. Lessons learned is important and my experience is that organizations on their intranets provide templates for case studies. Each organization then encorages periodically to undertake a Lessons learned exercise is to benefit from experience, avoid repeating mistakes and disseminate improved practices to benefit current and future project teams. Thanks again, and I take this oppotunity to wish you and all your family members a very Happy New Year.