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Is it time to fundamentally reinvent project management?

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The rapidly changing world that we have encountered since the pandemic demands new ways of thinking about project management. It also necessitates some courageous conversations around the role of projects in this brave new world that do not revolve around earned value, comprehensive contracts or scheduling methods.

However, this is not entirely new. The seventh edition of the APM Body of Knowledge, which predates the pandemic, devotes its initial chapter to explaining how senior executives can shape and transform organisations and their wider contexts through projects, programmes and portfolios.

Perhaps, the biggest lesson from the pandemic is the ultimate proof that major initiatives are critical in resetting society and pivoting towards a new reality. Projects make a difference.

A shared outlook and a common starting point

The recently published Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook concurs that project-based work is the engine driving change and progress. The publication of the handbook represents a significant landmark, refocusing attention on the critical role of projects in generating the major achievements of civilisation.

The book heralds the rise of the project economy, where projects become the principal means for creating value. Its author, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, draws on his experience as a practitioner, educator, mentor and passionate advocate of the power and potential of projects, setting himself the unenviable task of creating the first project management book for everyone.

Universalism requires a common starting point. Nieto-Rodriguez eschews the complex and technical descriptions that typically adorn project management tomes, opting instead for a pragmatic, case-illustrated and hands-on way of explaining projects in a way that would chime with project managers and senior executives alike. The book develops a shared outlook, a simple framework presented as a project canvas and a common language that can be applied by all stakeholders.

Starting with purpose

The Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook comprises 12 chapters divided into four parts. The first part of the book sets the scene by providing definitions, exploring different characteristics and a range of approaches encompassing programme management, megaprojects and agility. The second is focused on the project canvas that defines the project through the purpose, people (including stakeholders and sponsors) and creation, explaining the essential elements of a project.

A key lesson from many failures is that projects need to start right, and the canvas provides a solid departure point for project work. Moreover, starting with purpose duly recognises the importance of benefits, value and the impacts derived from a project.

The third part of the book explores the capabilities needed for success, featuring: leadership and sponsorship, selection and prioritisation, governance, and the need to become more agile and adaptive. The final part aims to connect projects to essential organisational and societal mega-trends, including crisis management, artificial intelligence, diversity and sustainability.

Readers may be keen to know if the overarching ambition to provide a common way of thinking about projects works. The short answer is yes; the book provides the basis for important new discourse around projects and their increasingly critical role in enabling organisations and society. It offers a fresh, stimulating and informed perspective.

By embracing the challenges, rethinking our projects and recognising their role in sustaining a better future, Nieto-Rodriguez makes an important new contribution to the project management literature ensuring that senior managers are able to obtain a fresh understanding of the power of projects.

For more book and podcast reviews and recommendations, be sure to check out the winter 2021 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

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