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What does 2021 bring for project managers and delivery teams?

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Project managers must take a wider view of the changing marketplace to continue to deliver project benefits post Brexit and COVID-19.

Change and uncertainty stalk both the public and private sectors in 2021. Portfolios may radically shift, project estimates may prove wildly inaccurate, and dependencies and assumptions may fail spectacularly. Strong organisational and project leadership, and clarity in mission which stays linked to shifting visions, is more important than ever in times like these.

Leveraging the post Brexit, post COVID marketplace

Project managers are often already focussed on future proofing their approach to procurement. Whenever possible, requirements are increasingly being described in 'outcome' and ‘use case’ terms, reducing the need for supplier compliance with detailed specifications, or particular national or international standards.

There are early signs that collaborative supply chains and consortiums which are built on outcomes rather than standards are showing more resilience post Brexit. The goal of the contemporary project manager operating in a post Brexit Britain is to maintain the ‘COVID respirator’ style of working together. That sense of urgency for outcome-based solutions to wider project delivery problems, as part of hitting milestones in everyday project management is vital. But this needs to be done in a way that leverages new international opportunities, meets government policy and remains attractive to stakeholders all at the same time.

Embracing changes in the supply chain

Supply chains are in the news. New frictions mean they are changing. Leaving the associated risk to your suppliers is perhaps increasingly short-sighted. If something doesn't arrive when it should have, it's still going to cause the project a problem; whatever commercial reparations may exist.

This is where business processes, PMO reporting, governance and risk management practices increasingly need to extend into the supply chain, and be informed by ‘real time’ data and an accurate view of system wide performance, not a hunch. It’s no good leaving suppliers to their own devices. Strategic change, when designed with the supply chain in mind, may actually become a driver of efficiency within the project, almost a corporate version of 360-degree feedback.   

Project delivery, changing culture and values?

Brexit and COVID-19 have created the conditions to generate innovative responses to societal threats. And there are plenty more threats: climate change, recession, geopolitical instability, international policy change and pressures from growing populations which all create strategic and economic uncertainty.

This is a good time for organisations and their project leaders to ensure ongoing alignment of their projects and programmes with the broader need to address these societal pressures, as well as their own organisational purpose to thrive (given the strong linkage between the two).

Increasingly the one team approach, extending beyond the organisation itself, is going to be essential to capitalise on the advantages of Brexit – but this must be built on shared values in order to be able to sense what and when to change. It will become even more important to know and effectively engage with the potential market and all stakeholders, before starting formal commercial action. This is likely to give the best intelligence on forward costs and pricing, and give an early indication of where and how innovation might be possible.  

And composition?

Internally, project teams may look very different in the years ahead: many more strategic inputs, and staffing changes from phase to phase being likely; much more interlinking of public and private sectors; and many more functional experts either permanently supporting delivery or dipping in and out to offer timely advice.

Technology has enabled more people to be brought quickly and easily into meetings and conversations wherever they happen to live and work geographically. Surprisingly, for many organisations, productivity went up significantly during lockdowns for this reason - there has been better leverage of the available collective corporate knowledge to deal with the specific immediate problems. And more opportunities to learn. Project managers that will win in the years ahead, need to hang onto these productivity increases by continuing to get the right support at the right time, from a wider range of expert sources, in ever more geographically diverse locations.

Pricing and costs – new trends

Even the most well evidenced project estimates are likely to need revisiting in 2021, and this means being clearer about risk and the need for enough organisational contingency and headroom. Prioritisation and strong portfolio management are more important than ever to ensure there is a clear link to strategic objectives that will endure, and to ensure that the scope and mission of the project is very clearly defined and distinct from anything else that anyone else is doing in the organisation.

Organisations need to ensure their staff are helping them make sense of the changing environment by spotting these trends. And much of what is happening in commercial market pricing is visible to the private sector much earlier than it is to the public sector. Not only does paying attention to sudden changes in pricing or competition in the wider market ensure that the project stays relevant, but ultimately that the organisation, and the UK does too. Big picture stuff is really important right now.

Keep leading your project

It's crucial not to send mixed messages to staff or stakeholders about the future of your project. Keep taking soundings amongst peers to sense strategic shifts, and then focus immediate communications on some near-term objectives for your team and projects that won’t alter.

Maintain your authenticity and own resilience, based on your values, and the resilience that you expect the team to continue to show to help the project and the organisation continue to adapt and respond to new challenges, and to stay relevant.


Sometimes discussions are better than process in progressing project delivery, and never more so than in 2021. Building new relationships quickly is going to be vital as the UK adjusts to the new post Brexit, post COVID-19 world, to keep getting things done. Project teams are likely to change shape more dramatically between phases, with more functional support and leadership needed beyond the project team. Projects and project managers should ultimately gain the rewards…if we continue to be on the front foot in adapting to the new opportunities and realities ahead.

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