Researchers at Portsmouth Business School in the United Kingdom conducted a review of recent academic studies on project management to answer the question: “what components exist across the board in the worldwide practice of 21st century Project Management and what are some universal challenges that exist?”
In a 2016 issue of the Journal of Economics and Sustainable Development, Abdulrahman Alotaibi and Oluwasoye Patrick Mafimisebi at Portsmouth Business School published an interesting paper, Project Management Practice: Redefining Theoretical Challenges in the 21st Century. The pair pored over recent literature to assess if the practice of project management is truly valuable to the modern organization, and if so, to identify the activities that provide the discipline’s greatest chance of success.
Conceptualizing 21st century projects and project management
In determining its benefits, the researchers felt it was important to point out that there are conflicting definitions of projects and project management. According to Maylor (1999), a project can be defined as a non-repetitive activity that is goal-oriented, has a particular set of constraints around time and resources, has a measurable output, and changes something within the organization. On the other hand, the Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (Cobb, 2012).
Per Verzuh in 2008, project management is a discipline – a set of methods, theories and techniques that have evolved to manage the complexities of work that is unique and temporary. Whereas, Maylor (1999) defined project management as the process of planning, organizing, directing and controlling activities in addition to monitoring what is usually the most expensive resource on the project – the people.
Alotaibi and Mafimisebi concluded that project management is no longer about managing the sequence of steps required to complete the project on time (Besner & Hobbs, 2006; Maylor, 1999), but also about systematically incorporating the voice of the stakeholders, creating a disciplined way of prioritizing effort and resolving trade-offs, and working concurrently on all aspects of the project in multi-functional teams. Project management has evolved to plan, coordinate and control the complex and diverse activities of modern industrial, commercial and management change and IT projects (Lock, 2007).
More recently Mir & Pinnington (2014) found that organizations are increasingly using project management to increase productivity. This study also showed that employing a project management approach helped eliminate wasted time and efforts that would have been directed at irrelevant tasks. Perhaps due to these advantages, Fortune et al. (2011) reported that the use of project management methodologies and tools increased significantly in the first decade of the 21st century.
Essential factors for successful project planning and execution
The research findings indicated several ways in which the use of project management methods and standards can deliver better outcomes.
The first must-do involves project definition and business case. Projects are unique in terms of the outcomes they produce (Cobb, 2012) and how project teams arrive at those outcomes. It is therefore critical to clearly define the project before getting started. The cost, time, and performance criteria for measuring project success (and project management success) should also be stated and agreed upon before the project gets going. A business case and extensive research on the project environment should also be fleshed out. The business case establishes whether the project is viable in terms of the risks and returns on a project.
The choice of strategy is also critical to the management of uncertainty, change and complexity that surrounds 21st century projects. A project strategy is a plan for putting resources into a position most likely to achieve the desired objectives effectively in a given situation (Cobb, 2012). Picking the right strategy requires risk assessment, development of options, trade-off studies, and SWOT analysis.
Organizational culture plays a major role in how easy or difficult the project will be to plan and execute. The researchers suggested addressing the following questions: what support does the project team have from the top? Do project team members have a common understanding of what constitutes success? Are team members motivated? Does the culture permit initiative and innovation?
The availability of funds and other resources like human resources need to be thought through during the planning stage. Considerations might include the level of competence required and regard for the health and safety of the employees connected with the project. Next is the development of a project schedule, ideally a graphical representation of project tasks and time that provides a broad understanding of the project and detailed calculations of the work required.
Projects often involve multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests. Therefore, the success or failure of any project depends on how quickly and fairly project conflict can be resolved. Strong and frequent communication to stakeholders helps to bridge any gaps between views that don’t align perfectly.
Preventing failure of complex projects
Twenty-first century projects face many obstacles from delay and cost overrun to poor communication and conflicting priorities. Additionally, project managers are coping with increased pressure to win new project contracts, manage multiple projects concurrently, coordinate project staff, and push goals forward.
According to the research, project failures today are most likely to result from strategic misrepresentation, destructive behavior with clients, unrealistic and self-serving planning, (Pinto, 2014), and lack of compliance with established project management standards. Leaders also need to be aware of the economic, technological, government, social/community, environmental, and organizational factors influencing their projects. This requires constant monitoring, which sometimes slips through the cracks.
The researchers looked at why many projects are doomed despite so much available guidance on how to successfully manage them. A major rationale apparently involves stakeholder perception. If everyone isn’t aligned on success criteria, what constitutes success for one stakeholder might represent failure for another. So once again, advance communication and clarification are key, as is learning from the prior failure of similar projects.
In conclusion, this literature review illustrated that the project management discipline has evolved to a point that certain best practices and standards, if employed faithfully, will result in substantial organizational benefits. Even as the world grows ever more complicated and stressors and failures still occur, the future for Project Management remains bright.