What Can We Learn from 50 Years of Project Management?

An article published in the International Journal of Project Management earlier this year took on the task of combing through fifty years of project management (PM) research to answer this very question. Because PM research is often organized in silos—with practitioners sticking to their own fields—there has been a need for a more holistic perspective on the practice of PM itself. So the authors of “Emergent trends and passing fads in project management research: A scientometric analysis of changes in the field” mapped out data to identify key trends that have emerged and faded in the last five decades.  

A brief history of project management research

By tracking keyword burst frequency in the research, the authors developed the following timeline:   What can we glean from this brief history? Overall, the movement in the last half-century has telescoped from industry-specific issues to a broader, more organizational view.

What this means for today’s project managers

It all boils down to this: if you want to succeed in project management today, your skills have to be sharp and diverse. With so many people undergoing rigorous training for PM certification and conducting research in the field, project managers are held to a higher standard now than ever before. What’s more, interpersonal skills and systems thinking (taking a broader view of organizational change) are now seen as the most critical tools to have. If PM research is now leaning more toward an organizational perspective, it behooves all project managers to become familiar with organizational thinking. Gone are the days when project management was limited to a temporary practice put into place to accomplish a concrete goal, like establishing a contact or calculating costs. Today’s leading managers are thinking more broadly, working with larger and more diverse teams, and trying to effect systemic change.

Two key skills for project management in 2015

  1. Be responsive to change, rather than sticking to a plan. This is also a key principle involved in the development of Agile, the collaborative software method that’s been named a top trend in project management for 2015. Responsive, rather than predictive, leaders exhibit the adaptability that is so crucial for working with large teams and big concepts. Project managers who are quick on their feet have a better chance of surviving today’s increasingly shifting, fast-moving business world. “Project management is a blend of creating and executing plans, and being flexible enough to adjust when the time comes,” says Bart Gerardi, author of No Drama Project Management.
  2. Focus on interpersonal skills. The Business Analyst Times predicts that in 2015, “The intrinsic value of understanding others in order to establish meaningful relationships among team members, particularly those who are often physically distant, will be emphasized” in the field of project management. Are you as focused on listening to your team, assigning tasks based on individual strengths, and using clear communication as you are with end results? Then you’re more likely to succeed as a leader.
In addition, paying attention to the field of project management itself—which is emerging as a serious area of research—can help you identify trends so you’re ahead of the curve. If the last fifty years have taught us anything, it’s that the field of PM is a dynamic area subject to exciting change.
For more project management strategies, check out these blog posts:
3 Unusual Skills for Your Project Management Toolkit The Four People You Need on Your Team Enhanced Keys to Project Management

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