Message from the Academy Director: Trends in Project Management
February 26, 2010 Vol. 3, Issue 2
Five trends are reshaping the practice of project management.
Over the past year, as I met with colleagues at NASA and around the world and reviewed current research about project management, five key themes kept surfacing: team diversity, sustainability, virtual work, innovation, and portfolio management.
Team diversity has increased as projects have become more complex, technically challenging, and global. In broad terms, there are three dimensions of team diversity: cultural, cognitive, and geographic. Project organizations like NASA recognize the value that cognitive and cultural diversity adds to projects, and geographic diversity has always been a feature of NASA’s project teams. Cognitive diversity refers to teams with varying levels of expertise, education, experience, age, training, and professional backgrounds. Cultural diversity manifests itself through different languages and communications styles as well as less obvious aspects such as goals, resources, politics, budgets, and national security concerns. Geographic diversity continues to intensify as projects involve multiple partners from government, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations.
Virtual work facilitates and enhances geographic team diversity. It also attracts talent and facilitates relationships that would otherwise be more difficult to acquire. Companies like IBM, Proctor & Gamble, and AT&T have either partially or fully eliminated traditional offices. NASA and IBM both host conferences and meetings on “islands” in Second Life. Virtual work is not without its difficulties. Even though virtual communities and workplaces offer a new way of working that attracts talent and cuts costs, project managers are still trying to understand ways to remedy problems like isolation, insufficient support and oversight, and the increasingly blurry line between work and personal life.
Sustainability has arrived as a permanent feature of the landscape for project-based organizations. In 2009 NASA held its first Green Engineering Masters Forum and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory completed construction of its Flight Projects Center, NASA’s “greenest” building to date. As I wrote in October 2009, while some use sustainability as a synonym for “environmentally friendly,” I interpret it more broadly to refer to principles and practices that enable long-term societal progress. Sustainability is above all a systems thinking challenge. Project management has taught us to think about life-cycle costs. Sustainability tackles questions of life-cycle impact, which can extend far beyond the duration of a project.
Innovation is a constant in the world of complex projects, both in terms of products and processes. The nature of projects demands adaptive thinking to adjust to ever-changing requirements, budgets, and resources. Technology development is also an essential element of project success. The innovation challenge in the aerospace sector is closely tied to shifting workforce demographics, new models for public-private collaboration, and the need for more sustainable practices.
Portfolio management reflects the strategic context in which project-based organizations operate today. Organizational success is not a matter of managing a single project successfully. The larger challenge is managing a portfolio of programs and projects in order to execute the organization’s strategy. NASA’s four mission directorates function as its portfolio management organizations. As project-based organizations continue to grow around the world, portfolio management will increase in importance.
In a time of tight resources and strong competition for top talent, the organizations best prepared for the project management environment ahead will be the ones to thrive. In 2010, I believe these trends will continue in tandem with increased interest in organizational transparency and risk management.