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Our economy is largely moving toward a more project-based operations model. Efficiencies and new ways of managing and operating have been developed over time and the consensus is trending heavily toward this new way of delivering products and value to the market, and as a way to tackle big challenges in our world head-on.      

I recently spoke with Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, former chairman of the Project Management Institute, professor of project management, and author of the new Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook: How to Launch, Lead, and Sponsor Successful Projects. According to him, there are many reasons we find ourselves in a project economy instead of a more traditional operations-focused economy; for example, speed. A product’s life cycle might now only be six months when it used to be six years. That need for constant innovation and change has lent itself to a project management model for many companies.

But what does it mean to work in that kind of economy or that kind of organization? Nieto-Rodriguez had some tips for acting as a project manager in this kind of model.

Tie the project to the overall business strategy.

“Project management has been a bit neglected,” Nieto-Rodriguez told me. “There is way to make it more simple, more user-friendly, and have it bring more value to individuals, leaders, and organizations.” One of the ways to streamline its adoption is to make sure the project aligns with overall business strategy.

He suggests picking projects that go directly to the company’s higher purpose. “Projects are not islands that you need to build and that’s it,” he said. Indeed, projects are more successful when they fit into an organization’s culture and structure. Without a clear connection to where the company’s going, and how this project furthers that, the chance of failure increases dramatically.


Set up projects and teams for success.

One of the easiest pitfalls project managers fall into is that they let their teams take on too many projects, leading to overwhelm. As surprising as it might be for some managers to hear this, Nieto-Rodriguez suggests cutting from many projects to just one. Not only can this help prevent people from becoming overwhelmed, it also encourages team members to pick what project they are most passionate about—which is the project you want that person giving their utmost to.

“The most engaged people on a project are the ones who volunteered for it. And if you’re launching a project and no one wants to volunteer for it, that’s probably a terrible project you shouldn’t move forward with,” he said.

Pick one project at a time, and help teams prioritize. Managers need to be better about understanding the toll that multiple overlapping projects can take on team members. “Senior leaders don’t understand how complex projects are—they need to be more courageous when it comes to decision-making and choosing where to focus, rather than going for all the options available.”

Project managers also need to make sure they have well-developed soft skills—the ability to communicate, coach, motivate, etc.—to keep their team engaged and the project on course. In recent years we’ve seen an increase in attention to these soft skills, and for good reason—many a project or team, even those filled with outstanding members, has been doomed due to a lack of leadership that can harness their potential on a real, human level.

Project management isn’t linear.

Project management doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. In theory, it’s easy to think so, but in practice it’s more like a game of Chutes and Ladders. You might find a shortcut that shaves off expected time, but you also might find yourself looping back to redo sections already completed. You could be hitting a roadblock or facing an unexpected diversion. That’s why, Nieto-Rodriguez says, soft skills are crucial for a project manager.

“Transparency is very important when things are going badly, to be able to say to the team: we have a challenge and we need to work extra hard. Honesty is key in teaching your team to trust you, which will help build resilience. Of course there will be tough times as well as great times—that’s what makes projects so exciting.”

Think of it like an internal gig economy.

Just as the gig economy transformed the way people get around, order food, rent lodging, and much more, a project-based approach to organizational management will take flexibility and willingness to change on the part of leaders and executives at established companies. That, Nieto-Rodriguez said, is going to be a major challenge—but also the way through to the future.

“My recommendation is: select the top five projects that you have in your organization and give them freedom. Move them out of your structure, give them a dedicated team sponsored by an executive. Give the team the freedom to focus on delivery, value, and experimentation. It’s a big challenge, since many leaders are not used to that.” 

As we finished speaking, he mused whether or not current leaders are prepared—or fit—to make this change. If they aren’t? “Maybe we need to make space for the next generations,” he suggested. Time will tell if this project-based model will be the only way forward, or one of multiple viable options—but there’s no denying its current disruptive and exciting impact on businesses worldwide.