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5 Emerging Project Management Trends of 2020

These project management trends will impact your teams, your clients, and your approach. Take these steps to stay relevant in changing times.

The world itself is changing by way of our evolving technologies, social organization, and business environment.

But we’re not here to talk about that.

project management trends 2020

We’ve all heard the spiel: content is king, context is king, data is king, (insert here) is king. Identifying the trend only helps us so much, and simply spouting buzzwords helps us even less. Here, we dig into exactly how this trend affects the project management realm—along with specific actions you can take to swiftly respond to big shifts in our tech, work culture, and society at large.

Whether you’re a trend junkie (you joined TikTok last year) or a bit old-school (you bought a wall clock last year), you need to be aware of new project management trends and how they may influence your teams, clients, and approach.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams…

…and to those who identify the trends and act swiftly. Good timing doesn’t hurt, either.

The technological, social, and market evolutions currently in play will continue to transform the field of project management. Are you on top of the project management trends that are going to change how you work, manage your teams, and envision your career? What does the project manager of the future look like? That’s you, friend, in a few years. In fact, you may become a catalyst for change in your organization as you champion the innovations that will help your teams best meet the needs of customers, stay within budget, and achieve business goals.

1. Constantly Changing Digital Technologies

constantly changing digital technology

The latest and greatest is never actually the latest and greatest anymore.

What’s Happening?

This is nothing new to project managers, but this project management trend is ramping up as we head into 2020 and beyond. By the time a piece of tech or software has launched, there’s something new to take its place. Companies are putting more and more emphasis on their employees’ Technology Quotient, defined by the PMI as “a person’s ability to adapt, manage and integrate technology based on the needs of the organization or the project at hand.”

In other words, how well (and quickly) you can adapt to new tech, like AI and automation, and successfully integrate it into your project management process.

What’s The Impact?

Digital project managers should develop their technology quotient, but it’s not just about who can implement technology X, Y, or Z the fastest. It’s also about discerning which digital technologies to use when, and whether a certain technology should be used at all. Using the wrong project management or automation software can have disastrous effects on your projects, costing you time and budget.

Automation and AI technologies remain prominent and are increasingly so, consistent with our project management trends from 2019. Knowing how to use them to optimize your projects will have a positive impact on your projects, like streamlining resource management, reducing and mitigating project risks and threats, and prioritizing tasks and projects. This will free up time for your other project management activities like leading team meetings, interpreting client or organizational requests, and driving timelines.

Your technology quotient can’t stand on its own. It is useless when not used in combination with project management skills. Recent data from the PMI shows that organizations that implement a combination of the technology quotient and project management skills are 76% more likely to hit project objectives than those that don’t (61%). Also, those that do are more likely to complete projects without going over budget or exceeding timeline.

What You Should Do About It?

Exercise your technology quotient muscle and keep it in shape. Make use of the technology that benefits you, and ignore the hype on the rest. After all, there is only so much technology you can use in a day. Balance your technology quotient and project management skills by:

  1. Doing your research. Read ‘best of’ lists, customer reviews, testimonials, subject matter expert blogs, whatever you can get your hands on before committing to any software.
  2. Riding the automation wave. Set up email filters, automatic reminders, follow-ups, analytics reports, and other tasks that will save you time.
  3. Building your PM skills. Take The DPM School course, and read PM books, blogs, and other informational resources to keep progressing in project management.

2. Importance of Change Management to Project Success

Stay flexible—bending over backwards is a daily project management activity.

What’s Happening?

Change management is a hot topic among project management trends—whether it’s mitigating change, reducing change, embracing change, or accelerating change. In 2020, increasing competition and smaller profit margins mean organizations must always adapt and adjust their processes, workflows, and competencies. Digital project managers must manage change effectively to complete projects and boost their organizations.

What’s The Impact?

Change management is becoming a daily routine. According to recent data from the IPMA, 63% of companies are carrying out projects that involve change management in some capacity. This will help them complete more complex projects while streamlining and standardizing processes. Project managers will be involved in this standardization and applying it to their own projects, as well as supporting change management initiatives.

Even though more and more companies are implementing change management, only 30% of companies agreed that their internal competencies in change management were either “very or extremely effective,” according to the IPMA.

As a PM, you can strengthen your organization’s ability to conduct change management by setting the standards or processes that your team members should follow, and being an agent of change by noting areas or processes that are worth changing. This may lead to a balancing act (at least in the beginning) between ensuring processes are being followed and keeping projects running smoothly. Eventually, these tasks will be one and the same.

What You Should Do About It?

Don’t resist change – be the messenger of it. Here are some initial steps for effecting and harnessing change in your organization:

  1. Be Proactive. Note processes or procedures that aren’t being followed properly, or spots where implementing a new process could help streamline projects. Brainstorm solutions for solving the issue or use a change management tool designed to help you through the process.
  2.  Continue hybridizing project methodologies. A key project management trend from 2019 was melding different project approaches together to find the best fit. This can help with change management on project and organizational levels, as you can tailor your methodologies to unexpected changes, disruptions, or problems.
  • Agile or agile-like methodologies don’t mix with organizations that are hesitant to change. One of the top three reasons that organizations avoid agile project methodologies was a culture that was adverse to change, with 48% of organizations citing this as a challenge to implementing agile.
  1.  Stay flexible. While organizational change can be slow and involve more red tape, project change occurs daily, and sometimes even hourly or by-the-minute. Adapt to changes by implementing scheduling, workflow, and agile-based tools, like HighGear, ActiveBatch, or Agilean.

3. Risk Management has Higher Stakes

It’s slightly more complicated than the board game is.

What’s Happening?

One of our key project management trends from 2019 was an increase in competitiveness, a trend that is still relevant to 2020 as it places more importance on risk management. Competition between agencies and organizations is increasing as more and more players enter the field. Companies need to have a risk management strategy to reduce the impact and frequency of threats and give them an edge over their competitors. As a PM, minimizing risks from project to project can boost project success and keep clients happy. It can also boost ROI and keeping customers returning.

What’s The Impact?

Risk management affects entire organizations, not just at the project level. Managing risk is the latest project management skill that PMs can use toward project success. According to the IMPA, 60% of project managers implement risk management throughout a project, and around 2 out of every 5 companies “never” or only “sometimes” involve a risk management process. More risk management at all stages in the project will help project managers foresee issues or threats before they arise and plan ways to mitigate those risks.

According to Wellingtone, risk management is a top 5 value-add process, but also one of the hardest to implement. PMs need to spend the time and effort on risk management, as the ROI is worth it. This means an increase in the volume and robustness of risk assessment prior to project kick-offs, as well as implementing a standard risk management strategy across all projects.

What You Should Do About It?

Risks can be scary. Strategize for them so you have a plan to shrink them down to size. Start with the steps here:

  1. Document risk assessments at the beginning of projects. Categorize the risks by client, department, project type, or other relevant categorize. Record the assessment for future projects and build up a library of common risks to plan for.
  2. Implement a risk management technique like SWOT Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, or a Probability and Impact Matrix. These can help you prioritize risks and determine which might have the largest negative impact on a project.
  3. Problem solve with your team in advance. During your project briefing, spend 5 to 10 mins discussing risks and how you might solve them so you can be prepared.

4. Increased Organizational Collaboration

increased organizational collaboration

Project management trends: it’s all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration in 2020.

What’s Happening?

Individual work—keeping your head down with your nose in your notes or reports—doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It never really existed at all in project management. People have always had to work together to get projects done, and heading into 2020 there are more tools, tips, and tricks than ever that you can leverage to collaborate with your team in a productive way.

What’s The Impact?

Communication is an essential component of collaboration. In 2019, we covered how soft skills like communication, negotiation, and emotional intelligence are increasingly providing more business value. Project management skills in communication will intensify in importance, and are likely to shoot to the top of the list for companies looking for and allocating project managers.

On a day to day level, this means more check-ins with your team, more quick meetings (who doesn’t love a 5 minute meeting), and more heads ups. You’ll find that projects run smoother, your team has more direction, and you’re proactive in approaching problems.

More collaboration means more collaboration tools. This is a little bit like the chicken and the egg: are we collaborating more because there are more tools, or are we using more collaboration tools because we need to collaborate more? Either way, tools are crucial to your collaboration process. 51% of companies are using collaboration tools in completing projects, and the most commonly used tools were SharePoint, MS Teams, and Confluence. Tools make it easier for team members to jump in on projects, so you can cover all angles, get a fresh perspective, and make better decisions.

What You Should Do About It?

Keep building your communication skills!  You can never be too good at communication, and your team, your superiors, and your clients will thank you. Here’s some ways to get started.

  1. Create a communication plan for you and your team to stick to, to make sure you’re all on the same page when it comes to checking in.
  2. Invest in a communication tool. Tools can provide just about any functionality you need, and they offer customization options so you can adjust the settings to find what works best for you and your team.
  3. Have more meetings, within reason, of course. While no one likes having a meeting when a quick instant message would have sufficed, having a few extra few meetings throughout a project can help you keep projects on track and stay proactive in anticipating issues.
  4. Get other people’s perspectives. Involve team members from other departments, other project teams, or other educational or cultural backgrounds. Everyone has a unique perspective—it’s likely they’ll present something you hadn’t thought of, helping you brainstorm or problem solve. At the very least, you’ll get a fresh pair of eyes on a deliverable, which never hurt anyone.

5. Shifting, Globalized Gig Economy

project management trends include a shifting, globalized gig economy

More people are working remote gigs (and the coffee shops are raking it in!).

What’s Happening?

Project managers already have firsthand knowledge of the growing gig economy—many teams are bringing on gig workers, and the increasing numbers of remote working and co-working arrangements has already begun to impact our approach in managing projects. Stats from Gallup show that 36% of workers earns income from gig work in some capacity. In fact, according to Arras People’s 2019 Project Management Benchmark Report, 42% of project managers are themselves freelancing, indicating this will become the norm more and more.

What’s The Impact?

More than the other project management trends, the gig economy has direct, immediate results in a project manager’s work. We often find ourselves with a smaller pool of core, full-time team members, who are supported by a distributed and shifting network of freelancers.

For PMs, managing a remote team comes with a whole new set of challenges in time, people, and task management. We’re continuously trying to answer the question of how we’ll keep work flowing smoothly when our teams are in different time zones, different continents, and often committed to more projects than just ours.

What You Should Do About It?

It appears this is one of the project management trends is here to stay. You’ve got to get used to gig workers and the quirks of managing a remote team. Here’s where you can start:

  1. Make it your job to be aware of the risks specific to remote teams, such as burnout and isolation, and develop strategies to minimize these risks. Likewise, develop strategies for motivating and inspiring a distributed team.
  2. Read this article on becoming more adept at managing remote teams, across time zones, who are often working flexibly and on different projects.
  3. Brush up your briefing: with less face-to-face check-in, setting your team up for success with clear requirements and extra clear expectations is essential.
  4. Add structure to a distributed team through the use of tools focused on workflow automation and business process management.

6. Greater Focus On Data

project manager trend - the growing importance of data

You can’t “not be a numbers person” anymore…

What’s Happening?

Now that we can collect large amounts of data, we need to find a use for it. With that mountain of information, companies expect that it must be useful. From understanding customer needs to detailing risks, analyzing data for important insight is a key activity in almost any development project.

The 2018 WEF Future of Work Report stated that by 2022, 85% of companies are either “likely” or “very likely” to expand their use of data analysis, especially big data. Big data is an important subset of data analysis, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It involves analyzing massive data sets for insights on audiences, customer needs, and demographics.

What’s The Impact?

Especially with profitability being trickier, we have to be smarter about the way we create project data, use data to estimate, and plan and forecast our projects. Yes, algorithms can help analyze some of the data, but the growing availability and importance of data means that project managers will need to step into a data analysis role from time to time.

This means setting up projects strategically with a plan for collecting the right types of data, and it also means helping teams and internal stakeholders get business insights and a common understanding from the data that is collected. We have more data than ever before, so we need to become adept at making sense of the data (and the confusion!). We need to become data translators who extract and communicate solid, clear insights from data. A PM who can put the human spin on data analysis is worth their weight in gold.

What You Should Do About It?

Learn to love the data and find the tools you need. Make sure you’re:

  1. Incorporating data analysis into your process
  2. Staying up-to-date on new tools for data visualization and reporting like Google Data Studio, Power BI, and Tableau
  3. Using (and choosing) data in ways that effectively present risks, progress, and results to stakeholders

1. Expanding Automation And Artificial Intelligence

You won’t be replaced by a limbless drone anytime soon—but you’d better learn to play nice with AI.

Following the world-altering inventions of steam power, electricity, and the internet, AI is propelling our global society into a fourth industrial revolution. In digital products and services, AI algorithms are being used to tailor companies’ products and services in real-time to suit the conditions of the marketplace. Internally, companies are using AI to automate tasks ranging from scheduling to data visualization.

What’s The Impact?

For digital project managers, technologies powered by AI will assist in prioritising projects and  allocating resources for production. AI-powered bots can calculate the best projects to take on and quickly and efficiently schedule and assign resources in real-time. Real-time scheduling of operations means that organizations can adjust to any late-breaking developments in employee availability or client needs.

Machine intelligence can also contribute to improved decision-making on multiple levels within a company. Consistency in decision-making is much more easily achieved by machines than people. According to the Project Management Institute’s Global Project Management Survey results for 2017, 41% of projects were rated as high complexity. The more complex the projects, the more value can be wrung from machine learning strategies to understand the process, risks, and outcomes.

Lastly, because we can use bots for fact-gathering and data analysis, project managers will find that aspects like relationship-building and negotiating enter as a critical part of the PM role. AI research teams are building machine learning systems to augment a project manager’s decision-making ability by analyzing data from multiple projects in the project portfolio. However, there’s no algorithm that can do project management tasks such as empathizing, actively listening, or tactfully negotiating.

What You Should Do About It?

Embrace it. It’s a literal no-brainer: machine intelligence can free up your brain for building meaningful, human-powered relationships with your team, stakeholders, and clients. Find ways to automate tasks so that you become as redundant as possible—this means that your teams, clients, and projects themselves become more self-sustaining. Take these steps:

  1. Start with your inbox. Set up automatic filters to sort incoming messages by client, project, priority, etc. This seems like a small step, but given how much time you spend sifting through email every day, spending just an hour learning to set up filters can improve your correspondence every day, for months to come.
  2. Look into the settings in the project management tools you use for scheduling, resource management, and invoicing. Automate tasks like:
  • Prompting your team for a meeting 10 minutes before the scheduled time
  • Following up with a client about an outstanding invoice
  • Sending a daily or weekly check-in message to team members
  • Generating and sending a daily or weekly report to your team
  • Receiving an alert when a project approaches a budget limit
  1. Ask yourself where your team’s bottlenecks are—and find a tool to eliminate it. You can use AI for monitoring progress, tracking team morale, managing documentation, content migration, etc. Examples:
  • Gather Content (online PM platform for web design) automates content migration through their API and CMS integrations
  • (project management software) apply machine learning algorithms to predict how much time your team will actually spend on tasks, notifying you in advance of any delays.

Listen to PM experts talk about the effects of AI in our podcast episode.

2. Increasing Business Value Of “Soft Skills”

Strong handshake, look ‘em in the eye—people skills are more valuable than ever.

On the other side of the artificial intelligence equation, we find emotional intelligence. Yes, machines can process, learn, and display lots of information, but they lack a critical ingredient in successful project management: humanity.

The family of social skills, such as emotional intelligence and skills in coordination, teaching, and negotiating, are increasingly regarded as some of the most valuable professional assets. In fact, in a prediction of the most in-demand job skills for 2020 in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Report, “social skills” ranked as employers’ second most desired skill (second only to “complex problem-solving skills”).

Beyond project management trends, soft skills are being more formally recognized as important in many fields of work.

What’s The Impact?

In essence, this means that our job is as important as ever (go ahead, pat yourself on the back). But really—as we become more adept at using the intelligence of machines to handle certain parts of our processes, this highlights a project manager’s people-focused role as an empathetic listener, anticipator of needs, adept coordinator, tactful negotiator, and motivational leader. The importance of developing the essential soft skills for project management cannot be overstated.

What You Should Do About It?

Well, you’re probably not going to get promoted based on your excel skills, and your developers will not laud you for your coding skills. Throughout your career, you must make continuous effort to hone the the people skills critical to managing smooth operations and happy teams.

Start to own and invest in the social aspects of your role by:

  1. Educating yourself on the role of emotional intelligence in PM
  2. Giving this podcast a listen: in this episode, we interview PM and emotional intelligence expert, author, and speaker Colin Ellis.
  3. If you haven’t read it, Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends & Influence People is a classic for thinking about skill development in the workplace.

3. Growing Tendency For Method Melding

A cocktail, please, with a hint of Agile and a drizzle of Scrum, topped with a spritz of Waterfall…

A few years ago, “going agile” would’ve been one of the top project management trends—but agile isn’t really new anymore. However, applying it well is still tricky. For instance, an agile approach may serve the working environment of your development team, but it’s difficult to execute a full-blown Agile project without wholehearted buy-in from a client.  And the reality is, the traditional Waterfall approach isn’t going anywhere. Waterfall is a suitable methodology for getting from A to B, especially in cases the project’s route and end result are well-defined.

As a result of our complex work environments, Agile, Waterfall, and a number of different methodologies are often incorporated into custom blends under the project management umbrella. Companies are increasingly adopting simultaneous planning and flat hierarchies, replacing the linear, traditional method for developing products.

And it is not just in software development—Agile principles are trickling into the work processes in finance, construction, marketing, and more as time goes on. As business catches up to the methodology, we are seeing a melding of old and new, innovative and trusted processes all coming together in new mixtures.

What’s The Impact?

For project managers, methodology melding presents a challenge that is two-fold. First, PMs must ensure we continuously seek out education in the latest methods so we understand the mindset and environment of our teams.

Additionally, we’ve got to walk a fine line between steering projects with clearly defined methodologies without being dogmatic. We’ve got to become confident at leading projects where we leave room to incorporate aspects of other approaches. We have to know which parts of which methodology or combination thereof will serve our specific case—our specific team, time frame, environment,  goals, etc.

What You Should Do About It?

Keep up with the latest methodologies and how they’re being applied—incorporate flexibility into your project plans so you can test and learn new approaches. Make sure you:

  1. Know enough about the most popular project methodologies in order to make good decisions about how you’ll use them.
  2. Give special attention to scheduling and workflow tools. If you’re blending and switching methodologies, you need a tool that can be customized to accommodate the shifts. Explore your options for 2018 with our 10 alternatives to Microsoft Project guide.

5. Increasingly Competitive Landscape

That cushy 20% net margin we enjoyed a decade ago is slipping down towards 10%…

Margins for agencies are tighter than ever before, due in part to the commoditization of the digital industry. A small boutique agency might do a web design project for $10k, while the big agency up the street charges $1M for it. However, that gap is steadily narrowing: clients expect more, for less, and are more savvy about how much things should cost.

What’s The Impact?

In an atmosphere of increased competition and tighter margins, agencies are pushed to specialize if they are going to survive. While 5 years ago, many of the big agencies aimed to be a one-stop-shop for everything digital, today, agencies are redefining themselves as specialists in a digital niche in order to differentiate their services from their competitors.

What You Should Do About It?

In short, we PMs need to be better at what we do. And understand more than ever what our teams are doing. With so many digital agencies out there to choose from, there has to be a good reason for clients to choose one over the other.

  • Up-skill yourself. Head over to the DPM School for professional training, or
  • Take advantage of our resources for managing projects well, from templates for kick-off meetings to budgeting basics and beyond.
  • Embrace the bleeding edge, and make sure your agency does, too. It’s hard to master, but there are opportunities for complex technical projects—if your agency can deliver, you’ll thrive.
  • Develop expertise that automatically takes you a step above the competition. Look to specialize in areas such as:
    • Blockchain
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Voice interface design
  • Service design and customer experience
  • Content production, video and podcasts
  • Data visualization and metrics

6. Growing Importance Of Human-Centered Design

We’re realizing that it’s best to design products with actual human needs in mind. Figures!

We are seeing human-centered design grow in importance as tech evolves. Human centered design is a way of designing products with people at the center of the design and implementation process, and can be seen as a way of integrating business and technology around human needs. The formal concept of human-centered design has been around for decades. However, it has taken a central role along with the rise of Agile and Lean principles and their focus on designing products based on feedback from user testing.

As digital products become more and more prevalent in our lives, we’re becoming more conscientious about how we go about designing them: we want products that serve real needs, with the best user experience, least risks, and greatest positive impact for humans. But no pressure.

What’s The Impact?

For digital project managers, a growing focus on human-centered design means expanding our skill set to include Customer Experience and Service Design. Increasingly, agencies will be tasked with creating products that speak to the needs of users, guided by customer insight and user feedback. The job requires a laser sharp focus on the customer insights so we’re steering the team to architect a solid human-centered solution—while also keeping teams on track towards the agreed-upon end product. Sometimes, this means descoping an idea with a team that’s gone a bit too “blue sky” in their solution development.

What You Should Do About It?

Project managers are no longer purely focused on managing development teams and producing websites. Today, you’ve got to produce something innovative and impactful, built upon empathy towards human needs and desires.

Set yourself apart with a strategic approach to managing human-centered design projects:

  • Learn more about human-centered design (Check out IDEO’s blog and head to Design Kit, who have a great intro video on HCD)
  • Focus on developing expertise in Customer Experience Design, Service Design, or other design thinking approach
  • Create alignment: host a guest speaker or workshop to help internal stakeholders understand the benefits and approaches in human-centered design

Project management trends often change the way large businesses operate, so you, the PM in the middle of it all, may very well become the driving force of transformation in 2019 and beyond. Do you see the effects of these project management trends in your work? What tools or methods have you found that help you manage change and transform your approach over time?

By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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