Changing the way we manage projects could change the world

After decades of project management based on an engineering-type model, it is time to think of projects in a new way – putting change management, people skills and entrepreneurship at the heart of our approach, argues Reinhard Wagner, President of the International Project Management Association (IPMA).

Projects are nothing new. During the seventeenth century, Daniel Defoe described the specific role projects play for shaping a better society in An Essay upon Projects. A hundred years later the first Industrial Revolution started, focusing on the efficiency and profits gained from the deployment of capital. By the late 1950s project management as we know it had emerged from the aerospace and defense projects (and programs) in the United States of America, based on the discipline of Operations Research (OR), which was very popular at the time – mainly focusing on mathematical approaches to complex engineering challenges, such as the Polaris missile (see Morris, 2013). From then on, the network techniques and planning methodology were predominant in the field of project management.

However, during the past 20 years we have found that this approach is too narrow. Focusing only on methodology for engineering-type deliverables in the context of the triple constraints (time, cost, quality) does not suffice – and still too many projects fail. Through their book Images of Projects Winter and Szczepanek (2009) help us to better understand the different perspectives that we are addressing with a project. One of the seven perspectives Winter and Szczepanek address in their book is the ‘change perspective’ of projects. That does not necessarily mean ‘a change project’; instead it means that more and more projects have a change component that requires the special attention of the project management. For example, introducing new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is not only an IT project, it has a great impact on the way processes are performed and thus requires special attention regarding change.

Today, we are experiencing a significant increase in the number and importance of projects. A survey by the German Project Management Association (GPM) regarding future trends in project management labelled this as ‘projectification’. All sectors – private, public and even not-for-profit organisations – are affected by this trend.

There seems to be real hype around project work, and people understand that project management is a key competence now and in future. The trend is so far-reaching that another, not yet published survey by the GPM found that nearly 40 per cent of the German GDP is performed through projects. Ralf Lundin et al. describe in their recent publication an emerging ‘project society’, formed by a multitude of ‘project-based organisations’ and ‘project networks’.

What does this all mean for the development of our society at large? Projects are at the heart of getting things done. We try to perform projects in a structured way in order to achieve the deliverables. However, we need to widen our approaches.

Projects are a means to realise our strategies. It’s not only the deliverables but also the long-term aspirations and the sustainable change that we are aiming at through projects. Thus, the deliverables of a project (or programme) are only a means, a capability for realising strategic, long-term benefits. This is what we need to have in mind when starting endeavours such as projects (or programmes). In this post-industrial world, we need to re-focus on outcomes and associated change.

What do we need to change in the way we manage projects?

  • We need to widen our perspectives on project management, thinking more strategically of projects as a means of realising strategies. Projects are about getting things done, in the most effective and sustainable manner.
  • Project managers are not only ‘coordinators’; more importantly, they are entrepreneurs. This means people with the courage to create something innovative and thus moving the world forward (
  • There is a need for convergence and synergies between the two disciplines of project management and change management. Those disciplines are two sides of the same coin. Project managers need to embed approaches adopted by change management practitioners and vice versa.
  • Project management is a mature discipline in many of the developed countries. Now there is an urgent need of education and training in many developing countries, starting from secondary education, through vocational and academic education and beyond. The education and training should not only focus on methods and tools, as many providers nowadays do. It should cover all competence areas, from technical competences (‘methodology’) and behavioural competences to contextual competences, as described in the IPMA Competence Baseline (ICB).
  • Last, but most important, projects are all about people. People perform projects. Project managers need to deal with many people in the context of the project (‘stakeholders’) and, through all the change activities that make up the project, they affect many people and thus need to take their expectations seriously. If all the people involved or affected by the projects understand the purpose and find it meaningful, the change is easier to perform.


  • Defoe D (1697). An Essay upon Projects, London (Available from Amazon in modern reprints).
  • Gemünden HG and Schoper Y (2014). ‘Future Trends in Project Management‘ in PM Aktuell, 05/2014, Nuremberg, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement.
  • IPMA (2006). IPMA Competence Baseline (ICB), Version 3.0, Nijkerk, International Project Management Association.
  • Lundin RA et al (2015). Managing and Working in Project Society – Institutional Challenges of Temporary Organizations, Cambridge University Press.
  • Morris PWG (2013). Reconstructing project management, John Wiley & Sons.
  • Winter M and Szczepanek T (2009). Images of Projects, Gower Publishing.