Project Management

2021 Megatrends Report: Meeting the Challenge of Mounting Disruption

28 Jan 2021
Sunil Prashara
Sunil Prashara previews the global trends that will affect our world in 2021 and beyond…and PMI’s strategies for counterbalancing the rising forces of disruption.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

2020 was a year of massive disruption. It’s hardly surprising that the issues identified in our 2021 Megatrends Report—which tracks the long-term technological, economic, geopolitical and societal trends affecting the world—all deal with disruption in one form or another.

It’s important that project managers understand these trends. Our community of professionals no longer has the luxury of operating in a vacuum, detached from the larger context; success today requires that project professionals display strong business acumen and understand the broader strategic environment in which we’re operating. Make no mistake about it, real change will require collaboration and inclusion—creating an ecosystem of change-makers that can drive forward new ways of thinking.

The tectonic shifts identified in the 2021 Megatrends Report provide a glimpse into the future—a preview of the world we’ll live in and the types of projects we’ll be leading. Indeed, as change-makers who turn ideas into reality, this community will be charged with leading efforts to overcome these challenges. Project leaders are more indispensable than ever in a period of exponentially increasing disruption; we’re uniquely positioned to address the problems that we as a society will face in 2021 and the years beyond.


As with past versions of this research on global business trends, our 2021 report is based on a synthesis of extensive trend analysis—news reports, industry data, and interviews with project professionals around the world. Our research provides valuable insights into the forces that will shape our profession and our world in the coming years. Here are five key trends giving us insight into what the future will bring:


The impact of COVID-19 will extend well beyond the point of mass vaccinations. Not only has the pandemic had devastating health and economic effects, but in many parts of the world, it has revealed significant vulnerabilities in our preparedness capabilities and deep-seated inequities in our health and economic systems—including a significant divide between digital knowledge workers and essential workers serving on the front lines in at-risk jobs.

One silver lining of 2020 is that the crisis accelerated the digital transformation of our lives—creating, nearly overnight, a sea change in how we live, work and learn. Team members able to work from home now have many more options in terms of where they live. And without the need to commute, they can flex schedules and work routines to find new ways to achieve work-life balance. This new style of working is likely to persist long after the pandemic has ended.


Climate crisis

In addition to dealing with the pandemic, communities around the world continue to grapple with extreme weather events, which scientists increasingly attribute to the climate crisis. There’s still hope that we can slow and—with the aid of breakthrough technology innovation—even reverse what seems to be an inexorable rise in global temperatures.

But time is running out. We need to marshal resources on a global scale to alter the broad trajectory of climate change and mitigate its many near-term consequences—which seem be coming faster and faster, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged populations around the world.


Civil, civic and equality movements

From the movement that birthed the Arab Spring to global protests that emerged in 2020 following George Floyd’s death, recent years have been marked by mass demonstrations protesting police violence, systemic racism against Black and minority populations and growing economic inequality.

While these demonstrations may pose risks in terms of business and political instability, the broader movement aligns with a growing corporate commitment to racial, gender and ethnic diversity—and could ultimately help unlock greater opportunity for more around the world.


Shifting globalization dynamics

It’s no surprise that emerging markets have displayed tremendous dynamism and growth.

Within these broad currents, however, are some troubling trends. For example, we’re seeing rapid growth in the service sector but at the expense of industrialization that generally leads to higher standards of living. We also see rising levels of poverty, unemployment and urban decay as more and more people congregate in overburdened cities and population centers. These challenges will test efforts to continue raising living standards and attracting multinational investment.


Mainstream artificial intelligence

AI is going mainstream. Algorithms now make decisions for us based on our behaviors and will soon have the power to respond to our emotional states. This will further transform the way we live, work and play. These will affect several aspects of our lives. The growth of AI, however, will require vigilance to ensure that encoded opinions and biases are detected and corrected and that economically disadvantaged regions, groups and sections of the population have equal access to the technology’s benefits.


As project leaders, there are four ways we can respond to and reshape these forces of disruptive change to bring about positive social value:

  • Take on initiatives that enhance social impact—many organizations are making social impact programs a priority, so project managers now have more opportunities to apply their skills to usher positive societal changes. We can also embed environmental and social sustainability goals into existing projects to bring the change we like to see.
  • Foster innovative partnerships—organizations are looking outside their traditional circle of collaborators and engaging a more diverse set of partners to drive change. They are also exploring new partnership models, including innovative public-private partnerships and alliances with organizations with expertise in particular areas.
  • Rethink relationships with customers and stakeholders—organizations are redefining the value they bring to stakeholders and assessing needs holistically so that they’re solving the right problems for the right people.
  • Commit to continuous learning—a necessary way to stay on top of today’s disruption-driven environment. Look for opportunities for virtual learning, and even AI-enabled agile learning, to join the ecosystem of change-makers driving systemic change.


When operating in a VUCA world, the future will inevitably bring change. Rather than trying to avoid that simple reality, let’s commit ourselves to imagining how we can tackle tomorrow’s challenges.

Sunil Prashara Sunil Prashara

As PMI's Former President & Chief Executive Officer, Sunil Prashara was the lead advocate for PMI’s global organization, serving more than three million professionals working in nearly every country of the world. His primary responsibility was to implement PMI’s global strategic plan with a priority on strategic focus, customer centricity and organizational agility. This included expanding the PMI footprint globally, as well as digitizing PMI’s offerings and platforms to benefit its members and a variety of other stakeholders.