26 April, 2021

Beyond Agility: Gymnastic Enterprises Dominate the 2021 PMI Pulse of the Profession

Businesses changed a lot during 2020. That is the first – and least interesting conclusion of PMI’s latest Pulse of the Profession report. More interesting are their conclusions about which businesses changed most successfully. In a report titled ‘Beyond Agility’, PMI describes what it calls the ‘Gymnastic Enterprise’.

And I like both the term ‘Gymnastic Enterprise’ and the ideas it encapsulates. I only wish the PMI would present its ideas with greater rigor. As often happens, the intent of its 2021 Pulse of the Profession report outsmarts its content.

So, what does PMI mean by Gymnastic Enterprise?

And how strong is its case for such an entity? These are the questions I will tackle in this review of the PMI’s report: ‘Beyond Agility: Pulse of the Profession 2021’.

You can get your own copy from the Pulse of the Profession 2021 page of PMI’s website.

Past Pulse of the Profession Reviews

We’ve been reviewing the PMI’s Pulse of the Profession reports since we started this site. You can take a look over all of our reviews:

You can get copies of these and earlier Pulse of the Profession reports from the PMI’s website.

Beyond Agility: Gymnastic Enterprises Dominate the 2021 PMI Pulse of the Profession


We will divide our review of Beyond Agility into five parts:

  1. Gymnastic Enterprises: The Central Idea of The PMI’s 2021 Pulse of the Profession Report
  2. The Four Key Ideas Supporting Gymnastic Enterprises
  3. A Critical Assessment of Beyond Agility and the Gymnastic Enterprise
  4. Beyond Agility: The Report’s Quixotic Title
  5. Additional Nuggets from the Appendix to Beyond Agility

At the end, I invite you to add your comments on the report.

Gymnastic Enterprises: The Central Idea of The PMI’s 2021 Pulse of the Profession Report

PMI introduces its 2021 Pulse of the Profession report with the unsurprising conclusion that 2020…

accelerated new ways of working and delivering value that had been gathering steam for some time.

Beyond Agility, page 3
Project Management Institute, 2021

And the report goes on to describe how this shift is more accentuated in certain regions and industries.

The Big Changes in 2021

The biggest changes PMI’s respondents reported were in:

  • Digital Transformation
  • Business Strategy
  • Organizational Adaptability

And these were at their greatest in the Financial Services sector and at their least in Government. Wisely, PMI attributes an element of the marginal improvements it found in project outcomes last year, over previous years, to the cancellation of marginal projects.

I think this holds a valuable lesson that PMI neglects to draw out…

Canceling poorly specified, supported, or resourced projects is a critical way to improve the performance of our project and program organizations.

The Gymnastic Enterprise: PMI’s Big Idea for 2021

In looking at its data, PMI identifies the emergence of what they label as ‘the Gymnastic Enterprise’. They are not 100% clear on how they are defining these bodies. But, I think the most reliable articulation is this:

We asked respondents to characterize their organization’s approach to ways of working, and nearly a third said that any and all possible methods were primarily or exclusively used to solve problems. We classified these as gymnastic enterprises. 

Beyond Agility, page 5
Project Management Institute, 2021

What are Gymnastic Enterprises?

So, Gymnastic Enterprises are those that combine:

  • New ways of working
    (all possible methods available to solve the problem at hand), with
  • Old ways of working
    (methods that have proven effective in the past)

…to a high degree (mostly or exclusively describes the organization).

This is an interesting way to describe an organization – and one I like very much. It’s about the ability to select from the wider possible toolset in addressing the full range of organizational challenges.

What are the Characteristics of a Gymnastic Enterprise?

From there, PMI goes on to make a wide number of assertions* about how the characteristics of these Gymnastic Organizations and how they perform. The characteristics PMI identifies include:

  • Combining structure, form, and governance with the ability to flex and pivot
    This is almost definitional.
  • Using people skills to both inspire and deliver others
    PMI calls these ‘Power Skills – see below – and asserts that traditional organizations typically do one or the other; not both. I find this assertion rather suspect.
  • Encouraging breadth and depth of skills
    What has come to be widely referred to as ‘T-shaped’ people.
  • Developing a range of value-creating capabilities
    PMI does not specify what it means here – but I take them to imply that traditional organizations are less flexible in their choice of predictive, adaptive, and hybrid methods.
  • Making more use of standardized risk management practices
    This would account for an element of the higher outcome performance that PMI reports.
  • Having a high Benefits Realization process maturity
    This is something we have advocated for, leading us to write an in-depth article, supported by a video, and to develop a full course: Project Benefits Management.
  • Also having an effective PMO
    At one or more levels of the organization.
  • Greater use of modern technologies
    Cloud solutions, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and 5G Mobile internet. Do check-ou our article: Project Management Priorities: Meeting 6 Big Challenges of a Fast-changing World
  • Seeing collaborative leadership as a high priority
    PMI links this to talent development, but does not define its term ‘collaborative leadership’ – leaving us to fill in the gap with our own interpretation.


* Why do I use the word assertions, by the way? Because the report fails to show evidence for causal links and, often, does not even show us the correlational data. I don’t doubt the latter exists, but see the section below, on A Critical Assessment of Beyond Agility and the Gymnastic Enterprise for more details.

Enhanced Performance of Gymnastic Enterprises

Here are some of the ways that PMI asserts that Gymnastic Enterprises have outperformed traditional organizations:

  • Undergoing widespread business change
  • Greater success in delivering business outcomes
  • Avoiding scope creep
  • Increased productivity
  • Higher project management maturity (is this a characteristic or a performance outcome? I was unsure where to place this one)
  • Reduced investment waste
  • Improved effort towards diversity and inclusion
    But barely better – and arguably statistically insignificant – outcomes at C-suite level. Note, PMI refers to performance on gender balance but totally ignores race. This is at least as important and, arguably, a bigger issue in many countries.

Power Skills: PMI’s Second Attempt at a New Buzz-word

Along with the term ‘Gymnastic Enterprise’, PMI has also tried to coin the term ‘Power Skills’. This is what everyone else calls ‘People Skills’ and I do not like this attempted coinage.

Traditional enterprises may use people skills – what we call power skills…

Beyond Agility, page 5
Project Management Institute, 2021

PMI goes on to list some of these Power Skills (page 13), as including:

  • collaborative leadership
  • empathy
  • an innovative mindset
  • the ability to build trusting relationships

I have absolutely no doubt about the value of these skills. Below, I will say that their importance is not a new insight. But, unlike the term Gymnastic Enterprise, ‘Power Skills’ does not encapsulate anything new. It is simply a re-labelling. And an ugly one at that.

The Four Key Ideas Supporting Gymnastic Enterprises

In Beyond Agility, PMI asserts that its Gymnastic Enterprises enable their people to ‘work smarter in three key ways’.

Surprise! These three key ways closely mirror both PMI’s Talent Triangle and the structure of its new PMP Examination.

  1. Mastering different ways of working
    Agile, predictive, hybrid, or using ‘tech-enhanced tools’
    Talent Triangle: Technical Project Management
    PMP Exam Domain: Process
  2. Elevating Power Skills
    PMI’s new jargon for personal professional skills like people skills
    Talent Triangle: Leadership
    PMP Exam Domain: People
  3. Building Business Acumen to create well-rounded employees
    Talent Triangle: Strategic and Business Management
    PMP Exam Domain: Business Environment

These three form the topics of three of the four substantive parts of the Beyond Agility report. The fourth focuses on organizational culture, which PMI describes as the Connective Tissue of Gymnastic Enterprises.

New Ways of Working: Traditional, Agile, Hybrid… Gymnastic

This section sees adaptability as core to the gymnastic enterprise. It draws on four arenas for this agility (and beyond):

  1. Selecting your project process
  2. Adaptive mindset to overcome old ways of thinking
  3. Adopting leading technology solutions:
    1. Cloud solutions
    2. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
    3. Internet of Things (IoT)
    4. 5G Mobile internet.
  4. Using new apps and methods including a pivot in 2020 to virtual team-working

People Have the Power: Personal Professional Effectiveness

The advantage goes not to those with the greatest technology acumen but to those who can combine that know-how with uniquely human qualities to meet increasingly complex and ambiguous challenges.

Beyond Agility, page 13
Project Management Institute, 2021

This is not new – and it is no longer a clever thing to say. If there was ever a time when we did not know this, it was a very long time ago!

But, I do agree that this sentiment is correct. And I like the way that PMI expresses the imperative that: ‘The talent-plus-tech equation is the only way to move true change forward’.

Breadth and Depth: PMI’s articulation of T-shaped Project Managers

PMI is quite right in wanting us to have breadth and depth to our professional expertise. They describe what they mean by this:

…not only having deep expertise in their own roles but also having the range of knowledge required to understand macro business objectives and their implications.

Beyond Agility, page 15
Project Management Institute, 2021

This is already widely known. And Agile practitioners refer to such people as ‘T-shaped’ people…

Connective Tissue: The Impact of Organizational Culture

PMI correctly argues that organizational leaders need to be deliberate in crafting the culture that will support the changes they want to see. And to support that culture they need to identify the capabilities they need and establish talent management process to develop them.

I find this section the most compelling of the four principal parts of the Beyond Agility report. Although I share PMI’s evident disappointment in the limited progress that even its star Gymnastic Enterprises are making in the arena of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I do also wish they had have enquired into and gathered data on racial inclusion.

That said, I do acknowledge how hard this would be. Especially for an organization embedded in one culture (the US, with its challenging societal problems around race) seeking to frame sensitive and valuable questions about a range of cultures. And I also recognize that, with only 3,950 respondents, there will be few countries where PMI is able to gain statistically valid data. However, ‘Civil, Civic, and Equality Movements’ is one of the PMI’s five MegaTrends.

A Critical Assessment of Beyond Agility and the Gymnastic Enterprise

This report follows the pattern of recent PMI Pulse of the Profession reports. It presents some very interesting ideas, wrapped up in a very poorly written report. The content is hard to follow. Parapgraphs often follow one another with barely a link between the ideas. And the report makes numerous statements that it fails to stand up with evidence.

Though I share the conclusions, I recognize many of them as my own internal prejudices – or experienced-based conclusions as I prefer to call them. PMI often states these assertions without showing us any solid evidence.

The correlation vs causation question

One of the first things we learn in critical thinking is that correlation does not imply causation. That is, if we find two things together, it does not necessarily mean that one thing causes the other.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Latin for: After this, therefore because of this
This is a logical fallacy that, because one thing follows another, the first thing caused it.
This is very often not the case.
Concluding causation requires specific evidence.

PMI finds many correlations arising from its distinction between traditional and Gymnastic Enterprises. But I see little evidence that they have proved causation – nor the direction of any causative effects.

The Statistical Significance of PMI’s Conclusions in Beyond Agility

We need to consider significance levels in the difference in performance that PMI reports for traditional and gymnastic enterprises. 

With a sample size of 3,950 professionals, we can expect a difference of 1.6% to be significant (1/√n).

However, this is only true if all respondents are truly independent of one another. Certainly, many of the case studies that PMI cites are from large organizations that will have many PMI members among their ranks. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that a number of the survey respondents came from the same organizations as other respondents. Without the raw data, we cannot assess the significance of the distinctions they find. But some of the differences that PMI shows between traditional and gymnastic enterprises are in the 1, 2, 3, and 4 percent ranges. We must treat these with skepticism: nice if they were true, but currently unproven.

The Missed Opportunities

PMI has adopted five Megatrends for 2021:

  1. Covid-19
  2. Climate Crisis
  3. Civil, Civic, and Equality Movements
  4. Shifting Globalization Dynamics
  5. Mainstream Artificial Intelligence

To put it bluntly… Where are these in your survey data, PMI?

Is it a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing? Or did you deliberately choose to ignore at least two of these entirely and refer only in passing to the other three of them?

Beyond Agility: The Report’s Quixotic Title

The title, ‘Beyond Agility’ is a bit of a tease. But PMI does not make clear its meaning.

Aside from the title itself, the word ‘beyond’ appears only once. And ‘agility’ only twice. And neither of those times is with ‘beyond. Quite simply, PMI never explains their title within the report. So, I take it to be the product of PMI’s marketing team, rather than an intellectually coherent title for the content of its report.

However, if I were to interpret the title, I guess the implication is pretty clear. I suppose PMI to imply that a Gymnastic Enterprise has moved ‘beyond’ simple agility. I just wish they would make it clear.

But really… I cannot help inferring that agility is the word of the moment, and PMI wanted it in the report’s title for no other good reason. The term ‘gymnastic enterprises’, on the other hand, would not have such obvious resonances, and nor would it fare well in with the search engines.

Additional Nuggets from the Appendix to Beyond Agility

The separate appendix document presents around 3-dozen (37 by my quick count) charts extracted from PMI’s dataset. The document has no narrative and does not clearly connect to the main report, except in a few overlapping graphs. It is an appendix in name only – as PMI publishes it as a free-standing document. It feels carelessly put together as an afterthought.

But, nonetheless, I thank PMI for this, because, among the 36+ graphs are some interesting nuggets of information. Here are a few:

  • Just over two-thirds (69%) of respondents replied that their organization has a PMO (Project Management Office) of some sort. Though we have no breakdown of types of organisation (Grrrr).
  • Agile (45%) and Hybrid (44%) Project Management have not yet cut through to half of all organizations represented in the data.
  • 95% of respondents agree somewhat (32%) or strongly (63%) that diversity and inclusiveness in Project teams increases project value. That’s great news. If only this were replicated outside of this sample, across the world. That said, scale up the 1% who disagree strongly and that could be 80 million people! (Aaargh)
  • 31% of project teams are making use of the Internet of Things (IoT). I find that rather surprising figure. Advanced robotics scores 15% too.
  • The largest cause of project failure was ‘change in organization’s priorities’ (41%) followed by poor requirements gathering (40%) and Change in Project objectives (38%). Come on people: it’s time to get your stakeholder engagement, project definition, and business case building right, right from the start!

What Do You Think of this Report and the Idea of Gymnastic Enterprises?

I hope you will take the time to read the PMI’s full Beyond Agility report. And, particularly, please do let us know what you think. The opinions above are my own, and I do not expect everyone to share them. I’d love to know what you think and will respond to every comment you make, below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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