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Five of the Most Inspiring and Influential Projects of 2021

They’re changing the world as we know it, thanks to changemakers behind the scenes.

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Despite historic times that put the world on pause, the past few years have brought tremendous innovation, from vaccines and new ways of working to wildlife protection on a scale we haven’t seen before. And these inventions, experiments, and creations were all possible thanks to the indispensable project managers and changemakers who turned ideas into a world-altering reality.

However, bringing to life any ideas — big or small — amidst a global pandemic is downright challenging, to put it lightly. Across the world, teams pivoted quickly to remote working (some overnight), all while juggling professional, personal, and family lives. Living and working through a global pandemic tested the mettle of everyone. But, yet, many teams and leaders, especially those who brought to life the projects profiled here, put their skills to work and persevered to make change.

Each year, Project Management Institute (PMI) releases a list of the most influential projects across industries and regions, a roadmap to others who’d like to transform the world one day. In that spirit, below are five bold, innovative, and collaborative projects from that list, along with some lessons learned to inspire action.

The mRNA Covid-19 Vaccines

A woman with gloves, a mask, and goggles on fills up a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine Shutterstock / Viacheslav Lopatin

As Covid-19 hit its full rampage in early 2020, the health of a global population — and the fate of a global economy — hung in the balance. A vaccine couldn’t come fast enough, and most take a decade to develop, test, and make their way to market. Even the fast-tracked 1967 mumps vaccine took four years from start to finish.

But two teams, and their project managers keeping everything on track, believed they could deliver Covid-19 vaccines in less than a year by using messenger RNA (mRNA). Instead of using the virus or viral proteins — which are expensive to create and difficult to store — mRNA uses the DNA code of a virus to direct a person’s cells to make specific proteins to fight infections.

By the end of 2020, both teams had delivered, hurtling past critical milestones and challenges — and jabs were soon dosed out around the world. Now, researchers are examining how the tech might be used to combat other diseases, including malaria, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Lesson for Leaders: When working under a deadline, “power skills” like collaborative leadership, an innovative mindset, and complex problem solving are crucial.

The Galápagos Islands Rewilding

Two iguanas sit on a rock overlooking the ocean in the sun Shutterstock / Maridav

The Galápagos Islands are going wild (again). A coalition of nonprofits and a certain eco-conscious celebrity are joining forces to restore the spectacular array of biodiversity of one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, which will also help bolster the economy through ecotourism.

The project includes restoring Floreana Island, home to 54 threatened species. A project led by Re:wild, Gálapagos National Park Directorate and Island Conservation, along with local communities, plans to reintroduce 13 locally extinct species, including the Floreana mockingbird, and to establish a captive breeding program to prevent the extinction of the pink iguana.

The project leaders of the rewilding plan to replicate their success in the Galápagos, and the scale is ambitious. Over the next 10 years, they will launch an unprecedented push across Latin America’s Pacific archipelagos, from Mexico down to Chile. The coalition aims to double the areas under protection and protect at least 30 percent of each country’s waters, while reversing the decline of more than 250 globally threatened species. They’re just getting started.

Lesson for Leaders: When scaling a project, recognize the potential complex factors a team will face in addition to scaling team size. Key considerations include geographic and organizational distribution, skills availability, and compliance.

The Great Work-From-Home Experiment

A man with headphones on, sits in front of a laptop and an open notebook, working Shutterstock / fizkes

What began as a necessary adaptation to keep employees safe during the height of the pandemic quickly became an incubator for fresh thinking around office work — or what used to be office work. After more than a year and a half of hunkering down at home, many employees are now simultaneously settled into their routines and craving time together. Employers and project managers are listening and adapting, whether it’s by going completely virtual, welcoming workers back to the office safely, or some combination of the two. Now, reports say that 20 percent of the global workforce could effectively do their jobs from home several days a week, and there could be four times as many workers working from home now than pre-pandemic.

That leaves project leaders translating lessons learned from the great work-from-home experiment into spaces and systems that can flex to employees’ — and employers’ — needs. Doing so requires even bolder actions: closing some of those high-profile HQ locations, redesigning offices for fewer people, improving resources for wellbeing and collaboration, and fundamentally rethinking what being “at work” even means.

Lesson for Leaders: Like never before, empathy has an invaluable place in business. When facing moments of adversity, lead with understanding and compassion. In a rapidly changing world, togetherness, understanding, problem-solving, and solution-finding are among the essential mainstays.

The Tulsa Race Massacre Excavation

An excavator machine digs into the ground Shutterstock / Petair

It happened a century ago, but the pain of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre still runs deep. What started with a young Black shoeshine vendor being accused of assaulting a white elevator operator in Tulsa, Oklahoma, escalated over the next few days into the razing of Greenwood, the city’s most prosperous Black neighborhood.

Few official records of the days’ events exist, and there’s no official count of lives lost during the massacre, though historians believe the number may be as high as 300. And a 2001 government report concluded that city officials had provided firearms and ammunition to white locals, effectively authorizing them to commit violence.

Looking to answer lingering questions, government leaders have launched a wide-reaching program, using methods including survivor interviews and ground-surveying technology to locate and recover the remains of those killed.

The project broke ground with a test excavation in 2020, followed by a full dig this year, and the team says that so far, it’s been successful. The project managers on the team hope to engage the community throughout the process and build trust through transparency so that more survivors and their descendants will come forward, and the world can get a better idea of the full scope of the massacre and its victims.

Lesson for Leaders: Trust is a crucial component in any project especially as communication breakdowns can contribute to project failures. Take time to build trust by contracting relationships, fostering community, and communicating effectively.

The Kenyan National Wildlife Census

Three giraffes face the camera, in front of Mount Kilimanjaro Shutterstock / Volodymyr Burdiak

The lions, wildebeest, elephants, and leopards wandering the plains of Kenya aren’t just majestic: they’re a revenue stream that can deliver powerful economic benefits. After all, tourism fuels 8 percent of Kenya’s GDP. But poaching, climate change, and a human population explosion are putting many of the country’s most well-known animals — and economic growth — at risk. As a response, three government agencies launched the country’s first systematic census this year to better track where Kenya’s most-threatened species live, and to glean conservation insights for some of its 25,000 species.

Results of the first census — which involved project leaders managing 100 people, camera traps, light aircrafts, helicopters, boats, and four-wheel-drive vehicles across a span of nearly 140,000 square miles — revealed that 14 species are nationally endangered. That includes five, such as the black rhino, that are critically endangered. The team is hoping to protect Kenya’s wildlife for years to come with the help of wildlife officials, a change in conservation policy, and studies on habits and migration patterns.

Lesson for Leaders: Passion is the key to success. Especially when the project you are managing is also a legacy. Be passionate to allow yourself to go “all-in” and strive for a fulfilling goal that will have impact for years, decades to come.