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Project management: adapt or die!

Blog posted by: Stephen Dowling – owner/founder ETM Consultancy and Training and Stephen Callaghan – Agile Transformation Lead, AGL, 09 March 2018.

3 lit lightbulbs of decreasing size sat on different colured plinths

Project management and transformation practitioners Stephen Dowling and Stephen Callaghan have been sharing their 'Adapt or Die!' ideas with organizational change practitioners in Australia. AXELOS caught up with them to find out what this means for projects and project management

Stephen Callaghan (SC): There has been much talk about the traditional role of the project manager dying and, from my own experience, the role is disappearing in many of the organizations I’m engaging with.

For example, I currently work for a large utility company on a $300m+ transformation programme that used to have dozens of project managers and now we have none at all. That was a transition that happened in less than 12 months.

However, it’s not that the role has become obsolete or isn’t being done. It’s just being done differently by different people. There are lots of different names and roles that seem to be replacing the title of project manager.

Stephen Dowling (SD): Unlike Stephen (Callaghan), who has lived in the agile community for years, I’ve come from a traditional space so hearing that the role 'Project Manager' was disappearing in many organizations was a huge shock to me and I wanted to understand why.

But it’s absolutely true. The title 'Project Manager' seems to be transitioning into different roles and I now understand why. People need to wake up and see that the world is changing really fast!

SC:  Yes, this is a very important point. It’s not just re-naming a job; something fundamental is going on. The role of project manager is being split up – and it’s messy, with shades of grey everywhere.

SD: Things are definitely not black and white. For example, in some industries, such as construction, the project manager role won’t disappear; but in technology environments I expect a lot of change and disruption.

SC: I’d say that right now we’re on the cusp of a perfect storm, with so many currents of disruption happening at the same time.

You need the ability to pivot very quickly. Speed is of the essence right now and organizations need to be aware that competitors are coming at them from all sides. They need to morph and to take advantage of the situation; to know where the pivots and threats are going to come from.

SD: What is coming is utterly phenomenal. Over the last 30 years of technology change, it’s estimated that we’ve only seen 1% of the change in technology. In the next thirty years we’re expected to see 99%!

SC: The rise of AI, and the way it’s attacking traditional services, roles and even project management is a big thing. Call centres are already experimenting with AI chatbots. This is a very different proposition from having staff and logistics and this will happen really quickly. Traditional “management” jobs are also rapidly being automated. Do you really need to pay very large wages to people just to create PowerPoint packs and reports?

The big question is what will it mean to the rest of the organization? Existing project management practices just aren’t adequate for these changes. The traditional, waterfall approach needs to be looked at. For example, just say you have a steering committee that will generally meet every three months; this 'steer' needs to be far more rapid than that. We need quick iterations, more flexibility and regular communication.

SD: Essentially, every organization on the planet is now a software and tech organization, which needs to be able to operate at speed and satisfy customer demands and needs.

SC: So, for project managers who want to handle these changes, top of their list needs to be constant learning: to expose themselves to blogs, to read books, to network and talk to the right people, to attend conferences and to let go of some of the beliefs and habits that they’ve clung on to.

SD: My background means that I’ve lived exactly this! The key thing now is to have a bigger toolbox. Yes, traditional approaches can still work but now we must be able to utilize Agile, Lean and other creative approaches.

Another important consideration is that, depending on the context you’re working in, the calibre of people needed is lifting to a whole new level.

SC: The concept of “Servant Leadership” is also a great example of a move that would suit some project managers to make. That type of leadership, and role, is about mentoring, facilitating and guiding people rather than the traditional project management role.

SD: Given there are so many frameworks and different methods, it’s a complex jigsaw to figure out. It’s not one size fits all! Organizations need to figure out their own. The key thing is collaboration with people outside of the normal sphere of project management. Having an open mindset is important as connecting is crucial to problem solving in our own context.

SC: However, this isn’t all doom and gloom. Organizations will still be attracted to people who have managed very large projects before using traditional project management approaches; people who can keep their heads in the storm. This means that there are project managers who are already well-placed to adapt to the future, to re-brand themselves; if you’re open to change, there are some big opportunities in major transformation programmes.

SD: Organizations need to be open to more agile ways of working. Currently the levels of people’s engagement across the world is quite shocking – we need to unleash their potential. When people enjoy what they do, know why their doing it and are empowered they become more engaged, motivated and connected. These approaches and ways of working are hugely effective, delivering better and faster outcomes and, in our view, will become more of the normal way of working for all organizations.


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