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Five insights on the future of the project profession

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APM’s Project Management Conference Manchester saw the start of something that I hope will prove to be pivotal in the evolution of our profession. 

It was the launch of Projecting the Future, a big conversation about the future of the project profession.

Our new discussion paper sets out some of the ways that the project profession is changing. But it’s just the start. Over the months ahead, we want to work with you – APM members, professionals across the project community and wider stakeholders affected by project management – to answer some searching questions about how our profession can evolve and thrive in the years ahead.

I chaired an excellent panel discussion at Manchester with great questions from the conference floor, which got our big conversation started. Here are five key takeaways. 

  1. This should be our time

We live in a time of unprecedented and accelerating change. Businesses and public sector organisations alike wrestle with a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. As the Cynefin framework (explored in the discussion paper) illustrates, we work in ever-more complex and even chaotic environments. We have to be adaptable and embrace the new. 

In the face of powerful trends like digital disruption, senior leaders are spending less time on business as usual, and more time on changing their businesses. That means more time on projects – because projects are how successful change happens.

  1. We need to change perceptions

Paradoxically, despite this ‘projectification’ of work, there is still too much ignorance and scepticism about the value added by the project profession among many of our colleagues, including senior executives.

Jo Stanford of Health Education England explained how the NHS has started to provide core skills modules for clinicians, helping them understand the basics of project and change management. Building understanding is vital if we’re to get away from being used only as “project management first-aiders”.

Jane Clayson of KCOM agreed that many leaders see project management as bureaucracy: a blocker and a barrier to getting work done. Inexperienced project managers haven’t helped by being inflexible and dogmatic in their approach – more experienced professionals know to be proportional, adapting to the job at hand.

  1. A new generation is coming

Perceptions will also be changed by the emergence of a new generation of project professionals.

Samantha Blair, a degree apprentice at Sellafield Ltd, pointed out that historically people have become project managers as a second stage of their careers, building on their technical specialism as engineers, for example. But the growth of degree apprenticeships means a new generation is emerging with talented young people entering the project profession at the very start of their careers. I’ve been blown away by the appetite of apprentices like Samantha for doing things differently.

  1. Learning and development has to keep pace

There was lively discussion about how project managers learn and a strong feeling that too much learning and development remains theoretical, bearing little or no relationship to complex real-world challenges. Stuart Forsyth of BAE Systems pointed out that problems are often caused by the misapplication of different methodologies or tools, used in the wrong context.

More broadly there is a real need for experiential learning, like the Chartered Project Professional status and apprenticeships. Tomorrow’s project professionals will need a broad set of abilities including stakeholder engagement and relationship building skills, emotional intelligence and the ability to lead through networks.

  1. Shaping the future needs the input of us all

One of the most important things I said at the conference was the Projecting the Future team doesn’t have all the answers. We might not even have all the right questions.

That’s why we want to have a big conversation that’s inclusive of everyone – heads of profession, seasoned project managers and new professionals – as well as stakeholders, including senior leaders that are not normally part of the conversation about project management. We look forward to your contributions.

How to contribute

Start by reading our discussion paper and sharing it through your networks.

You can listen back to our webinar on Projecting the Future, which generated a great discussion and you can also view the presentation slides.

Then tell us what you think. Whether it’s on the APM Facebook page, LinkedIn page, or on Twitter using #projectingthefuture, or by emailing us through the website – we want to hear your thoughts, ideas and your case studies of innovative practice that are starting to address the challenges we all face.

And in the months ahead watch out for a series of short challenge papers on some of the major trends reshaping the world for us all – starting soon, with a look at the implications of the data revolution and artificial intelligence; the fourth industrial revolution.

I hope you will join us in shaping the future of the profession.


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