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Let’s flip project management on its head

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There are many reports about the potential impact of technology such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of jobs. And there is a serious undertone from tech experts such as Jack Ma, Alibaba, and Elon Musk, Tesla that technology is impacting the future of work.

Tye Brady, Amazon’s chief robotics technologist discussed his thoughts about robotics replacing humans. He suggests robots and AI replacing humans was a myth, and ‘the challenge that we have in front of us is how do we smartly design our machines to extend human capability’. And instead of focusing on what AI and robotics will replace, he thinks about this as ‘a symphony of humans and machines working together…you need both.’.

What a beautiful phrase: a symphony of humans and machines working together” (I wish I had come up with it). What’s clear is that technology is advancing; let’s acknowledge that we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and so professions, including project management, need to evolve to work with the technology '…you need both'.

How it needs to evolve is not an easy question to answer. And that’s the basis of the Association for Project Management’s work, Projecting the Future. In my view, it is actually a set of interdependent questions. For example:

  • How do we attract, develop and retain future project professionals?
  • What skills does the project profession need in the future?

Anyone who knows me will acknowledge I like a stat, so here’s one for you: 5.5m (projected) under-skilled workers in project management by 2030 according to the future of work: Rethinking skills to tackle the UK’s looming talent shortage, McKinsey, November 2019. Let that sink in a moment. This report shows the top twelve knowledge areas projected number of underskilled workers by 2030, including project management.

By this account there is a resource shortage looming in project management. We need to fill it. When we add in another stat (I did tell you I like them) from World Economic Forum: The Future of Jobs Report 2016: 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist, are we facing a project management resource crisis? This is why I said how project management needs to evolve is a set of interdependent questions: to attract, develop and retain future project professionals is intrinsically linked to the skills the future of our profession needs.

You can find out more about attracting the younger profession into project management and thriving in the fourth industrial revolution world in my last blog.

As for resources and skills, the ‘mood’ is that ‘soft skills’ (for want of a better word) are going to be more prominent in the future.

Sticking with the World Economic Forum, they predicted the top ten skills in 2020 you need to thrive in the 4IR, including:

  1. complex problem solving
  2. critical thinking
  3. creativity
  4. people management
  5. coordinating with others
  6. emotional intelligence
  7. judgement and decision making
  8. service orientation
  9. negotiation
  10. cognitive flexibility

The report also contained what these skills were in 2015, and the list contained similar skills, although negotiation was higher at number five and creativity was lower at number ten. What I like about this is we can look back (it is 2020 after all) and see if the predictions have come true. I certainly think all of the skills listed are relevant to the 4IR right now. A lot of the skills have not changed (or were predicted not to change), and they are all ‘soft skills’.

I actually consider these skills to be those that the project profession needs to evolve more – in my experience all too often these ‘softer skills’ are underappreciated and underdeveloped compared to ‘techncial skills’ such as planning, risk management, financial management etc. Clearly these ‘technical skills’ are important, yet please don’t neglect the ‘softer skills’.

So let’s look ahead to 2030,what skills are going to be needed in a more digital and robotic world?

According to McKinsey Global Institute: Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce, automation and AI will accelerate the shift in skills that the workforce needs. It’s reassuring to see that project management is in the skills predicted to increase. Higher cognitive skills, social and emotioanl skills and technological skills are all predicted to increase too.

How does all of this help ‘solve’ the predicted project management resource shortage and how our profession needs to evolve? No one can predict the future so we don’t know what new and exciting technology will be with us in the next few years. However, what I am confident on is that whatever technology comes along, there will always be a need for ‘soft skills’ as we will increasingly need to interact with technology: “you need both.

And the lists above are not exhaustive. When I discuss these challenges with organisations I always ask if there are any other skills that they think will be needed that are not mentioned, and I get replies including: resilience, dealing with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), innovation, servant-leadership, coaching and entrepreneurship.

And this is where I think we have our answer. The skills needed for the future widens the resource pool for our profession. I get increasingly frustrated when I still see project management roles with a heavy weighting on the ‘technical skills’. I contend to flip it. Put more weight on the ‘softer skills’ discussed.

No longer do we need to attract or recruit from our own profession - flip it and look to a wider resource pool. What talent is there that possesses the increasingly important ‘softer skills’ but perhaps not all of the ‘technical skills’? The same Mckinsey report:, also suggests some strategies for closing the looming skills gap – one of which is to ‘acquire talent from unconventional sources by focussing on the intrinsic qualities a person has rather than which sector those skills came from’. I love this – by focusing more on the intrinsic ‘soft skills’ of project management can we plug the resource shortage this way? Are you bold enough to flip it?

Some of you reading this may not subscribe to what I’m advocating. For some of you I may be ‘pushing an open door’. Whichever view you hold, we all have to be united in our responsibility to future proof our profession in the fourth industrial revolution. It is incumbent on all of us to do something about the resource shortage we are facing; and perhaps Tye Brady’s right, we need to create a symphony of humans and robotics, and for that, we need to diversify our teams and skills.

Look out the next challenge paper, future skills and the future workplace launching soon.

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