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Navigating Tomorrow: The Skills Gap

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There’s no doubt about it, the demands on today’s project professionals are huge — and it pays to upskill. Daniel Armanios, BT Professor and Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School picked out some of the biggest trends around project management skills based on the APM Salary Survey 2023.

Around 60% of survey respondents (the majority of whom were running major projects) said that they wanted to develop and upgrade their skills, particularly around dealing with complex projects. It’s these types of projects and programmes, explained Armanios, that require reflexive practitioners.

What does that mean? “You have to be able to look at the locus of work, empower those working on it, and also talk to the sponsors about how you are trying to achieve the objectives and the performance of the projects.”

On the balcony and the dancefloor

Working on programmes or projects like these requires not just project execution skills but reflection on whether the objectives are being achieved. “It’s being on the [nightclub] balcony rather than the dancefloor. You need to be able to understand the aims and the strategy from the sponsor perspective and how to executive work as a manager of a team,” he said.

As you climb up the project management ladder, you go from being focused solely on the technicalities of project execution to being asked to become a manager of people as you get into the world of major projects. Eventually, when you get into major programme management, you’re dealing with a portfolio of these projects.

“So now, you’re dealing with strategy… You still have some technical depth but you are really stretched on breadth. You need to start learning about different contexts, different skills, and technologies. The APM Salary Survey suggests that people don’t really feel prepared for that because they are being stretched in really tough ways.”

Tech challenges for project managers

“There’s a lot of excitement about AI but also a lot of nervousness around not knowing how to use it in a useful way,” said Armanios. What’s more, as a project professional, how do you communicate the tech around AI and how it is being used on a project to those who are delivering a project in a way that they can understand? Finally, as a project manager, how do you detect whether or not a new technology and its output is relevant to your work and your projects — and that it can be trusted? “You want to leverage the technology but you want to authenticate the information at the same time,” he said.

“The thing to think about is: how do I enhance my ability to process information and at the same time verify its authenticity at the strategic and at the execution levels [of a project or programme],” he advised. “A very useful skill to have would be translational communication skills, where you are able to understand what the developers are saying and then be able to explain it to users and clients.

“People are being stretched as never before,” he said, which requires project professionals to have empathy and systems thinking skills as well as the ability to create psychological safety and maintain wellbeing for themselves and their team.

The two-way transaction of leadership

Laura Jackson Pugh, Head of Project Management Profession and Director Nuclear Projects at Tetra Tech, and Torstein Tangene, Business Development Manager at Metier, developed this further in their session ‘Future Proof Yourself — Navigating your continuous learning journey’.

“We expect people to be team leaders and managers but we don’t really give them the tools or techniques to put that into place," Jackson Pugh said. The focus should be on how to support people to get the best from their teams and looking at the expectations people have of a good leader. “It’s a two-way transaction that you don’t automatically do,” she said.

The constant headaches for corporates

Taking a corporate level perspective on this, Tangene said that Metier found that with their customers, the constant project management challenges for corporates were:

  • No common language and best practice
  • Dependency on senior individuals
  • Roles and responsibilities are unclear
  • Project execution model exists but is not used (I think my way of working is better)
  • Poor project planning
  • Uncertainty assessment is not done holistically and structured. Measures are not followed up proactively
  • Opportunistic cost estimates (Underestimation)
  • Challenges with contracts and handling changes/deviations

Organisations often start with these problems but these can be handled if people are properly trained, he said. The best companies do internal corporate training programmes — but these have to be part of its strategy on how to succeed with its projects. It’s about being able to choose the right projects, and to develop, retain and attract highly qualified employees. “Understand what the critical capabilities are in a project execution model,” he urged, then plug the gaps.

How to get ahead

How can you enhance yourself to develop your career, is the question Jackson Pugh posed. First, she suggested you do technical development mapping on your own career — where do you want to get to? What is your plan? “It’s not always linear; it won’t always be a straightforward path.”

Second, networking is key at every level of your career, and is especially effective as a confidence boost, she said. Third, becoming involved in a mentoring programme is beneficial not only for your own career, but if you are older, reverse mentoring is a great way to understand what engages younger people. Jackson Pugh gave the example of one senior executive switching from giving company news via email to short videos after discovering through their young reverse mentor that this was a much more effective way to reach that generation.

Craft a bespoke career

“You can create a bespoke career in project management,” said Jackson Pugh. If you know the competencies and how they can be broken down into modules to create a personal training programme, then you are following the right path.

A big part of creating a successful career is goal setting, she added. “Use this to help visualise your career and evaluate where you are. If you are considering a move into a different specialism then evaluate yourself against the relevant requirements.” And make sure your career goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound).

So, what do you want to achieve in the next three to five years? It’s time to get planning...


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