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Project management and the second age

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Most of the developed world faces an aging population allied to the challenge of constant change from the need to renew, reinvent and reinvest in everything around us. From business transformation, to government reinvention and the need for sustainable development; the case for project and programme management skills has never been greater and yet ageism in hiring such professionals is rife, and the evidence is that it’s growing.

Many managers seem to think that younger is better. This perspective is so deep rooted in our psyche, we no longer think about the basis in fact.

It may be illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of age, but the fact remains that this clearly happens regardless of the rhetoric of public figures and the policies of government. I know from personal experience and often hear from middle aged friends and business contacts stories of how hard it is to find work when you are over 45 and this is borne out by a recent report in the Financial Times (December 16th 2012).

In the above article, cases referred to UK employment tribunals on the grounds of age discrimination rose from 3,800 in 2008/9 to 6,800 in 2010/12. Discussions on underpin these figures, with some managers resorting to changing their appearance or lying on their CV’s to improve their job chances. In some fields, like IT project management, the need to keep up with the latest technology or overly high salary expectations have been quoted as reasons to discriminate against applicants over 50,* and so it seems that legislation and pronouncements against age bias are not enough to reverse this trend.

Delivering the future
Project and programme management is about delivering the future, so why should those with the most experience be excluded from it in our thinking? It seems that we need to examine our basic beliefs and why we hold them to find the answer.

To do this, we must consider three different aspects of hiring decisions and what they are based on; observed and subjective reality, project and programme management selection at work and the effect of stereotypes.

In the first part, we have to acknowledge that some of the reasons for bias by employers has a basis in reality. Some of us in late middle age do have a wealth of experience, but not the latest training and techniques in what is a fast-moving and dynamic profession. In project and programme management the body of knowledge in its widest sense, both from organisations like APM and from academia, project management academies and from consultancies, is growing exponentially.

An open mind
There is no question that some aspects of project management are, for example, more technology-dependent - such as project planning -  and others which concern human factors such as stakeholder management have become more sophisticated, borrowing techniques from PR, marketing and the possibilities of new media, such as social networks.

Unless we “second age” professionals are comfortable with these new techniques or willing to learn how to use them, we cannot complain if this becomes a barrier to selection and new opportunities. We must, offer the same potential innovation in solving the myriad obstacles in managing uncertainty as our younger competitors and display the same open-mindedness in ways to deliver change and engage people.

We must also admit to ourselves that we may have less energy that we had at 30, but instead show that working smarter counts for more than long hours at the office or on conference calls, especially when it comes to planning and problem analysis or dealing with people. All of which are what counts in getting projects to successful completion.

On the same theme, we must ensure that we know how to use these new media, new devices and the more informal communications style of, for example, instant messaging, in order to relate to younger team members or customers.  In short, we must gain the benefits which new technology can bring by speeding information flow and making sense of the huge volumes of data which projects create. We also need open minds and a genuine interest in what’s new. But is that it?

Psychology has shown that bias results in perceptions being accepted as “facts”, despite the subjective nature of the beliefs and values which underpin them. Such “facts” include the perceived inflexibility and resistance to change of older workers, often part of generalized beliefs with which we associate the previous generation and so tend to pigeonhole everyone who falls into this category.

Keeping up with change
For the second age project or programme manager there is a key lesson here. If we behave in ways which reinforce this kind of view then we have only ourselves to blame. Older project managers should ask themselves honestly “am I part of the change which my client needs or part of the resistance to change?” If we think for a moment that the next assignment is just like one we managed previously, we probably aren’t really thinking it through.

Being able to relate to younger people and to work in an increasingly international context are essential components of most projects, whether in the public, voluntary or private sectors. Older project managers must embrace the diversity of project teams and their working environment in order to benefit from it. They must be adaptable and able to modify their style according to the project business needs and their team members.

This means that new qualifications may be needed to bring such people both up to date with the latest ideas and techniques as well as to demonstrate a higher level of knowledge commensurate with their age. Such qualifications must reflect and acknowledges what may be decades of practical experience but demonstrate to employers and clients that the newly re-qualified can apply advanced techniques to what may be decades of experience. This is a challenge which APM should respond to.

Transforming professionals
Unless the profession and accredited educational institutions change what they train and the value of it, they cannot serve the needs of these very experienced people and add to their employability. It is vital that they help in differentiating their job applications in a positive way. Those going back to university to complete a Master’s degree in middle age are perhaps the nearest to achieving this so far, but not everyone can afford the time do complete an academic course.

Secondly, we must ensure that selection of professionals in project and programme management is done by diverse groups. It may be difficult for a young manager in human resources who are often at the sharp end of application filtering or in procurement with the same dilemma, to see how a middle aged manager can help in transforming the business for the next decade.

If a younger and less experienced project manager also costs less, then it may seem to be an easy decision to hire in their own image, therefore passing candidate profiles to line managers based on a biased view of the “facts” of candidate suitability. Diverse hiring teams have been shown to be less likely to take the safe option and more likely to take multiple factors into account in shortlisting.

Flexibility and value for money
It follows that the second age project manager must be aware of and recognize market rates and not cling to historical earnings in less austere economic times; must show flexibility and above all demonstrate that he or she really offers value for money and the best chance of a successful project outcome. I can remember being tested in one recent selection interview on critical path analysis (CPA) and scoring points by not only knowing what it meant, and how old the idea was but also  what else it depends on to be of value.

Thirdly, we must challenge the stereotype on which perceptions are based at every occasion. As a profession, we must publicize the achievements of older project managers in delivering complex, time-constrained and difficult change. We must show how the application of experience enabled difficult hurdles to be overcome, not just what we achieved but how.

Second age project managers should make sure they are familiar with the latest technology, know how new techniques have been used to deal with classic problems and what the emerging ideas are.
When we talk or write about the last project we delivered, remember to highlight what the innovations were and how ideas from other disciplines have been applied (think of mathematics, psychology, game theory and market segmentation as examples).

The power of diversity
We must also build and work with diverse teams ourselves, taking the chance to give talented young people real responsibility and authority on our teams, as well as to use the technology and working style most suited to the environment and nature of the project. Remember, raising opportunities for us second-agers is not about discrimination against the young it is about the power of diversity as a force for good.

When we do so, we must show how experience and maturity helped; in managing conflict, in thinking through problems, in looking after the interests of our teams and our clients at the same time, and of course, in delivering the value which justified the project in the first place. Age brings many positive changes: often a more reflective approach, better self-control, a wider range of experience in all aspects of human relations and of situations faced. 

As the great Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in this world”. He might have added “and others will follow”.


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  1. Laura Taylor
    Laura Taylor 06 March 2013, 02:44 PM

    Kevin many thanks for sharing this thought provoking blog.It is worth mentioning that a popular discussion around this topic has sparked up over in LinkedIn group:Does the age of the project manager matter?