Why adaptability has emerged as 2020’s most important trait

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Change is happening, and project managers need to be a part of it. That’s the central message of The Adaptive Project Professional, APM’s one-year-on update on its Projecting the Future ‘big conversation’.

If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the environment in which we now work is incredibly unpredictable; things change fast. This is why project managers and their organisations need to be adaptable, embrace new technologies and face down fresh challenges.

APM’s Projecting the Future initiative is a big conversation within the profession kick-started in June 2019. Project professionals who contributed to the debate highlighted the importance of adaptability for project managers, and the need for the profession to align more closely with change management.

Ben Hall, a product manager at Moneysupermarket, agrees. As a technology-driven company, his organisation is no stranger to fast-moving, high-change environments.

“With the pace of change that happens in most industries nowadays, you’ve got to be adaptable,” he says. “If you’re not, you suddenly find yourself in a position where you’re either being overtaken or in serious financial trouble.”

An adaptive mindset – redefining success and failure

According to The Adaptive Project Professional, project managers should seek to shape change in their organisation. They should also take a proactive, ongoing approach to personal and professional growth – developing ‘meta-competencies’ that are separate from, but supportive of, their core skills. These include the ability to learn continually, resilience, and anticipating and creating change.

Project professionals should approach everything as a learning experience, says Hall. “It helps you to redefine success and failure, so you’re able to approach it with an open mindset. If you can make a decision in the knowledge that you can learn and adapt if it doesn’t go to plan, it takes some of the pressure off decision-making and allows you to respond more quickly.”

According to the paper, project managers should focus on two key areas when it comes to learning and development: 

  • New technology: Develop your understanding of new technology, and learn how to use it. Technology can increase effectiveness and productivity in how you work, and it can also help meet client and end-user needs.
  • Leadership and people skills: Communication is critical; you must proactively engage with stakeholders and team members. As technology automates certain processes, it’s the more complex, ‘human’ elements of project management where professionals can add value.

Overcoming the fear of flexibility

Hall says that all project managers should make sure they put plenty of focus on the ‘discovery’ phase of a project and, in many cases, that phase should never end, even as the project progresses. “You’re constantly learning things as you go, and while you might have a hard deadline from elsewhere in the business to get the project launched, it’s important to remain flexible and make sure that you deliver the maximum value to your stakeholders.”

It’s important that individuals and organisations mitigate some of the fear of being flexible, Hall says. Many businesses are still built on the principle that failure should be minimised, but that is not always possible, and project professionals need to acknowledge it, says Hall. In fact, they and their organisations need to embrace failure and see it as a valuable learning tool: “It changes your mindset, which helps you to approach problems in a different way.”

Thankfully, a learning process is built into project management methodologies – project managers just need to put more emphasis on those learning stages. “Gathering information at the start is quite important, but in the modern environment, that process doesn’t always end,” Hall says. “I also think, when you get to the point where you either launch something or the project comes to a natural end, it’s important to take that retrospective look at things and take your learnings into the next phase or project.”

Step up to lead

Project professionals who are curious, think creatively and think outside the box can take a real lead on modern projects and in organisations. As the Projecting the Future report recommends: “Develop a broader perspective on project and organisational aims, and how they can be achieved. Shape strategy, not just delivery. Developing and leading more diverse teams will be crucial in the future, as will communication skills with an increasing range of stakeholders.”

Read the full version of Projecting the Future: The Adaptive Project Professional here.

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Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 1st Oct 2020

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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