A frequently asked question in the main ProjectManagement.com community discussion group is about the perceived impacts of machine learning on project delivery.
Some contributors worry that sufficient advances in AI will render the role of a project manager obsolete whereas others remain bullish about the prospects for the profession.
A recent Harvard Business Review article by Stephen M. Kosslyn titled "Are You Developing Skills That Won’t Be Automated?" would support a positive outlook on this topic. In the article, the author asserts that roles in which emotion and context play a strong influence will still need to be performed by human beings. We have enough challenges with human leaders struggling to inspire team members or effectively align stakeholders to expect that machines will have an easier time doing so.
I'm expecting that enhancements in current machine learning technology will free us from rote administrative activities which even the most senior project manager finds themselves having to perform from time to time. While such advances might reduce a full-time requirement for project administrators on large, complex projects, it might enable such roles to support a larger number of projects at the same time.
What might projec managers do with all of this extra time?
Being assigned to more projects concurrently is not the answer! If we believe that project management is a strategic role then we should be encouraging greater focus, not less.
Freed up capacity could be better utilized on frequently neglected practice areas such as stakeholder engagement, risk management and knowledge creation. Envision the potential benefits to your projects if you had even 10% more time to devote to such practices.
We could also invest more in our own personal development or giving back to the profession or the community.
Is it possible that at some point in the future, AI will have the ability to independently manage a project staffed with humans?
This seems realistic if we agree with Gene Roddenberry's vision of intelligent sentient machines such as Commander Data, but I'm equally optimistic that the next one or two generations of project managers will have little to fear so long as they continue to invest in developing their soft skills.
Since I first started to learn about project management, risk management has always fascinated me.
That characteristic of uniqueness which separates operations from project work introduces uncertainties which, in turn, generate risks. Most mega-project case studies give credit to an effective risk management approach as a key contributor towards their success. But in spite of this, risk management continues to be one of the weakest practiced knowledge areas in the PMBOK.
If eternal optimism is the prevailing mindset within a company, it can be difficult for risk owners to envision things not going according to plan. What has always intrigued me is how the same leadership teams which can be moderately effective at implementing operations or business risk capabilities will be so much weaker when it comes to project risk management. A risk averse culture will take a long time to change for an overall organization, but a project manager should be able to influence it within the ecosystem of their projects.
Unhealthy levels of multitasking by project teams and stakeholders result in those practices perceived as unnecessary being jettisoned or being given lip service only. If a team barely has time to deliver the scope of their project, how can they or equally busy risk owners be expected to expend any real efforts on considering or responding to potentialities which may never be realized? And, if we combine this limited availability with "one size fits all" approaches to project risk management, it is no wonder that many teams will do the absolute bare minimum required to meet onerous governance requirements.
If team members and other stakeholders don't know what effective project risk management looks like, how can they be expected to improve? If there are no coaches to help teams improve their capabilities, improvements in risk management will rarely happen organically. Competent risk management requires exceptional interpersonal skills in addition to some basic technical skills, so hands-on practice with feedback from seasoned practitioners is needed to improve.
Finally, there might not be a realization of the positive correlation between effective risk management and successful project outcomes. In the absence of supporting internal empirical data or strong pressure from the outside to create a valid sense of urgency, senior leaders and project teams will be unwilling to sustainably invest in the required behavior and practice changes.
Providing practitioners with risk management training or evolving project delivery standards might help in some small way, but real improvements will only come when these root causes are addressed.
During the last week PMI announced that, based on the feedback they had received from stakeholders, they would be delaying the significant changes to the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification exam which had originally planned to be launched in mid-December 2019 to July 1, 2020.
When I first read this, I felt a burst of vicarious relief for those exam candidates who were likely experiencing a lot of stress with the original date.
I have no doubt that this was the right decision for PMI to take.
The proposed changes to the exam are likely to be more significant than others made over the past decade. With the last batch of changes to the exam having been implemented in March 2018, a significant update within two years will not only cause candidates angst but will also reduce the return on investment for the study materials which training companies would have so recently updated.
After further reflection I realized there are some good lessons in change management with this decision:
I have no idea who was the decision maker at PMI who pushed for this delay to the launch date, but this demonstrates the sort of good judgment which we should demand from change leaders.
It is easy to say that demonstrating behaviors consistent with the values and principles of the Manifesto is proof of agility but this test leaves significant wiggle room for interpretation and for exception cases which fall through the cracks of the four values and twelve principles.
It is also somewhat of a cop-out to plagiarize Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of behaviors, practices or methods I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["agile"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the team involved in this case is not that." This method opens the door to framework fanaticism and furthering the conceit of "there's only one right way to be agile".
Here are three questions you might consider asking:
Agility should never be treated as "the" goal but rather as a catalyst towards achieving one or more business goals. But defining what it means to "be" agile in terms of the outcomes we want to realize can help us understand whether we are making a difference or not.
Information radiators are a great idea.
After all, who wouldn't want to reduce the effort involved in keeping stakeholders up-to-date about a product or project or increase the consistency in messaging to all stakeholders?
But convincing executives to use information radiators as a primary means of staying current is not an easy task. Yes, there might be a few early adopters who are open to trying a different way but most are likely to prefer to receive these updates the way they've always got them through one-on-one or steering committee meetings using status reports. So project managers or Product Owners spend time harvesting and curating information from the radiators into traditional status reports or presentation decks.
This introduces a few challenges:
So how can we help executives through the transition to using information radiators?
Start with why - if they don't understand how traditional reporting approaches hurt them, they are unlikely to have any sense of urgency about adopting a different approach. Whether it is reducing delivery costs or improving the quality of information presented, find out what concerns them and use that as a lever for change.
Second, you will want to ensure that the information radiators being published are relevant to senior stakeholders. Taking the time to understand what they need to support their decision making should help in creating dashboards which they will actually want to use.
Finally, rather than asking them to make the significant leap from a meeting-based approach to a self-service model, consider continuing the meetings, but use information radiators as the supporting materials for the discussions in place of traditional presentation decks. This should spark your stakeholders' curiosity as they are likely to ask questions based on their interpretation of the information published which will provide you with an opportunity to provide live "color commentary" about the project or product's status.
If you want management to change, you need to apply effective change management.