This article outlines the importance of project managers in an ever-changing world. Keep reading it to find out more about the adaption of project management to the current society and economy.
Table of Contents
- Let's Call it a Project
- Extra Mile or New Role
- Project Economy in the New Paradigm
The concept of project management is dynamic and has evolved throughout history. Projects have existed for thousands of years although the term “project” was not coined until ca. 1400 (project is derived from the Latin term proiectum, which means “something thrown forth”).
No one questions that the building of the Great Pyramids in Egypt some 4,500 years ago was a project. And one with an impressive outcome, nothing less than one of the seven wonders of the world. Fast forward to more recent times, it was not until the twentieth century that project management popularity increased and different associations were created to establish and proselytize project management frameworks, tools and techniques.
It is not rare that a project manager gets the question “What is what you do exactly?”. In a world with an abundance of self-appointed managers, this question makes total sense. And with it, additional interrogations carrying a certain degree of suspicion come along. Are project managers paper pushers on a payroll? Do they sit back while they put their teams to work? The answer may vary in length and level of detail. If one chooses to go for the concise version the reply might be something like: “Well, we plan projects and make sure that they are delivered on time and within budget”. A longer answer would make reference to communication with project stakeholders, facilitating and leading meetings, issue resolution, and so on and so forth. On a personal level, I must admit that many times I use the short answer, and increase the level of depth according to the genuine interest from the questioner.
However, the role of a project manager must go beyond the flawless planning and execution of projects. Meeting expectations is no longer sufficient in today’s fast-paced and demanding world. Project management must be considered a necessary and indispensable enabler for a successful translation of the company’s vision into reality. The vision defines the future of the organization by drawing a strategic roadmap towards continuous and solid growth. It is typically defined by individuals sitting in positions high up in the hierarchy and cascades down to the rest of the organization. However, a vision has value only when there is a defined path that turns it into something actionable.
This chain of thought resonates well with the famous book from Simon Sinek “Start with the Why”. The author differentiates the why and the how and explains how these two concepts need each other in order to achieve success. He provides, amongst many others, the example of Apple, which needed Steve Jobs – he had the vision, the why – and Steve Wozniak – he had the knowledge to get there, the how. Using this same terminology, project management must provide the know-how to walk the path that will allow the organization to fulfill its vision – the why. This is not about going the extra mile, this is a fundamental change in the existing paradigm which typically limits the power and influence of project managers. In the new paradigm, project managers must be necessarily integrated into the core structure of the organization and thus closer to its steering wheel.
The term project economy is becoming increasingly popular and is yet another proof that things are changing and they are doing so at a fast pace. Adding the term economy is a nudge that emphasizes the embedment of projects in one of the most important constituents of modern society, its economy. The economy can be readily linked to value, and value-adding products or services linked to a vision. Therefore, project management must be dynamic enough (not to be confused with agile) to deliver value in such quickly changing environments.
The disruptiveness of the project economy can be seen in the gradual attrition of the archaic organization’s structures leading to a projectized way of working. I recall a specific case I studied during a leadership course at a business school in France. It was about Chris Johnson, an executive of Nestlé, who was assigned to carry out a project named GLOBE back in the early 2000s. The main goal was to harmonize systems and best practices across the entire Nestlé group and affiliates worldwide. It was a colossal project, with hundreds of stakeholders across the globe and a budget in the order of billions. Notice that Chris was given the assignment by Nestlé’s C suite members. The big guys had a vision and trusted Chris as the person that would make it happen. The project was a success despite initial hesitations from a few stakeholders. Note that GLOBE was conceived and planned as a project, not as a series of unconnected activities to be performed at the convenience of each one of the 20,000 thousand sites. Thus it is essential to establish and realize the existence of a link between the increasingly prevalent project economy and the role that project managers play in it. One cannot change one without impacting the other, similarly to change management in the well-known project triple constraint.
Yet another and more recent example can be seen in the development of a vaccine to protect humankind against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and research institutions have immediately initiated projects to find a vaccine or treatments and at the same time put on hold other less urgent projects. This pandemic has surely had an effect on the vision of some companies. For example, it is possible that a pharmaceutical organization that has never considered producing medicines against viruses spots an opportunity and decides to modify one of their existing products or processes to pursue this goal. This decision automatically triggers the initiation of a set of projects in various fields (research, commercial, regulatory, etc.).
It is then said that the company is pivoting. A pivot is when a company changes directions, mostly because the original business model isn’t working but also because a new opportunity has been spotted. For example, Starbucks started in the early 70s selling coffee machines and coffee beans and it was not until a decade later that it pivoted towards the coffeeshop model we all know. A projectized economy strives for delivering value and enables organizations and individuals to achieve goals however quickly those may change. And project management should be seen as the door to achieve success.
The adaption of project management to the current society and economy is a fact. In these hectic times, project managers are responsible for capturing the vision and translating it into a changing and dynamic reality. Some readers might think that this is too far-fetched. Let me share with you what I have recently seen in a job description for a project manager role. It reads “the ideal candidate will provide leadership for strategic projects by ensuring that there is strong alignment between strategy, goals, and implementation”. Additionally, “he or she will have a strong track record of working with sponsors to translate decisions into actions and delivering complex projects on time, under budget, and with high quality”.
The tune that Bob Dylan released in the sixties, “The times they are a-changing” holds true after 50 years. And like Professor Leon C. Meeginson said “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”.