Where Did All the Project Managers Go?
April 22, 2018
“Software is eating the world” claimed venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen in his 2011, New York Times article. Seven years on, the trend continues, and project managers are also on the menu. The next generation of project managers face new challenges but also new opportunities as organizations undergo a major transformation.
Software is becoming omnipresent, it is embedded and integral to all industries. Not just technology companies (like Google, Apple) but every sector is being disrupted by software including retail (Amazon), banking (PayPal, cryptocurrencies), transportation (Tesla, Uber), and travel (Airbnb).
As a project manager you may say “Great, just think of all those IT projects that will need project managers!” Well, that’s where things get interesting. First, today’s software teams don’t respond well to being “managed”, that’s old-school command-and-control thinking along with Gantt charts and calling people “resources”. Instead, they are led, empowered and supported by servant leaders. Next, the idea of a “project” with a defined endpoint is dissolving too.
As organizations realize their software systems provide the competitive advantage then stopping development equates to an end to innovation or competing. When organizations become more software-driven their systems are never “done”. As a result, organizations are switching from projects (that have a fixed end) to products - that continue to evolve. This movement popularized by the #NoProjects and Continuous Digital titles is growing exponentially.
The Project Manager in a No Projects, No Managers Future
This double whammy of no more projects and no more managers likely creates heartburn for people with the job title “Project Manager”. While this trend is clearly the future of work, I believe there will always be a role for smart, cooperative people that can help with collaboration and development.
A quote that comes to mind is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. The next generation of project managers will have new titles like “Product Leads”, “Development Team Coordinators” and “Digital Transformation Leaders”. They will help organizations build development capabilities around long-term products.
This new generation will still communicate with stakeholders about status and risks. They will still facilitate consensus gathering amongst experts. They will still try to diffuse conflict and find common ground during arguments. The goals (satisfied stakeholders and value delivery) will remain the same but the tools, titles and processes employed will be vastly different.
New Tools and Approaches
Heavy upfront planning efforts and the use of tools like critical path network diagrams and PERT charts are not so useful when the input data is very uncertain. Tools like work breakdown structures offer great insights into sub-system assemblies but they are slower and more difficult to reprioritize than modern backlogs and release roadmaps.
As rates of change increase so too does early lifecycle uncertainty and the competitive need to start work quickly. The days of carefully analyzing work products upfront are dwindling. Instead, organizations build prototypes based on what they know right now and then iterate towards the final product. In the intangible world of software, the cost of experimentation is less than that of detailed analysis.
Also, using a software product provides better feedback on its suitability and possible expansion than reviewing a document or diagram about it. IWKIWISI (I Will Know It When I See It) becomes the new mantra, replacing the “Plan the work, and work the plan” ideas of old.
As organizations adopt a continuous delivery model that is focussed on products not projects then funding models change also. Instead of yearly budget cycles to fund entire projects, smaller tranches of funds are released to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Then, providing the product continues to return value, more funding is made available. A venture capital funding model lets product leaders focus on delivering a stream of high-value features that support continued investment.
Projects classically track metrics like on time/budget and Return On Investment (ROI). Products track customer satisfaction, market share, profit to funding ratios. They are similar concepts but a new vocabulary to learn.
Agile software development teams organize their own work, solve most of their own problems, and are empowered to experiment with new work strategies and approaches. They do not need (or want) to have work assigned to them, nor asked to report status. Instead, they make their work visible via kanban boards and new features.
They do however need people to remove impediments and chase up external dependencies. They also need investment in training, shielding from interruptions, plus regular encouragement and words of thanks to stay motivated. In short, all the servant leadership practices that good project managers did anyway still apply.
Project managers cannot be the center of work planning or task distribution. There is too much complexity to be anything but a bottleneck. Instead, we must trust development team members and product owners from the business as subject matter experts in their own domains.
Where these teams often need help is keeping the larger perspective on where it is we are trying to get to. When you are heads-down on solving a technical issue, it is easy to lose sight of the end goal. Having someone communicate the product vision reveals a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course.
In this way servant leadership and visionary leadership that predate modern project management are still valuable and needed. Yet the scientific project management that grew out of the industrialization of process is largely left behind.
In many industries, the classic role of projects and project managers will continue. I don’t see construction moving away from big upfront design and the reliance on project managers any time. In the software world though I think we are heading for substantial changes. Sure, some companies will continue as they always have with software project and project managers. However, most organizations will transition to long-term products with leaders and coordinators.
It is an exciting time for life-long learners willing to acquire new tools and approaches. There is no shortage of work for people who can collaborate with others and solve problems. The critical role of software will increase as organizations undertake digital transformation and adopt continuous digital strategies based on products vs projects. So, while the role “project manager” might be heading into the same category as “switchboard operators”, “human alarm clocks”, and “bowling alley pinsetters” the work and opportunities in this exciting field continue to grow.
[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]