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3 Themes Shaping Tomorrow’s Project Environment

PMI had a reputation for being conservative and slow to adopt new ideas or technology (it was slow to embrace agility, for instance). So, I was pleased to see three progressive themes dominating the sessions at the recent PMI Global Summit in Atlanta, Georgia.

Theme 1: Putting Artificial Intelligence to Work
Going into the conference, I knew artificial intelligence would be a pervasive topic. There were great AI presentations and AI-powered tools being demoed in the exhibit area, and some impressive announcements from PMI:

  • The "Generative AI Overview for Project Managers" course had more than 66,000 signups in the first few weeks of being offered—and saw an impressive 2,850 additional ones at the conference alone.
  • PMI launched its own "Project Infinity" AI engine at the conference that returns trusted responses from PMI's extensive knowledge base of standards, guides, publications and articles. The come-try-it demo booth was popular at the event and answered over 1,000 queries.

The tools at the conference spanned a spectrum from basic AI assistants through project task augmentation, all the way through to task automation.

Levels of AI Automation

AI Assistants: Using AI to generate or summarize meeting minutes and create action items is an example of basic assistants. The same goes for drafting project documentation, creating lists of common estimation omissions for our industry, and brainstorming risks for our type of projects. These tools may be helpful, but are not new or particularly impressive. They are more the mash-up and evolution of speech-to-text, Grammarly and Google Search. Useful, but not exceptional.

AI Augmentation: Ricardo Vargas gave an entertaining demo of recent features from ChatGPT-4, showing how to attach project documents and spreadsheets to analyze. One example showed a 4,000+ task Microsoft Project plan, exported to Excel and then uploaded to query about utilization, constraints and recommendations for fast-tracking. Another included portfolio analysis of multiple project parameters to identify a candidate list of projects to undertake that should not exceed a specified budget.

Today's ChatGPT-4 can evaluate budgets, start and end dates, net present value (NPV) and risks. It can also provide a clear explanation of the justification for recommending the execution order and selection of candidate projects. This would already be helpful for some developing PMOs and portfolio managers.

AI Automation: I saw no useful examples of true management automation. However, given the current rate of tool progression and investment pouring into AI, I fully expect this to change by the next conference.

I went into Summit having only experimented with the free versions of ChatGPT, Bard and Jasper. Given all the press, they seemed to be at the peak of inflated expectations on the Gartner Hype Cycle, and I expected a year of decline through the “Trough of Disillusionment” before a smaller set of tools would emerge as “Productive” solutions.

I now think every PM should pilot the document analytic tools of ChatGPT-4 and other platforms, so you will be practiced as they become truly useful. As the old adage goes, "In an environment where everyone else is moving forward, standing still has the same effect as moving backwards."

Limitations and obstacles for corporate use are rapidly being removed. Models are now connected to the web to access current information. They can also encrypt training and query data to limit the exposure of sensitive data.

An AI-Hybrid Workforce: The newer adage, "Your job may not be replaced by AI, but it might be replaced by someone using AI more effectively than you are" ushers in a new class of team members. We will see teams staffed by people, people-augmented with AI tools, and fully AI-automated team roles.

The AI Workforce Spectrum

 

Theme 2: Hybrid-Approaches Are Normalized
Very few organizations are purely predictive or all agile. I can not remember the last client I visited that used a totally traditional/waterfall approach. There is always work to provide early feedback, validate scope, and use proof of concepts to explore new technology or processes.

Likewise, outside of technology startups, most agile projects must deal with plan-driven external groups, annual budget cycles, and non-agile governance. I would wager that over 90% of organizations and projects use a hybrid approach. This might be largely predictive with some agile-aligned elements, or a predominantly agile approach wrapped in more traditional up-front approvals and backend handover.

The Life Cycle Spectrum

It was great to see healthy discussions and several sessions on practical hybrid approaches at this year's conference. I presented on Implementing Agile in Non-Agile Organizations (effective hybrid patterns and tailoring tools.)

With agile groups and associations (understandably) promoting single, pure frameworks, PMI could really shine in helping people succeed with hybrid. It could provide more tools and guidance for the majority of organizations operating in the hybrid middle ground.

The Life Cycle Spectrum Range

This is already happening in a fragmented way. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Seventh Ediiton covers value delivery across the spectrum of life cycle approaches. Disciplined Agile features structured governance and optional phases. The Agile Practice Guide describes agile suitability filters, and my own Beyond Agile Model fuses traditional, lean / agile, with leadership / emotional intelligence (plus industry-specific knowledge and tools) in a dynamic recommendations engine for each project.

A portal, hub or roadmap to support project managers navigating the hybrid landscape would be a helpful next step.

 

Theme 3: Hybrid Work Locations
Post-pandemic, the work landscape is irrevocably changed. People who can work some time remotely want to retain some / all of this freedom. Organizations that mandate full-time onsite work risk losing their best talent, who are in high demand and the most mobile.

Talent is distributed, and organizations offering flexible work conditions have the advantage in the war for talent. Sedimentation—losing your best people while failing to attract top new talent because of poor work flexibility, while retaining your lower performing, less-mobile talent—leads to organizational decline and non-competitiveness.

I attended an insightful panel discussion by PMO of the Year winners Mazen Hassen Akhdar and Sarah Dhanorker. They described how their organizations balanced onsite requirements with work flexibility to attract and retain top talent.

It seems foolish now to think that the best people to form our project team will all be found in our hometown and just thrilled to come into the office every day to work together for eight hours. Remote-first organizations (like Automattic and GitLab) that were deliberately remote-only long before COVID still have much to teach us about overcoming onboarding challenges, gaining alignment and asynchronous communication.

Face-to-face (F2F) collaboration helps early on to form better connections and is also advantageous for many activities. However, these do not represent 100% of the work done on a project. The percentage varies by project, but the optimal F2F for some teams could be half a day a week (10%)—or far less.

Technology has made communicating easier, and digital-native Generation Z often prefers it to F2F. As we learn how to use this technology, organizations that can master the balance will have a significant hiring and retention advantage.

Work Location Spectrum

"The Future is Already Here; it's Just Not Evenly Distributed"
When I presented "Utilizing Agile Principles Alongside the PMBOK Guide" at the 2004 PMI Global Congress in Los Angeles, I did not know it was PMI's first global conference session on using agile approaches. I'd been involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994, and it seemed odd that—10 years later—project managers were not using agile approaches much (or even talking about them). I learned that ideas can take a while to go mainstream. (Also, to be fair, the Agile Manifesto that popularized agile approaches had only been out a couple of years by then.)

Now, 19 years later, agile and hybrid approaches are mainstream. The pandemic forced remote and now hybrid working locations to the mainstream in less than two years. I wonder how long the AI-hybrid workforce will take to arrive? Given the rate of recent development progress and investment levels, I think it will be under a year.

These work progressions form a cube illustrating the evolving project workspace if we present them together:

Project Evolution Cube

Organizations using purely traditional approaches—not leveraging AI and mandating full-time onsite teams—were once the classic project environment, but are now the exception in some industries.

Classic Project Environment

The sessions I attended at the PMI Global Summit, and the people I spoke to, indicate that most organizations have transitioned in the last couple of years to a central hybrid3 position—meaning they use hybrid life cycles, some AI tools, and some remote work.

Todays Project Environment

Industries will migrate at different speeds. Some project types—like road construction, mining, etc.—might seem location-dependent and people-focused, but construction robotics and remote telemining jobs already exist. These concepts may seem far-fetched now, but that's the nature of uneven distribution.

By the time the next PMI Global Summit takes place in Los Angeles again in 2024, there will be far more companies operating in the top center and right portion of this Project Cube:

Tomorrows Project Environment

These three themes are not acting in isolation—they are convergent accelerants. They act together as booster rockets for the transition to the upper right rear cube of Tomorrow’s Project Environment. AI-equipped tools can analyze distributed communications and boost tacit knowledge, enabling better remote work and agile development.

Accelerant trifecta

This migration will happen with or without us. Organizations looking for efficiencies and competitive advantage will drive the evolution. It is a great time to be a project manager as our profession undergoes a massive shift that we can be a part of and help shape the future—if we engage. I hope PMI continues to light the way and tap the collective wisdom of its great community of members.

I left the conference with many new ideas and a long list of new tools to try, books to read, and contacts to follow up with. It was a fun few days that provided great insights into an exciting future. If you did not get a chance to attend this year, consider attending in Los Angeles next year (or wherever your closest PMI Summit event will be held).

References

  1. Generative AI Overview for Project Manager – Free overview course with 5 PDUs
  2. PM Illustrated.com – Hybrid life cycle descriptions
  3. Disciplined Agile - Choose Your Way of Working – Hybrid Implementation Patterns
  4. Beyond Agile Model – A dynamic project approach recommendation engine
  5. Agile Practice Guide – Explanations of hybrids and Agile Suitability Filter tools
  6. PMBOK Guide 7th Edition – Life cycle agnostic value delivery principles and performance domains

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]

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