The world has become an unpredictable place to live in (and I don’t just mean the unpredictable summers in England!).
From 9/11 to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2014. from Leicester City winning the Premier League (let me remind you that their odds ranged from 2000-1 to 5000-1 at the beginning of the season!) to leaving the EU, we are facing more uncertainty than ever.
This uncertainty is amplified by the power of technology which has a key role in advancing societal progress, but is leading us to unprecedented levels of vulnerability too.
Have you heard of driverless cars, the Internet of Things, singularity? What about Google’s Moonshot projects, such as balloon-powered Internet for everyone?
A revolution is in motion and the future is happening now, whether you are prepared or not.
If you think you’re in control and what you’re reading is sci-fi, think again because Kodak and Blockbuster, just to mention a couple, also thought they were in control. Look what happened to them.
The rest of the story is known: Kodak went bankrupt and most of us now use Netflix.
Technology is changing the game and enabling a new generation of entrepreneurs, little, simple, agile Davids, to give it a try challenging the reign of heavy, complex, and slow Goliath.
Disruptive business models are being created as you read this and the sharing economy is on the rise.
You have the fastest growing taxi company (Uber) which doesn’t actually own any taxis and you have the largest accommodation company (Air BnB) which doesn’t actually own any hotels.
What does all of this mean to your projects and professionals working in Project Management?
Is your portfolio of projects and programmes ready for the uncertainties of the future? And are you ready?
Here are my hints and tips on how to become future-ready:
The fast pace of the market demands projects to be carried out in increasingly reduced time-to-market.
Short-termism is a dominant part of business economics – we want it available and we want it now.
In Project Management, this is the famous ‘just do it’ approach, with poor planning, limited contingencies and fast-tracked management. Where what matters the most is the delivery of an agreed output, ideally within time, cost, and to specifications.
While the triple constraint is foundational to project management, having an execution-driven mindset can be risky: we end up with examples where the operation was a success, but unfortunately, the patient died in the end. There’s the risk that people forget that projects are part of a bigger picture – they are vehicles for realising an organisation’s strategy and mission.
By employing a long-term way of thinking instead, projects become not just pieces of work to be planned, managed, and delivered, but legacies for the future.
The focus is shifted from execution to impact, from outputs to outcomes and benefits. From what may happen today to what may happen tomorrow.
A broader, outward view of projects enables new perspectives and new solutions to the same old problems, and calls for new toolkits from Project Professionals that allow them to scan the environment for emerging signs of change that can later turn into impactful risks and opportunities.
Traditional risk management is limited to known-known risks, things you already know may happen. Make no mistake, however: the risks that will hurt your project the most are likely the ones that reside outside your risk log.
Think outside the triangle
It’s normal to feel uncomfortable when faced with uncertainty. As humans, we like predictability (and if you work in a PMO, you’ll love it even more).
We tend to believe that tomorrow will resemble today while we underestimate the role of brute forms of uncertainty, the same uncertainty that will shape or break our business models.
However, uncertainty is here to stay, so we better get used to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Projects can be wicked problems. I’ve seen it several times: in order to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty in an already complex project, some people make it even more complex by adding more processes, extra layers of governance, and additional mandatory checkpoints and audits, that can give them some peace of mind by creating a false feeling of control.
My advice? Keep it simple, think outside the triangle (kind of ‘think outside the box’, Project Management version), and embrace uncertainty.
Pretending that you’re in control or resisting to see the reality won’t get you anywhere, not to mention that adding complexity in order to solve a complex project will do nothing other than cause project overkill and make it unmanageable.
Sometimes best practices won’t work and that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your project or how you are managing it, but sometimes unknown problems require new, emergent practices.
Be creative and don’t be afraid to test new methods. Let your sense-making support your decision-making (if you want to know more about this, try the Cynefin Framework as a starting point).
Did you ever have a gut feeling about something which was proved to be right? That’s the feeling I’m talking about.
We have been surviving reasonably well in the world without a manual of instructions, and this is because we trust our gut.
Project Management clearly has an element of science to it, but is predominantly an art and, when it comes to art, we are left with our gut to make decisions. Use it more.
Agility > Agile
While the philosophy behind the Agile Manifesto was promising, Agile has since then been abused and misused as a delivery method in Project Management.
For that reason, I prefer the term agility, which is a wider dynamic capability that goes beyond the Project Management arena.
Agility refers to how quickly you can adapt to changing conditions and is considered to be a fundamental requirement if your organisation is to survive in light of the turbulent times we live in.
Remember that quote from Darwin about the survival of the species (which, actually, is incorrectly assigned to Darwin – Google it and you will be able to easily impress your colleagues with this myth-busting in your next talk!)?
Referring back to the story of David and Goliath again. Some companies are so well established in their markets that they tend to forget that the world is changing every day and, as a consequence, make their core capabilities become their core rigidities, preventing them to quickly adapt to new conditions.
Which one do you think will be able to change their route faster: a large cruise ship with thousands of tons or a small sailing yacht?
Expose yourself to serendipity
‘Serendipity’ is my favourite word in the English language. It means a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise” and is strongly associated with luck and uncertainty.
It’s a reality that you can’t foresee the future, but you can still equip yourself to be better prepared for it.
Likewise, I’m a believer that luck plays an important role in our life – even if we are not aware of it – and that you have the ability to increase your own good luck too.
Creating as many opportunities to expose yourself to fortunate events is the way to do it.
Try new things, invest time learning something you never thought of, go to networking events, read stuff outside your normal reading habits (the last book I read that influenced my view of projects had nothing to do with project management, but with mountaineering), ask questions, don’t be afraid to try new methods.
Believe me, magic happens when you step outside your comfort zone.
You have a responsibility too
We have been talking a lot about the future, so let me tell you a little secret: there are several versions of the future, not just one.
The future we are going to get depends on what we are doing today.
The future is not an island waiting to be discovered but is instead something you can create with your actions and your projects.
Let me put things in perspective for you: your project is not simply a set of deliverables, it is a legacy you are leaving behind, regardless if you work in IT or in the construction sector.
Projects realise visions, transform lives, shape the world, thus, as project professionals, you are well-positioned to make our future a better place.
The projects you accept to take, the suppliers you choose, the practices you employ while managing the project, they all have an impact that goes beyond the triple constraint.
Sustainability, the ability to meet current needs without compromising the needs of future generations, should matter for Project Management too.
You have a responsibility to the future. What are you doing to save it?
We can’t expect different results if we are always doing exactly the same thing.
As read in a recent report from APM, what we need then is not simply a new toolset, but a new mindset.
One where we see projects not as an end, but as a mean, where we don’t deny or resist uncertainty, but rather embrace it and explore the opportunities it entails, where sense-making is as respected as best practices, and where project professionals recognise the importance of their role in creating a sustainable, better world.
Our projects are our future. Let’s make it a good one.
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