The Future of Project Leadership

The Agile Project Manager Project LeadershipWith all this crazy Agile change going on in organisations, it’s only fair that people ask: “What is the future for project managers in our companies now?”. Or: “IS there a future for project managers in our companies at all?” Both great questions with simple but not easy answers. All change requires some level of leadership, and as we evolve more towards self managing teams who pick their own work according to the project vision, rather than asking about project management, we should be asking what do we need to do differently to lead change effectively. And more importantly, are we ready?

We will always need hats…

I strongly believed when I wrote The Agile Project Manager that project leadership would always be needed. Not in the same over confident way that someone once claimed that we would “always need hats”, but more with the thought that the skills, knowledge and experience of project managers would always be needed in some form, however they may well be used in a different way in the future. In the same way as you may have a coat that you need to put over your head if it starts raining unexpectedly.

As the world changes, the skills that we set out to acquire through our studies and early job experience are being put to use in ways we could not have anticipated. When I was in the Navy, one of my roles on the ship was to look after a damage control station. It involved coordinating fire fighting units in the area and keeping track of their whereabouts on a board with sticky pencil. As I sat there in my anti-flash marking up the board, tracking progress and coordinating people, I wondered how on earth this skill could be translated into anything other than that.

Fast forward a few years, and there I was, running a large scale implementation of a new IT system, keeping track of progress and issues, this time updating my stakeholders, a spreadsheet and a progress board, thankfully this time not dressed in anti-flash (the material makes you terribly sleepy FYI).

Take it all with you

We often take for granted the skills we have, and it can be hard to imagine using them differently. We also inadvertently ignore some of our skills and experience in favour of what we perceive we need more as our roles change. I think it’s possible to do both – continue to use the skills we have worked so hard for, and use them in a way that fits better with the new environment that is changing all around us.

Take the many skills of a project manager:

  • negotiation skills
  • people leadership
  • influencing skills
  • determination to chase people up
  • mediation skills
  • coordination of multiple activities from briefing executives to getting people organised to ordering pizzas for the team
  • managing up as well as down

When I think about the skills of a project manager, they are not only varied but also equip us for just about anything. And with the growth of self managing teams who need less direction in the form of command and control and more protection, coaching and servant leadership, a project manager with even a few years running projects is well equipped to step into the new world of project management.

The Most Important Thing

Is it a new world? It’s difficult to say. All I can say is that the world is changing. And our ability to be flexible and adapt will not only allow us to survive (phew, we’ll have a job!) but thrive (even better – and absolutely my preferred option!). And the cool thing is that every situation will be different. On one agile project I played a big role in user acceptance testing, something I had not had much experience in but really enjoyed the opportunity to learn. In another I spent a lot of time facilitating discussions between testing, environments and development to understand the root cause of issues, something I did not enjoy as much but it taught me the importance of listening and fully understanding each party’s unique point of view. Project management had the risk of becoming a bit same-same, but with organisations wanting faster delivery of more and more complex products, in a variety of ways, this same-same risk is much diminished (was it ever there?). The world is changing, but it doesn’t mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Is this exciting? Yes. Is this scary? Yes. Are we all up for it? No. No, we’re not. Even though we are in the business of change, there are many project managers who would prefer a more consistent, known way of operating. Preferably with a RACI. This is a shame, because these project managers are most likely very equipped in terms of skills and experience but they don’t necessarily have the will to change. They want things to remain the same. And it is these same people who will be left behind.

Take Action

We are in the business of change. We are leaders of change. And we have an opportunity to flex our skills and experience like never before. In ways we never thought we could in the early days of our experience. it’s an opportunity like no other. And we are right here in the middle of it, with the opportunity to lead. A great exercise to do is to think about all the skills you have and make two columns: Keep This and Try This. List all the skills you want to keep doing (because they are working and look like they will work in the new world). Then make a list of new skills that you could try. Remember, Agile is all about experimenting and learning.

How are you going to flex and adapt to the new world of change? Want to know more? Come and see my talk at the LAST Conference on July 1!



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.