07 Jan 2020

The Millennial Project Manager: New Leaders for a New Time

Guest writer, Millennials, Future leaders
The Millennial Project Manager: New Leaders for a New Time


We have been here before. In the 50’s, as project management emerged as a discipline, the mantle was taken up by the young managers rather than the establishment. Even in the early 90’s project management was new in some fields.

I recall a comment from a very senior and talented engineer in a rollingstock project I was managing in the 90’s. He said, “I object to you in principle, and I don’t know what you do, but when you guys are around stuff happens.” I took it as a compliment.

Project management is viewed by many researchers as a neo-profession. Over the last few decades the neo-professions, (others include management consulting, executive search, HR management), have worked to take on the trappings of their more traditional professional cousins, such as law, accounting, engineering and the like. Of all the neo-professions, project management is a contender for the trophy of the most successful, having established itself with many of the traditional profession hallmarks. Such attributes include recognised and specialised expertise, a specific body of knowledge, institutional expertise recognition, personal accountability, autonomy and so on.

The profession of project management has been so successful as a neo-profession, that it has become ubiquitous. The charts below show the percentage of business delivered as a project in various industries, and the aggregate percentage of ALL hours worked, which are undertaken in a project format. The conclusion is that project managers are managing one third of all the hours worked in Australia. This is truly a dominant position, and the practice of project management therefore must have a massive impact on at least one third of our economic activity.

This should make our profession proud, but there is problem.

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The graph above shows productivity by industry. The figures, drawn from OECD data, include Australia and highlight two sectors which have not improved productivity since 1995, when the OECD began gathering data. These sectors are construction and professional services. It is interesting that, in both construction – in which management is dominated by project management – and professional services – which is what project management is – productivity is poor and has not improved.

We can conclude from this that both project management itself and at least some of the industries to which it is applied are ripe for disruption. But where will the change come from, and why has it not happened yet?

The current project management professional identity is very much a 20th Century phenomenon. The profession has established itself in the traditional professional services mould, just when that mould is about to be disrupted.

The project management profession, like many others, has traditionally been a technology laggard and technology has played only a minor role in the delivery of the professional service, mostly in the form of knowledge management systems (for example, P6 and @risk).

Researchers identify artificial intelligence as the source of “profound technological disruption” to professions which “no longer features in a support role for human capital but is becoming the main game” (Smets et al 2017). We do not know how much new technologies will change project management or when, but if other professions are anything to go by, it should not be ignored.

The question project managers must ask themselves is who will lead this disruption and how will the profession respond. The answer to both these questions is Millennial Project Managers.

Millennials are at the cusp of the biggest change to project management since the early 60’s and have two key attributes which will drive their leadership of technology-enabled disruption. Firstly, they have been born and raised in a period of rapid technology and social change. Millennials started entering the workforce as the internet became significant, with other major changes such as social media and the iPhone following along.

Secondly, Millennial project managers still have the majority of their careers ahead of them and cannot look to retirement as a solution to disruption. For Millennials, adaption to technology disruption is a survival skill.
In this environment, particularly in the technology lagging project industry, it is too easy for Baby Boomer and Gen-X senior managers to gloss over disruptive technologies, instead leaning on the successful career strategies of the past which led them to their leadership positions.

The emerging Millennial leaders cannot afford the same ambivalence. Of course, some will be more innovative, more perceptive and more ambitious for change than others. But for those Millennials seeking to be at the forefront of an inevitable, and perhaps fundamental change in the practice of project management, the time is right.

I encourage my colleagues to recognise that the future of professional project management is uncertain, and that it will be inevitably and perhaps fundamentally different a decade from now. The risk for businesses is that almost all the strategic decisions taken at senior levels are made by generations whose leaders have prospered from a paradigm which is increasingly under stress.

The good news is that these same businesses have an emerging generation of millennial leaders, who, given the opportunity, may uncover valuable adaptive strategies. For those wishing to read more I recommend The future of the professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts (Susskind & Susskind 2015).


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