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Project managers - what capabilities will you need in the 2020s?

16 Jul 2018


Project managers - what capabilities will you need in the 2020s?

The demand for project managers is rising constantly, particularly as companies adopt project-based delivery for more and more corporate objectives. And the project delivery model is increasingly being adopted in sectors such as healthcare, which, until now, have been bastions of “business as usual” operations.

This means that projects are now moving into “fuzzier” areas, such as HR, cultural change and transformation. These are what old-style project managers scathingly call “the pink and fluffy stuff”. Corporate values, such as an emphasis on engagement and on alignment with organisational culture, are becoming just as important in projects as in other parts of the organisation. This is leading to something of a capabilities gap for project managers as they struggle to meet the new challenges being thrown up by disruptive technology. 

So let’s look at some of the key capabilities project managers are going to need to see them through the demands of the decade to come. The three below are all non-traditional skills for PMs - but they’ll be key to having a successful project management career in the 2020s. 

1. Communication skills

The Project Management Institute (PMI) has a paper from Tata, the industrial and IT group, which estimates that 90% of a project manager’s time is spent in communication. This is a far cry from most people’s idea of a project manager - someone up to their elbows in Gantt charts and process diagrams, probably wearing a hard hat and a high viz jacket. 

Project managers now need to understand that engagement is key to getting great performance out of a project team and that engagement has to be underpinned by open and transparent communication. A good communicator will be sure to check the team’s feedback, to ensure that the message that was received was the one they intended. And of course, a great communicator is first and foremost an active listener. 

2. Negotiating skills

Allied to communication, is the ability to negotiate with people right across the organisation. It might be with a senior executive who needs to give some of their time to review a project output. Or the project manager might be battling for resources, competing with other projects. It may even be a formal negotiation with a user group who need to sign off a piece of work. A project manager spends a lot of time trying to get staff that they don’t actually manage to do work that they’re not obliged to do. The ability to compromise, suggest trade-offs and propose workarounds is extremely important. And negotiation is a lot easier if the PM has first built up a relationship with the person with whom they are negotiating. 

3. Adaptability

This is another capability that will have the traditional PMs choking over their lunchtime sandwich. The business environment is changing so fast that the old ways of running projects are not agile enough to cope. Major projects used to take months or years to get approval, following which a team would be recruited and finally the whole thing would get going. Many organisations have set off on long-term, in-house IT projects, only to see virtually the same functionality being given away free as an app, just as their extremely expensive project is finishing. 

So project managers are going to have to know how to run a project fast, how to change direction if needed and how to realign the project if the corporate strategic direction alters. 

These aren’t traditional PM skills and they aren’t taught on project management courses. So project managers who can demonstrate that they have these capabilities, by giving real-life examples from their own experience, will be ahead of the game in competition for the best jobs and assignments.

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