The Next Generation Project Manager

The way that the next generation Project Manager is evolving is similar to the next generation of Quality Manager in the 1990s. I worked in a number of roles in the quality management profession in the early 1990’s. At that time, the quality management profession was going through a significant shift in thinking from an emphasis on quality control to more modern approaches such as Six Sigma and TQM.

  • The old approach relied very heavily on inspection after a product had been built to find defects before the product shipped
  • The new approach involved going into the processes and improving the process as necessary to eliminate the source of the defects and preventing the defects from happening at all.

The benefits of the new approach were obvious:

  • It eliminates the costs of a lot of unnecessary inspectors to find defects if the products are inherently more reliable
  • It has a huge impact on reducing costs of reworking and scrapping defective products and obviously significantly improved customer satisfaction

That changed the very nature of the quality management profession and many people who had defined their whole careers around the old quality control approach couldn’t adapt to that change and found themselves out of work while others who learned the benefits of the new approach continued to thrive.

In my opinion, there is a similar change going on in the project management profession today that is equally significant and requires us to rethink some of the very basic tenets of project management that have been taken for granted for many years. An example is the “project management iron triangle” (also known as the “triple constraint”) which has been a fundamental concept in project management for a long time. The idea behind it is that all three of the legs of the “iron triangle” (time, cost, and scope) are interrelated and changing any one of them is going to effect one or more of the other legs of the triangle. For example, if you increase scope, it’s likely to have an impact on both the cost and schedule of the project.

A key measurement of Project Managers for a long time has been how well they managed these triple constraints to control costs and schedules associated with a project. A project was deemed successful if it met the requirements it was supposed to meet within the planned cost and schedule. To control costs and schedules, you obviously have to control the scope of the project and limit changes to the requirements once the project has started. These ideas have been so well-engrained into the way projects have been managed for so long that it has begun to define what project management is just as the image of quality control inspectors used to define what quality management was at one time.

What’s wrong with that picture?

  • It might work OK in some areas like the construction industry where it is more realistic to predict and control the requirements, cost, and schedule for a project – it doesn’t work well at all in other areas where the requirements are much more difficult to define and control and a more adaptive approach is needed such as most software development projects. In those areas, there are many projects that might meet their cost and schedule goals but fail to deliver significant business value because it can be so difficult to define all the requirements before the project starts.
  • The traditional “iron triangle” approach does not recognize the value produced by the project as a variable. It assumes that the requirements accurately define the value that the project must produce and those requirements can be defined before the project starts – in many areas today that just isn’t very realistic at all and a much more flexible and adaptive approach is needed.

So, what does that mean for the project management profession as we know it? Does that mean that traditional project managers will become extinct like dinosaurs? I don’t think so, but I think any project manager who only knows the traditional project management disciplines of managing costs and schedules and can’t take a more adaptive approach when required may be severely limited in his/her career options.

I’m proud to be a project manager and I am dedicated to doing whatever I can to contribute to the ongoing improvement of the project management profession, but I do understand that we need to adapt and change to embrace new ways of doing project management. I learned a long time ago that anyone who thinks that they can “rest on their laurels” and stop learning and growing makes themselves uncompetitive and may be out of a job.

I have a vision for what I call “The Next Generation Project Manager” that I’ve tried to articulate in my two books – it’s a project manager who is equally well-versed in all the traditional project management principles and practices as well as all the Agile principles and practices; but beyond that, he/she understands those principles and practices at a deeper level and knows how to blend them together as necessary to fit any given situation.

Does that sound like an ambitious goal? It certainly is, but it is no more ambitious than what other professions such as the quality management profession have gone through over the years. I hope that through the writing I’ve done that I’ve been able to help others in the project management profession recognize the magnitude of this change and successfully adapt to it.

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