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Is Project Management Obsolete?

What’s the future of project management? Is project management obsolete? 

  • I don’t think that “project management” is obsolete. However, I do think that some traditional roles of a “Project Manager” are becoming obsolete in projects that require a more adaptive approach
  • I also think that there’s a need to redefine what “project management” is if it is to continue to thrive in the future

There is a need to:

  • Separate the functions of “project management” from some of the traditional roles that have been played by a “Project Manager”, and
  • “Reinvent” the project management profession and develop a broader view of what “project management” is if it is going to continue to thrive and remain relevant in today’s world.
Future Project Management

Examples of Companies and Professions Reinventing Themselves

Any company or profession that doesn’t change and adapt to changes in the world around them runs the risk of becoming stagnant and no longer relevant. Here are a couple of examples:

American Express

American Express is a company that has been around for more than 150 years and has had to reinvent itself a number of times over that time. American Express started out in 1850 shipping boxes on railway cars. That business went very well for a while:

“For years it enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the movement of express shipments (goods, securities, currency, etc.) throughout New York State.”

Can you imagine where American Express would be today if it still defined its business primarily around shipping boxes on railway cars? American Express has continued to reinvent itself over-and-over again to remain a vibrant and competitive company.

Quality Management

In the early 1990’s I worked in the Quality Management profession with Motorola. Prior to that time,

  • Quality Management was heavily based on a quality control approach that relied on inspectors to inspect products for defects
  • That process was very reactive and inefficient and companies like Motorola began implementing a much more proactive approach to quality management that was based on eliminating defects at the source rather than finding and fixing them later

That caused a major transformation in the Quality Management profession. Instead of being in control of quality through quality control inspectors,

  • Quality Managers had to learn to distribute some responsibility for quality to the people who designed and manufactured the product and play more of a consultative and influencing role.
  • When I worked for Motorola in the early 1990’s,  my manager used to tell me that “Our job is to teach, coach, and audit – in that order“.

That turned out to be a much more effective approach but it was a gut-wrenching change for many people in the Quality Management profession who were used to being the ones who owned responsibility for quality and were in control of quality.

How Does This Relate to Project Management?

For many years, the project management profession has been dominated by an approach that emphasized planning and control.

  • A project was deemed to be successful if it delivered well-defined project requirements within an approved budget and schedule.
  • That approach hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s but
  • We live in a different world today

There are two major factors that are creating a need for a different approach to project management in today’s world:

Levels of Uncertainty

There is a much higher level of uncertainty because problems and solutions tend to be much more complex: 

  • This is particularly true of large software systems.
  • With a high level of uncertainty; it is difficult, if not impossible, to define a detailed solution to the problem prior to the start of the project.  

The example I use in my training is “finding a cure for cancer”. 

  • Can you imagine attempting to develop a detailed project plan for that kind of effort? 
  • There is just too much uncertainty

Instead of getting bogged down in trying to develop a detailed project plan upfront, it would be much better to get started and use an iterative approach to attempt to converge on a solution as the project is in progress.

Increased Emphasis on Creativity and Innovation

In many areas, competitive pressures require a significant level of innovation in new product development. 

  • In these areas, creativity and innovation are much more important than planning and control. 
  • For example, think of what a company like Apple has to do to develop a new iPhone. 
  • Do you think that they start with a detailed plan based on some well-defined requirements?  I don’t think so.

What is Agile Project Management?

An Agile Project Management approach is ideally-suited for a project that:

  • Has a high level of uncertainty, or
  • Requires an emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than an emphasis on planning and control.

However, it is not limited to projects that are 100% Agile.

  • An Agile Project Management approach is applicable to a broad range of projects and
  • An Agile Project Manager needs to know how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit any given situation

Where Does Project Management Fit in Scrum?

In a Scrum project at the team level, you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” but there is actually a lot of project management going on. At the team level, many functions that might normally be performed by a Project Manager have been distributed among other roles. Here’s an article with more detail on that:

What Needs to be Done to Adapt to This New Environment?

In today’s world:

  • There are many project managers who have been heavily indoctrinated in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management who might attempt to force-fit all projects to that kind of approach
  • There are also many project managers who are used to a project management approach that relies heavily on well-defined document templates and checklists to define how the project is managed

Some project managers will need to upgrade their skills to a higher level because there is typically no project manager role at the team level in an Agile/Scrum project

  • We all need to adopt a broader view of what “Project Management” is that is not limited to traditional plan-driven project management
  • Project managers need to learn how to blend an Agile (adaptive) approach with a traditional plan-driven approach in the right proportions to fit the nature of the problem
  • Force-fitting all projects to a traditional plan-driven project management approach is not likely to be very successful

This new environment “raises the bar” considerably for project managers and requires a lot more skill.  It is not a simple matter of filling in the blanks in well-defined project templates and following project checklists based on PMBOK®.

What Has Been Done to Transform the Project Management Profession?

PMI® has begun to recognize the need to deal with this challenge and has made steps in that direction but much more needs to be done:

PMI-ACP Certification

The PMI-ACP® certification is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. 

  • It recognizes the need for project managers to have an understanding of Agile and Lean but it is only a test of general Agile and Lean knowledge
  • It doesn’t really address the big challenge that project managers have of figuring out how to blend those approaches with a traditional plan-driven approach to project management.

PMBOK and Integrated Approach

PMI® still treats Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. PMBOK® version 6 has added material on how the various sections of PMBOK® might be applied in an Agile environment but that also doesn’t go far enough in my opinion.

Agile Project Management Training

Much of the training that is available to project managers today on Agile only addresses the basics of Agile and Scrum. 

  • You have to understand the principles behind Agile and Scrum at a much deeper level to understand how to successfully adapt those approaches to different kinds of projects. 
  • You can’t just do Agile and Scrum mechanically.

Overall Summary

Project Management certainly isn’t obsolete but the “handwriting is on the wall” that change is definitely needed for the profession to continue to grow and thrive.

We need to go beyond these steps and “reinvent” what “project management” is. Here’s an article I wrote with more on that subject:

What is Agile Project Management? How Is It Different?

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on the “Future of Project Management”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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