Outlook for a New Generation of Project Management Pros
Changing capabilities and focus may cause a shift in project management
Published: Monday, January 29, 2024 – 12:03
Business skills are constantly changing to keep up with current technological and societal trends. But 2023 wasn’t an ordinary year, and there were three major developments that accelerated the evolutionary process of project management.
First, thanks to the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022, artificial intelligence reached the fore of our public consciousness, and many types of tools are now AI-enabled. Next, the world experienced the hottest year in our planet’s recorded history—a sobering wakeup call for everyone, but particularly for our new generation of young adults, who have reached a point in their maturity where they’re more able to take action. Lastly was the shock and trauma resulting from the war in Gaza. Along with directly affecting millions of people, the terrifying events leading to the war and the war itself have generated a tremendous amount of public discourse in the West. Practically everyone has a strong opinion, and the brutality of events has shaken our sense of collective balance. Right and wrong, which are rarely binary, are more nuanced and complicated than ever.
Against these extreme backdrops, and on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, the next generation of project management professionals confronts a world that is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). As they develop and hone their skills, these professionals are more likely to exhibit the traits described here, along with all the benefits and warnings they bring to their respective workplaces. These changes will affect organizations looking to employ project managers and consultants.
Pros and cons of the next generation
Let’s start with the positives. A new generation of project management professionals is likely to exhibit the following five traits, making them indispensable to companies and organizations.
This is the first generation that grew up with smart devices and a deep immersion in social media at every milestone of their upbringing and coming of age. Growing up in a digital world, they’re highly proficient with technology, comfortable with digital tools, and likely adept at leveraging technology and apps for business purposes. In business management, for example, there are excellent tools to transcribe meeting notes and generate summaries of agreements and action items.
This is the first generation to enter the workforce with a deep understanding of how to leverage artificial intelligence. To them, AI is a friend, an assistant, and possibly an effective advisor. Many of them are adequate “prompt engineers.” Entry-level project managers are likely to rely on AI to develop plans, schedule activities, analyze data, and write reports.
Agility with confidence
Growing up in a VUCA environment hasn’t been easy. Many of this generation of young professionals experienced some level of disruption during their college years. Confronting a world that is hotter and more unpredictable will likely instill a sense of constant change and adaptability. For budding project managers, developing an agile mindset is becoming the prerequisite for leading projects. Reflective of their life experience, their ability to adapt quickly to new situations will be more innate and common.
Social and environmental awareness
While the generation before debates the climate crisis and woke mindset, the new generation has more than likely made up their minds about where they stand. Practically, they will live in a world that in all probability will be hotter and with more disruptive climate events. They will act not just with their words, but also through their work, how they spend their time and money, and how they will eventually educate their kids. On the social front, most of them will lean toward equity and fairness.
They are globalists by default. Whether they traveled more or connected digitally, they have access to other cultures like no generation before. They will continue to have more opportunities to engage with people who live across the globe and who speak different languages, both literally and figuratively. The Covid-19 pandemic and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have taught them that diseases and the impact of war, even if far away, can immediately and tangibly affect them at home. Thus, a Gen Z professional will be more comfortable communicating with people of diverse backgrounds, languages, and customs.
Striking the right balance
On the flip side of this equation, there are some worrying signs that this next generation of project management pros may be less capable in certain crucial areas than previous generations. More of the human-centric skills and certain reasoning abilities could come up short because of overreliance on technology, especially AI. Although they excel at leveraging technology, they may also develop an unhealthy dependency on technology because of a misinterpretation of its limitations. Technology is a productivity booster, an enabler to solve complex problems, a valuable helper to overcome writer’s block, and so much more. But will younger users be able to critically discern errors and detect when AI falls short? Will it erode their ability to think (and feel) critically when it counts? And will there be incentives to so?
Companies and individuals must find the right balance to leverage the power of these tools but not handicap the human faculties of critical thinking and analysis.
Overreliance on digital communication tools
Growing up in a digital world means communication is rarely more than a few seconds away. Texting and online chats have made communication instant, short, and direct. In-person, face-to-face communication is becoming rarer because it’s so simple to rely on technology, even when people are in the same office. How this will ultimately affect problem solving, teamwork, and other difficult situations will play out in due time, though stresses are already clearly visible.
Signs of deterioration in teamwork are mixed. Although technology can be a vital tool to connect people from different locations, it can’t replace co-location and working together, especially on difficult challenges in which multisensory perception is vital for developing deeper relationships. On one hand, Gen Z professionals grew up in a digital world in which collaboration on games such as Minecraft played a vital social role. On the other hand, they most often sit alone in a room, immersed in a virtual world. When conflict arises, as it inevitably will, it’s easy enough to abandon the team and the work. Thus, many people choose to work alone.
Diminished conflict resolution
Teamwork issues also give rise to challenges of conflict management. During the eons before the digital world existed, parents, teachers, and coaches commonly encouraged kids to work out their conflicts face to face. In this digital space, it’s likely that adults are not even aware of the disagreements and conflicts between young people unless they intensify and spill out into the real world. Most of the time, conflicts are simply ignored, abandoned, or just absorbed, which can be unhealthy and damaging. In higher education, colleges are experiencing a rise in conflict, and this might continue and eventually bleed into the workforce. The younger generation is losing the ability to tolerate conflict or differing opinions.
Reduced attention span
The last of the major challenges is finding the right balance between consuming vast amounts of shallow information vs. diving deeper to gain context. Our attention spans are becoming shorter. Ironically, in an age of vast information, most of us have developed the habit of reading the headlines, scanning for keywords, and scrolling through social media short clips. Many of these techniques have evolved as self-preservation. After all, while Moore’s Law—that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years, though the cost of computers is halved—works well on computers, humans aren’t that much better than our ancestors at absorbing information. These habits and tactics have given rise to an inability to focus for a longer period of time. This means that a new generation is conditioned to overlook nuance or patiently work through problems. For organizations hiring new project management professionals, this can be a particularly significant challenge.
Looking at the future
In conclusion, I’m optimistic for the next generation of project management professionals. As a college professor teaching more than 200 students per year, and as an executive working with companies to instill project management capabilities across their organizations, I can view the next generation of professionals from these dual perspectives. As with every person and every generation, there are strengths and weaknesses.
A new generation of project management professionals entering the workforce has consistently exhibited valuable traits and a balanced mindset that will not only encourage them to be better people but also contribute to a better future. In a recent short survey of mostly undergraduate seniors and graduate students, almost 60% have an optimistic view of the future, and only 8% are pessimistic. I share their optimism, and I’m hopeful to see how a new generation will address the many problems of past generations and build a brighter future.