Project Management: Back to the Future
The current decade has been a relatively retrospective one, with a growing number of financial services professionals employed by change programmes aiming to right the wrongs of the past (e.g. product mis-selling remediation, implementing trade and transaction reporting enhancements, and / or clearing and collateral management requirements). Whilst this continues to be a key theme, there has been a marked shift towards forward looking and innovative transformation projects in recent years.
Disruptive technologies offer a tantalising competitive advantage for early adopters and Agile delivery methodologies are proving irresistible for a growing number of firms. So, as the industry gets back to looking forwards, let’s examine the ways in which key disruptors will impact Project Managers (PMs) of the future.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is likely to be one of the biggest drivers of innovation in financial services over the coming years, yet discussions on implementation are often met with equal measures of excitement and dread. Excitement at the prospect of new technology and productivity gains, dread at the prospect of job losses. Fortunately, PMs are relatively safe from the robotics revolution as the high level of soft skills and judgement required to perform the role makes it a difficult one to automate.
“Four in five respondents in a recent industry survey conducted by the Project Management Institute (PMI) ‘reported that soft skills, such as communications, leadership, and negotiation, are more important today than they were just five years ago’”
– Pulse of the Profession 2018 – PMI
However, AI will impact the way in which PMs operate. Machine Learning and other modern AI technologies offer the ability to remove the administrative tasks associated with project and programme management (e.g. progress reporting, status tracking, etc.), freeing up PMs to focus on other areas of the role. In particular, the PMI survey cited the following as key areas of focus:
- Strategic Advisor: plans, executes, and delivers
- Innovator: acts as product owner and developer
- Communicator: is always clear and concise—no matter the audience
- Big Thinker: is adaptable, flexible, and emotionally intelligent
- Versatile Manager: has experience with all approaches—waterfall, Scrum, Agile, lean, design thinking
The proliferation of Agile delivery and its application beyond the realms of software development has increased demand for PMs to be fluent in the methodology. Ironically, the emphasis on behaviours of trust, flexibility, empowerment and collaboration within Agile teams often attracts suspicion and distrust from others operating in a more traditionally structured manner.
For this reason, it is vital that PMs understand, not only business case rationales and organisational approval processes, but also the various delivery mechanisms at play on any given programme. This is key as they will often be called upon to mitigate inevitable conflicts between agile delivery champions and regulatory and process restricted business teams. This problem is especially prevalent in large Financial Services organisations, where the complexities of scale and geographic dispersal can highlight the differences in approach.
Tension between Agile technology teams and their business counterparts operating within the broader organisation is a common cause of friction or sub optimal delivery on projects and programmes. Some firms have sought to resolve this by embarking on a transformative mission to become an Agile organisation. There are many benefits to doing this including a more empowered and engaged workforce and higher customer satisfaction, but for most attaining this (at least in the near future) is unrealistic.
As with any large-scale change, institutionalised attitudes often serve as blockers to the adoption of Agile and the bigger and more complex the organisation the more difficult it is to overcome this. Until attitudes are changed, experienced PMs with the ability to bridge the gap between the two seemingly opposing worlds of business and technology will be in high demand.
“Resolving the tensions between Agile and traditional management cannot usually be achieved by purely rational means. In part, that’s because the traditional role of management often enjoys deep emotional attachments, attitudes, values and views about how the world works, which collectively add up to a corporate culture or an ideology.”
– ‘How To Make The Whole Organization Agile’, Forbes, 22 July 2015
For example, there is a common misconception that Agile projects lack governance and are inherently less structured than traditional Waterfall ones, but this is unfounded. Agile project management requires a high degree of discipline and expert knowledge of common approaches, for example Scrum and Kanban. The most successful PMs understand both approaches and can draw on experience to decide on and implement an appropriate blend of tools and techniques from each. As such, PMs of today require a working knowledge of Agile if they are to remain relevant.
The character of the PM is also a key factor in whether an Agile project succeeds or fails, as shown in a recent study by the Association for Project Management (APM);
“All participants agreed that the project manager’s leadership style needs to be facilitative, a ‘servant-leader’, rather than a more traditional, directive style. Similarly, two participants specifically expressed the view that traditional command and control does not work, as it stops the agility by taking away the individual’s responsibility for their own work, and can bias the estimation process. Therefore, the project manager needs to be someone who tasks the team, but helps, supports, coordinates and, above all, listens.” – The Practical Adoption of Agile Methodologies – Association for Project Management
In a regulatorily hamstrung marketplace of narrow margins and increasing competition, technological and methodological innovations in project delivery create opportunities for firms to differentiate themselves from their competitors. The ability to embrace these innovations will largely depend on the ability to elicit the guidance of an experienced and skilful PM. The predicted erosion of administrative aspects of project delivery by AI means that future PMs will need to be great communicators with strategic minds and a broad understanding of delivery methodologies. Arguably, the demands on PMs have never been greater, and these are likely to increase. With financial institutions concluding their regulatory programmes, the pressure is now on programme managers to ensure they have a firm understanding of how to benefit from current innovations and how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in high-change, but highly regulated, environments.