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Are Project Managers Finished?

A rusty gate blurs out of focus

Boundaries between project and 'general' management are blurring

Last time, I wondered if the time of project managers has been and gone. You’ll be glad to know the short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer, though, is a bit more complicated…

As George said in the comments to the last article, the truth is, and always has been, somewhat more nuanced than I suggested. The cross-over between project management and the rather broad and ill-defined ‘general’ management has always been significant. After all, management in an organisation has always been about exploiting the resources of that organisation in as effective a manner as possible.

Effectiveness Varies

Naturally, what is effective varies depending on the particular situation a manager, and indeed an organisation, is dealing with. Project management sprang out of the realisation that large, one-off tasks needed different techniques than repetitive, smaller tasks. For example, one-off tasks are more likely to involve doing new things (at least new to the organisation), so are more difficult, and when large, you’re unlikely to get a second chance if you get it wrong (would you let a shipbuilder whose first effort sank try again?). Put together, this means the risk was much higher, and so ways of dealing with that risk were developed.

But these new methods of dealing with risk, and of allocating work, and so on, are not only applicable to project work. Their usefulness is broader, and so some of these techniques are exported back again to ‘general’ management.

This means that more managers have a wider set of techniques they can apply, and so smaller project-like work is not a problem for them. Essentially, the difference between ‘general’ management and project management begins to blur, with people on both sides of the line able to take on some work on the other.

Fewer, but better

This doesn’t mean that there is no need for project managers – there will always be a need for experienced specialists, able to take on the larger and more complex projects. But certainly it means that for some projects that would previously have needed a project manager, there is now an option to have a ‘general’ manager stretch themselves and apply techniques they already know in a slightly different situation.

And this is more and more likely to happen – put bluntly, specialists are expensive, and generalists are not. As project management tachniques also become mainstream management techniques, the pool of potential managers of small projects becomes much larger – and so the average cost of one falls due to the increased supply.

That leaves project managers with a choice – either accept a move to more of a hybrid position, which would mean more opportunities (both as a project manager and ‘general’ manager) but likely at a lower salary, or commit to specialising, meaning fewer opportunities (and a need for continuous and in-depth learning) but at a potentially higher rate.

Commodification of you

Business will always seek to commodify objects, tasks, and even techniques, because when something becomes a commodity, it is easier to produce and control, and thus generally cheaper. When what is being commodified is your skillset, the options are to accept it, or to become more specialised. Both have risks and downsides, and both have benefits and upsides.

Which one will you choose?

(Image courtesy of Rudoni Productions. Some rights reserved.)

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