The End of Job Descriptions and the Rise of the Project Economy
In this article, Antonio Nieto-Rodrigues talks about what he names as the Project Economy and how the traditional understanding of business has been changing. Nowadays, job descriptions are no longer the focus or the determiner. People are becoming self-employed and adapting a project-based approach which brings about the end of job descriptions. Thus, project implementation becomes fundamental and project management skills gain greater importance. Read on, to discover the details of how this shift occurred and how it reflects on today’s understanding of business and project management.
My purpose is to provide a modern and simple approach to project management so that anyone, from executives, managers, employees, students, etc can fully harness project management methodologies and live into the idea that projects can inspire positive change. I believe it’s time for companies and leaders to break out of outdated structures and lean into a fresh, modern approach.
Susan had spent almost her entire career, more than 20 years, working in a large European bank. She specialised in corporate risk management, and she moved up through the latter till reaching the Head of Risk Management of the Bank. She noticed over the years that thanks to automation and big data, she could carry out risk management activities with less staff. Her team reduced from 45 to 7 in less than five years. About a year ago she was asked to step down from her current role and lead a large transformation program. Her old position was scrapped.
She is not alone. The Richards Group, one of the largest independently owned ad agencies in the US, with billings of $1.28 billion, revenue of $170 million and more than 650 employees. Stan Richards, its founder and CEO, removed almost all of its management layers and job titles, leaving only that of project manager.
Disruptive technologies will accelerate this trend. Robots and artificial intelligence will take over almost all the traditional administrative activities and operational work. Some of these roles have already disappeared or been completely reshaped. Organizations will shift their focus more than ever to projects and project-based work instead of such roles and their job descriptions. Projects are the new norm for creating value and, indeed, for staying in business – leading to what I coined as the Project Economy.
Until recently, projects and project management were far too often hidden, invisible, or simply underappreciated. But the Covid-19 pandemic brought one of the world’s largest-scale projects to date to light: vaccine development and distribution. Today project-based work is the engine that drives progress and gives work meaning. This shift has been validated by recent research from McKinsey and the World Economic Forum.
No matter what stage you have reached in your career, or which profession you work in, you will certainly have been involved in many projects – some of them successful, others less so. However, most of us have not received training in the methods and tools or project management skills that are vital to project success.
Implications of the Project Economy
This silent disruption is impacting not only organizations but also the very nature of work, and our entire professional lives. The set-in-stone job descriptions and traditional one-company career path of previous generations is now a distant memory. Today, people happily and fruitfully change jobs and employers a number of times during their careers. We believe that this trend will accelerate and that professional careers will become a sequence of projects. Another notable trend related to this is the growth in self-employment – according to Quartz at Work, an HR consulting company, the number of Americans working for themselves could triple by 2020. They will be, effectively, managing a portfolio of projects.
According to recent research, the number of individuals working in project-based roles will increase from 66 million (in 2017) to 88 million (forecast 2027). And the value of economic activity worldwide that is project-oriented will grow from $12 trillion (in 2013) to $20 trillion (forecast 2027). Those are millions of projects requiring millions of project managers per year.
From Deep Expertise to Deep Generalist in the Project Economy
In a world that will have more and more projects, the demand for strong project implementation competencies is increasing by the hour. Just by searching on LinkedIn, it is clear that more and more job descriptions require sound project management skills and experience. In two of my previous companies, one of the major skill gaps identified was people capable of leading projects across the organization, what I call deep generalists, as opposed to deep experts, which do have sufficient resources. Although several of the deep generalists skills we learn throughout our lives by intuition and practice, and many could claim to be project implementation experts. The reality is that the core has to be learned and trained. I have grouped the main qualities needed to excel in the project-driven world into five categories.
Project Management Skills in the World of Project Economy
1. Essential Skills
These skills are the hard-technical areas of project management and agile methods, mostly around a solid definition of a project and a change initiative. A good project leader should be able to use the available tools and techniques to determine the rationale and business case of a project and to finalize the project implementation. They should be able to work with key contributors and partners in defining the scope. Everyone can make a plan, but very few can make a well-defined and precise plan. It requires a good understanding of the details – analytical skills – as well as the overall picture – strategic skills.
2. Technical Expertise
These competencies give the project leader credibility among the team and the project stakeholders. They help the leader to have a minimum understanding of the important technical aspects of the project and provide the ability to communicate in the language of the technicians. A certain level of understanding, enough to challenge the teams, is sufficient. For example, if the project is to implement a new performance monitoring application, the project leader should take the time to comprehend some of the technical aspects of the software.
3. Strategic Acumen
Develop a good understanding of the environment in which the project implementation will occur. The project leader should have a minimum understanding of the business, its purpose, its strategy and goals, its main products or services, its key competitors and its main challenges. Being able to connect the project outcomes and purpose to concrete business challenges and priorities is essential for project buy-in and success. Most of the stakeholders, including senior management, will be more supportive of the project and the project leader whenever that connection is made.
4. Leadership Skills
The increased speed of change, the higher complexity, the overlapping priorities, the conflicting objectives, the culture of searching for a consensus, the multiple generations now working at the same time – all these important elements make the project implementation much harder than in the past. Managerial skills were mostly enough then. But today, management skills are not enough; project managers have to evolve towards project leadership. They have to be able to provide direction; communicate progress and changes; evaluate, develop and motivate staff; deal effectively with people without having authority by motivating them (working in a matrix); confront and challenge; engage the project sponsor and senior leadership; understand different cultures and how to leverage from them; manage and persuade multiple stakeholders, sometimes ones who are against the project; build bridges across the organization (which will often be silo driven and scarce in resources); create a high-performing team; and dedicate enough time to develop and coach team members.
Project leaders are expected to have strong ethics and personal values. Leadership is a relationship between people. Therefore, the ability to ethically influence others is a major determination of effective leaders.
Leaders are often in the spotlight and become role models for the team members and the organization. In the project-driven world, there is less room for hiding and mismanagement, as projects and their implementation tend to be very visible and require quick thinking.
Ethics, motivation to act as a role model and developing a plan of action are key aspects that positively affect leadership and a project’s outcome. When ethics and values are made a priority and respected, it will have a positive effect on leadership.
In essence, the project-driven world, where robots and artificial intelligence will do most of the routine and administrative jobs, and a large proportion of the expert jobs, will require a significant shift from hyper-specialization to generalization, from technical expertise to facilitator and from manager to leader. These are skills not only needed by project managers, but they should be developed by every employee, combining traditional with agile project management concepts, focusing on team collaboration and value creation. Senior leaders should be an integral part of the new capabilities development plan, they plan a crucial role not only as project sponsors but also in selecting, prioritizing, and allocating resources to projects.
This is a unique opportunity for professionals in the project world and the project economy to lead this unprecedented challenge and help organizations to adapt to our world driven by change.
 “Stan Richards’s Unique Management Style” (Inc.), accessed 1 October 2018, https://www.inc.com/magazine/201111/stan-richards-unique-management-style.html.
 “The Number of Americans Working for Themselves could Triple by 2020” (Quartz at Work), last modified 21 February 2018, https://work.qz.com/1211533/the-number-of-americans-working-for-themselves-could-triple-by-2020.
 Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap Report 2017–2027 (Project Management Institute, 2017), accessed 1 October 2018, https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/job-growth-report.pdf?sc_lang_temp=en.
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: HBR’s World Champion in Project Management
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is a leading expert in project management and strategy implementation, creator of concepts like the “Project Economy” and the “Hierarchy of Purpose.” His work has been recognized by Thinkers50 with the prestigious award “Ideas into Practice.” He is the author of the recently published Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook, as well as Lead Successful Projects, The Project Revolution, and The Focused Organization. He has been teaching the value of project management to senior leaders for more than two decades at Duke CE, Instituto de Empresa, Solvay Business School, and Vlerick. Antonio has held executive positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, BNP Paribas, and GlaxoSmithKline. Former Chairman of the Project Management Institute, he is the founder of Projects & Co and co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute. He is a member of Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches. You can follow Antonio through his LinkedIn Newsletter – Lead Projects Successfully or his website.