Thought Leaders

The Project Management Chameleon


We’re not particularly beach people in our house. We’re definitely more city breaks kinda folks, and we like to go to cities we’ve never been to before. This usually causes ‘discussions’ about where to go and often our destinations are based on where my local airport flies to (Leeds-Bradford).

We’ve been trying to book some time away during half-term and we were not getting any inspiration online, so I suggested we go a travel agent. My 8 year old son immediately said to me “what’s a travel agent?”

I’m going to admit that I haven’t been to a travel agent since 2005 whereas my parents always go to a travel agent, and it got me thinking about how customer needs have changed over time, how well (or not) people have adapted to this change, and whether the adaption is also a generational behaviour. And this includes project managers.

In particular, I reflected on the following few questions: As a profession, how has project management changed over time? Are the project management skills I first learnt in the 1990s still relevant today?

What new or different skills do I need as a project manager in the 21st century that didn’t exist in the 1990s? How are the project management skills I developed in the 1990s different to the project management skills of the 1970s or 1980s?

I like to think I am progressive in my project management thinking, I am open to developing new skills, and can adapt as needed – the project management equivalent of ‘online booking’ if you like – yet how often will I need reskill, given the fact that organisations are rapidly changing also? I feel like a project management chameleon.

So, what does a 21st century project manager look like? What skills do we need them to have – that maybe didn’t exist a generation ago?

There will always be the need for the core skills such as: planning, risk, quality, leadership, teamwork, communication, and so on – I’m not talking about these – I’m talking about competencies such as: customer service, consultancy, entrepreneurship, digital literacy, sales, emotional intelligence, to name a few.

I see these as just as important (if not more so) as being able to understand the purpose and use of the critical path, or know how to create a quality management strategy, for example. Is this just me?

I say all of this based on my experience of working with lots of different organisations across many industry sectors, and not just in project management. Digital is the big disruptor that didn’t exist when I first started in the 1990s (mind you, digital didn’t exist much a mere ten years ago, let alone twenty-five-odd years ago).

What digital skills do I need to be a 21st century project manager? We live in a data-driven economy and the ability to use, analyse and interpret data to make informed decisions is a critical skill. Not just for project managers, but everyone.

When you recruit or develop project managers, is digital and data literacy something you specifically look for? What importance would you put on these skills compared to the ‘traditional’ project management skills?

It could be argued it depends on the project, yet I disagree. There will always be a data element to every projects, so these skills are more ‘when’ not ‘if’ they need to be developed.

My previous article “Project Managers: Is It All About the Ego?” talked how I felt project managers needed an entrepreneurial side to them. I still maintain this stance. I often ask clients if they have an infinite amount of money – to which the answer is always no.

In which case they need to make trade-off decisions about which projects they spend their finite cash on (we would call this portfolio management)! This is where an entrepreneurial outlook can help: “treat the project like it’s your own business” and this may change your view of it.

If it was your own money and livelihood, would you do things differently?

As an experienced project management trainer and consultant I know that popular courses and certifications such PRINCE2 or the Association for Project Management (APM) don’t have data literacy or digital or entrepreneurship or customer service in their syllabus.

This is not a criticism – just a statement of fact. Do they need to have them included? I believe they should be included in some shape or form – don’t ask me exactly how these should be included as I’m all about the ideas – a ‘Plant’ (from Belbin), definitely not an ‘Implementer’ or ‘Completer Finisher’!

By the way, my lack of finishing things this is not a bad thing – just an admission of my own foibles! Luckily I did manage to finish this article!

But times are changing and we all need to adapt to the new or different skills that the world is demanding of us all. Project management is not immune to this change.

Is this all nothing more than generational discussion? The immediate future of our profession relies on attracting more ‘generation z’ project managers, yet what will the profession look like for ‘generation alpha’? What is ‘generation alpha’?

According to one Google search result, generation alpha are those people who are (or will be) born between the years of circa 2013 through to circa 2029/2030.

Who knew?! These future project managers will have grown up with far greater digital and data literacy than us (I don’t think anyone is thinking otherwise) and so additional skills are unlikely to be needed in this area.

What’s exciting is to wonder what skills generation alpha project managers will need development in – definitely planning, risk, quality etc, but what new skills?

Not to mention generation z will need to adapt, just like how us generation y, xennials (nope, I’d never heard of this generation either) and generation x have had to. All of us: Chameleons!

You may disagree with me about all of this. Like I said above I like to think of myself as progressive in my project management thinking, and so I’m ok with you disagreeing about being a chameleon. That would be karma!

Ian Clarkson is head of organisational consultancy at QA.

For help and support in developing your project management chameleons, please drop Ian a note at:

Ian Clarkson
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