Project management calls on a new set of skills

Project management, Bas de Baar claims, is changing, and PMs will need a new set of skills. This new environment, he says, demands abilities traditionally associated with women.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar

It's the end of the year. It's a great time for looking ahead, getting reflective, smoking a pipe and sitting by the fireplace as an armchair philosopher. This year I often asked myself what the future of project management will look like. So pull up a chair with me, let's get wild on some heavy stereotyping, and let me tell you why the future PMs are not white males wearing suits, but more likely women working and living in a medina.

My neighbor, who just happens to be a woman, does it every morning, again and again; within an hour after she gets up, she delivers her children right on the doorstep of the school, and she gets to her own job on time. Regardless of the weather. Regardless the mood of her kids. Every school day of every year. My wife is an excellent cook. But the most important cooking skill is her ability to get every part of meal ready at the same time. Everything is served at once, and nothing raw; potatoes, vegetables and the meat. Hot and ready.

When it rains I am running half an hour late. Always. Automatically. When I am serving a meal that consists of more than one component, half of the dish will be cold and raw. Guaranteed. For my neighbor, dumping the kids at school is easy: signed, sealed, and delivered within the hour. For me, it would end up a logistical nightmare. I guess experience improves your skills.

And despite all this I manage to finish projects successfully. Projects that consist of a zillion moving parts. I must have some organizational skills in my body. And I am surely using my years of experience in this area. But is it my "technical" knowledge that helps me out in managing my software projects, or are my project management skills making the difference? It is my technical know-how that helps me to communicate effectively with developers and customers. It is my knowledge of technical issues that assists me to determine if someone is pulling my leg within a project. It is my technical knowledge that makes my social skills more effective. Or is it the IT knowledge that is compensating for my lack of social and communication skills?

The suits are starting to work up a sweat. The ties are getting a little tight. Yes guys, this article is getting a twist towards that subject: women are better equipped to be project managers than men.

Project organizations are getting more and more distributed over our globe, team members are becoming more mobile. The project manager will have to deal with an increasingly multi-cultural, global and mobile environment, in which the employees are working on more fragmented tasks. The developer in India, the customer in the United States, the user in Germany and the support people in Ireland. One is dedicated to the project, another is only working part time on the job. One is glued to his desk and another is running eternally from one part of the country to another part. Sorry to tell y'all, but this is the environment in which the old "command and control" is not going to cut it. You are now going to rely on your organizational skills, your "soft" skills, your incredible multi-tasking abilities. The trick of compensating with technical domain knowledge and getting your advantage from this is almost becoming worthless in the virtual project world I just described.

So, women are going to take the lead within project management? You bet! Multi-tasking, social and communication skills are natural properties for the ladies; no trick, no profession, just natural. Tom Peters, the famous management guru, has been getting all excited about it for years. He even wants to assign a degree to women: MnML/WR: Master of non-Masculine Leadership/Women Rule. He quotes Moe Grzelakowski, author of Mother Leads Best: 50 Women Who Are Changing the Way Organizations Define Leadership: "Now and in the future, the teams led by the most moms win...The New Model still mandates that they have 'leadership DNA', but it also embraces a kinder, gentler, more confident version of the old model; a Big Heart and a Strong Character are now as important as being a 'strong person."

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In combination with the globalization and outsourcing trends of the last couple of years I think we should keep an eye on the Arabic and Asian women, in relation to the subject of who holds the future of project management. During my trip through Morocco earlier this year I was astonished by the amount of young women running Internet cafes from within the old cities, the medinas. They run the cafès, commercially and technically -- dozens of women are maintaining contact throughout the virtual world. They have the time, they have the skills and they are "cost effective" from a Western point of view. Mark my words: projects in the near future are going to be lead from Arabic and Asian countries, heck maybe even from Latin America. And by women. Project management directly from the medina. Their male counterparts may have the same price tag, but the women have a less hierarchical style that makes them more adaptable to Western cultures.

About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, www.SoftwareProjects.org. His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.

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