Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Arrives

For using algorithms to unlock capacity

Fear not: Bots won’t steal your job—they’ll only make it better. So says Geetha Gopal, who speaks from experience. Over the past decade, she has ushered organizations into a data-driven structure, leading initiatives that inject automation through AI and machine learning. 

Basically, Gopal ferrets out shortcuts that organizations and their project teams never knew existed.

For example, while working for an automaker giant, Gopal led a project to use open-source tools and algorithms to analyze historical data and generate meaningful solutions. What started as a minimum viable product transformed how information was shared, processed and used—slashing certain tasks and processes that might have taken five days to just minutes.

“There are studies that suggest that when domestic appliances hit the market decades ago, people feared that it was going to take away manual jobs, but it actually freed women from doing these mundane jobs, brought women into the workforce and now we have great women leaders,” Gopal says. “Yes, there are certain jobs that can be easily automated or done by the technologies that are available or that are evolving, but that must be encouraged, because it will free up valuable resources to focus on other stakeholder engagement and communication.” 

Instead, she argues, bots are reshaping project roles and responsibilities: more virtual teams, better decision making and less reliance on human interaction for day-to-day activities. As AI software crunches the numbers and spits out new solutions, the role of project leaders will become more strategic than tactical. Data might be king, but “people make or break projects,” she says.

Gopal is among those accelerating the transition for change-wary teams. Most companies are closer to the tech-enriched future than they realize, she says. Feeding years of data they’ve already banked into computer programs could help uncover previously undetected patterns. “The more data you have, the more training you can do to your algorithms. And the outcomes of these algorithms or the predictions of these algorithms tend to get more accurate.”

For change agents, illustrating these benefits can convert automation naysayers at all levels—especially at the top. “Without senior management’s blessings, any project, however great it is, has a very low chance of being successful,” Gopal says. “Until it gets driven from the strategy perspective, large organizations will not be able to change.”

“Without senior management’s blessings, any project, however great it is, has a very low chance of being successful.”

Q&A: Geetha Gopal on transformation, digital natives and Lee Kuan Yew

What project has most influenced you personally?

The Smart Nation megaproject of Singapore has had a tremendous influence on me over the last decade of my residence here. This is a project where the nation strives to provide better living and resources to its citizens and residents, to empower digital economy through technology, innovation and support structure, and to benefit businesses across all levels. It’s amazing to see how much can be achieved through projects—in this case, an ecosystem of nation-building through strategic initiatives. Watching how these projects unfold and transform the lives of people gives me a sense of satisfaction of being in a transformational profession.

What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?

Resourcefulness. In the project environment, we can achieve a lot more when the team has a culture of being resourceful and focused on adding value to the organization rather than delivering outcomes.

Project leaders must also remember that the benefits realization of our projects speaks long after they’re delivered. Hence the success of a project must not be limited to meeting project goals but focused on seamless operations, intended long-term benefits and sustainable services.

What’s the professional accomplishment you’re most proud of?

Ten years ago, my first job at the regional headquarters of an automobile giant was that of a coordinator on a six-month contract, which extended quickly and over the next few years with many successful large projects and diverse roles. I am now considered a mentor and specialist on project and product management areas. Having embraced project management as a career, I’m delighted about the opportunity to work with world-class people in different domains and transform goals into reality for the organizations I work with. This experience has helped me pursue a master’s degree in major programs at the University of Oxford, where I now learn from the best academic and professional minds. The learning shouldn’t stop.

How are young people changing the world of projects?

The younger generation is closer to technology. They’re eager to experiment with tools and ideas, which helps simplify processes, provides easy access to information, improves communication and creates transparency. This is the game changer on how projects are being shaped by young people in project teams.

What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?

Now the project management world runs on “pull” information for status and issues. The future is an integrated ecosystem where technology and AI will seamlessly provide context-specific “push” information, with minimal or no manual intervention.

What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and first prime minister, as a mentor. I regard him as a master builder. His strategic leadership, vision and drive have transformed Singapore from a third-world nation to the first in a span of decades. His success lies in the sustainability of his work, which paved the way for generations to come.