Project Management Institute

Real Leaders

When It Comes To People Skills, Artificial Intelligence Isn't Up To The Task

By Thomas Walenta, PMP, PgMP, PMI Fellow

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a part of everyday life. You might already use a navigation system like Waze, ask Siri or Alexa for help, and receive a reminder from a fitness tracker about your health targets. But AI is ready to go well beyond gadgets and mobile apps: Someday, taxi and truck drivers could be replaced by self-driving cars, bank tellers by online banking, investment portfolio managers by robo-advisers and lawyers by AI that can handle case administration, document review, due diligence, legal drafting and litigation support.


Organizations appreciate AI because it eliminates human emotion in decision making in favor of discipline, predictable and repeatable outcomes, and standardization. But while project managers should expect AI to support rational decision making that relies on data, analysis and comparison of options, AI will probably not be able to demonstrate project leadership soon. That's why project professionals who work to sharpen their people skills at every opportunity will remain invaluable—with a little help from AI.


One area where AI can benefit project professionals is in portfolio management. Portfolio management is based on having criteria—such as ROI, strategic fit and capability fit—for all proposed projects and then applying an algorithm to help prioritize them and select the optimal set of projects. Portfolio management tools can do this today; AI will likely improve them in the coming years. Using AI means organizations can avoid a common portfolio management problem: Rational decision making is often overruled by executives selecting pet projects and relying on gut feelings.

AI also can elevate agile/scrum. Because agile is so structured—teams are asked to use defined processes, analyze backlog items and problems, produce and test solutions, and make other rational decisions—there is plenty of room for AI's support. Someday, there may not even be a need for a scrum master, since AI would fill the roles traditionally done by the team.


The potential value of AI in the realm of project management is significant. Yet I believe human project managers will remain irreplaceable for some time because only they can handle the core tasks of project management—reducing uncertainty and risks, and managing change. For this, projects require leaders who know how to deal with and influence stakeholders, how social interactions work and how to change perceptions and opinions. AI is unlikely to be able to demonstrate these skills in the near future.

Project managers are skilled at describing the project's vision, creating an imagined scenario that describes a positive, secure certainty. This requires presenting a different future state as the desirable reality and aligning the perspectives of all people involved. Once stakeholders share the same idea of a future reality and are inspired to achieve it, then project managers have to ensure that the project team or organization has a common view on how to achieve the target—a set of joint behaviors and beliefs, or culture. All this requires a strong understanding of how humans feel, behave and think and which values and beliefs they follow. This understanding is at the heart of leadership.


With AI poised to take over part of project managers' jobs, we should look to improve in areas AI won't touch any time soon. I recommend developing skills around self-awareness, self-control, empathy and influencing others.

▪ Self-awareness is to be cognizant of your values and beliefs and understand your emotional reactions to external triggers. It also involves understanding your fears, your feelings about autonomy, your relationship to human groups and your perception of fairness. For more on this, I recommend David Rock's book Your Brain at Work.

▪ Self-control is the ability to manage your automatic emotional reactions. Self-control is acting rationally and can be seen as a mark of maturity in our reason-based world.

▪ Empathy is the ability to read others, understand their emotions and anticipate their behavior.

▪ Influence is one of the most important skills a project manager can have, and it builds on the three previous skills. You must work with sponsors to agree on projects' purposes and goals, with your team members to align their behavior to the project standards and with your contractors to deliver on scope, schedule and cost.

The future of project management remains bright. Although AI might take over many of project managers' more technical responsibilities, leadership capabilities will remain the domain of humans for some time. A main driver of human emotions is uncertainty about the future, and a project manager's job at the core is to reduce this uncertainty. Anyone who can align a team around a project vision and inspire its members to achieve it need not worry about being replaced by machines. PM

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img Thomas Walenta, PMP, PgMP, PMI Fellow, is a project management consultant and university lecturer and speaker. He is a member of the PMI Board of Directors.
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