Project Management Institute

Transformation—The Future of Work

Transcript

NARRATOR

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.

For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play music or PMI.org/podcast.

TEGAN JONES

Hello, this is Tegan Jones for Projectified.

Projectified recently hit the road and set up our very own recording booth at PMI Global Conference. And while we were there, we met with one of the keynote speakers, Bob Safian, who is the former editor-in-chief of Fast Company.

He’s been tracking innovation and technology for years so we wanted to hear more about the changes he’s seeing in the business world—and what it will take to succeed in the future.

Let’s go to that conversation now.

[MUSICAL TRANSITION]
TEGAN JONES

I’m here with Bob Safian, the founder of The Flux Group and one of this year’s keynote speakers here at PMI Global Conference. Thank you so much for joining us, Bob.

BOB SAFIAN

It’s my pleasure to be here. It’s been a lot of fun.

TEGAN JONES

So I know one of the themes of your keynote address was The Project Economy. We’re hearing a lot about that lately, so I was hoping you could start with a little level-setting. What exactly is The Project Economy? What do people mean when they use that term?

BOB SAFIAN

So The Project Economy is an umbrella term really that describes the way the economy overall is moving, where opportunities are, and what’s going to define both successful businesses and successful careers. There’s a lot of discussion, has been discussion, of the gig economy. This idea that you have contract work where you work for Uber or Lyft, or whether you are doing lots of different jobs all at the same time.

And to me, the gig economy is a subset of a much larger phenomenon. And the larger phenomenon is The Project Economy. That project-oriented work is expanding throughout all industry and all kinds of jobs, and not simply through unicorns and what has traditionally been looked at as gig work, but even inside large organizations. That more and more of the structure that is built around work, and the structures that are succeeding as organizations are trying to become more nimble in a world that’s moving faster and faster. That projects provide that extra energy and that structure. And that’s what The Project Economy describes. That basically the world is moving in this direction, right? And project work will become a bigger part of what everyone is doing.

TEGAN JONES

Why is this project-oriented structure more successful? Why do you think that is?

BOB SAFIAN

Because it’s more fluid. You know, the traditional hierarchical structures in organizations can be incredibly efficient, right? But they can also become stilted. And in a world where technology is moving through so fast, and so many things are shifting all the time, you need to have structures that are more flexible. And so organizations that have been built around hierarchy of different kinds are trying to find ways to inject more of that speed into their operations. And projects become a really effective tool in doing that, and as they do that and it succeeds, the question starts to be raised: Well, why are we structured the way we’re structured? Why shouldn’t we be structured more and more as groups of projects that people come together, they get that task done, and then they re-form in other areas.

TEGAN JONES

Yeah, technology really has made life so much simpler in so many ways. But the massive amount of change technology has introduced has made the business landscape a lot more complicated. So, how can organizations shift and adapt to new ways of working in this environment?

BOB SAFIAN

All of these technologies that we have become so used to so quickly, they’ve changed everything. We operate way more efficiently. We have access to way more information. And the barriers to entry for new businesses and new ideas is much lower because of the scale the technology can provide, and because the cost of that scaling is so restrained. Right? And this is what generates pressure on existing organizations. If you keep doing things the same way you’ve always done them, someone else is going to do them newer, faster, better. And so we all have to be newer, faster, better, every day just to stay in the same place.

And listen, you can look at this and say, “Oh my gosh, this is exhausting. This is relentless.” But it can also be exciting, right? Because those opportunities are out there if we keep pushing forward. So when you’re working in the project world, you know, things that are new and that scare you, those are things you should run towards instead of run away. And anytime that you find yourself doing something because, well, we did this last time and it worked, at least look at it. Don’t just assume that because it worked last time, it’s the best way for it to work. It doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, it’s just: Is there a more effective way to get there? And that’s really the imperative that we all have.

TEGAN JONES

So how do leaders need to think differently in order to be able to lead their teams in this way? Right? Because it’s easy to say, “Oh, don’t be afraid.” But then when you’re looking at a balance sheet, right, that has millions, billions of dollars, it’s a lot harder to throw that fear away. How can they change the way that they’re thinking?

BOB SAFIAN

Yeah, there’s a lot of assumptions in business that if you set things up the right way, you can eliminate risk. Okay? And that’s always been fiction, but that fiction is being revealed more and more. All right? And so the reality is that there is risk in business. There is risk in every action we do. And what risk means is that sometimes stuff isn’t going to work out, right? You’re going to try things and it’s not going to work. Is that not working failure, or is that not working learning? Right? If you think of what an iterative model is, you try something, it doesn’t really work. You try the next thing. You keep making it better. Every time you, quote, fail, you’re actually learning, you’re getting better. And that’s really the way project leaders and all of us have to look at the tasks we’re in.
You know, you’re going to take risks. Some of it’s going to work. If it doesn’t work, you will have learned that that doesn’t work. You’ll learn more about the area, and your chances of being successful the next time are that much better. But if you don’t take that risk, you are exposing yourself to an even bigger risk. Right? And that’s the risk of becoming irrelevant, of being passed by. That is the biggest risk that we all face in this world. Because whatever job you’re in and whatever you’re doing right now, I guarantee you that there is someone who is running as hard as they can, as fast as they can, to take that space away from you. Everybody’s after you.

TEGAN JONES

And obviously managing risk requires understanding risk, and the speed of business is one huge risk that every organization is facing, struggling with. And I was wondering: What are your thoughts on some of the other major risks that organizations are grappling with right now around the world?

BOB SAFIAN

There’s great opportunities in new technologies, technologies like AI and machine learning. There are also a lot of risks in them. As we’re seeing, there are unintended consequences of things that can happen when you rely on technology too much, and you don’t fully understand what your technology is doing, and you’re not tracking it in a close enough way. Right? So AI and machine learning, it is inexorable. It is not stopping. We can’t necessarily expect the government is going to protect us from every bit of the way technology evolves. At the same time, there’s risk in it. And so those are among the risks that we have to, you know, be aware of.

We also have to be aware of the human risks that are part of our world. There are so many terrific ideas and communities out there that can help feed and grow the way we go about doing things. And if we keep to the narrow community that we’re used to talking to and working with, we’re going to leave ourselves exposed because new perspectives will help find new solutions.

TEGAN JONES

New solutions, right, because the upside of risk is always opportunity.

BOB SAFIAN

Yeah, for sure. I mean, listen, that’s what it’s all about. You’re taking the risk in quest of the opportunity. You have a vision for a place you want to go to, right? There’s a professor at Harvard Business School named Hiro Takeuchi, who talks about the difference between an outside-in theory of business and an inside-out theory, right? And the outside-in theory is the sort of the traditional historical way, which you look out at the marketplace and you see there’s a gap in the market somewhere. And so you’re going to create a product to fill that gap and sort of use that as a beachhead and then kind of expand out from there. Right?

What Hiro talks about is an alternate way, which is an inside-out theory of business, which is basically saying you have a vision of a future world that doesn’t exist. Right? A future world, a future product, a future way we interact. And so what your enterprise then is geared to do is to bring that vision of the future to reality. Right? And that’s starting from a very different place. You can imagine things that are very different than just filling a spot that’s vacant in an existing product line.

Now, all organizations need to do both. I’m not saying that inside-out is better than outside-in. I think we need to have both of them to be sophisticated, but recognizing and being able to envision what is that world that we want to have? That’s where the opportunity is, and it’s exciting. You know, we all want to dream. That’s what we do, and then we can bring those dreams to reality. That’s one of the things that I love about the project community. That project work brings these dreams and makes them tangible, makes them real.

TEGAN JONES

And when you’re talking about opportunities as visions or dreams, right, then the opportunities seem limitless.

BOB SAFIAN

They are limitless.

TEGAN JONES

They are.

BOB SAFIAN

It’s only our imagination is the only thing that keeps us from finding something new and dreaming something new. We have to lean into that imagination and allow and create environments. You asked about what managers do. You have to create environments where people are allowed to dream. Right? Where ideas can flow and flourish. That doesn’t mean that you can do everything. Right? As one of my colleagues said to me, we can do anything, but we can’t do everything. But you can dream for everything, to be able to find the dream that you can coalesce a team around where you can really have impact.

TEGAN JONES

So what are the dreams that you think are gaining the most traction right now? Where are some of the opportunities that are materializing in this Project Economy? If I’m a project manager, trying to imagine my future career, where are some of these opportunities that are opening up for me, in your opinion?

BOB SAFIAN

The economy is shifting, right? Because of technology, and, you know, there’s this expression that’s used, “knowledge workers.” In the future economy, almost everyone’s going to have to be a knowledge worker, right? Anything that can be done by a computer or by a robot is going to be done that way. It’s going to be more efficient. But knowledge workers can delve into many different areas, right? And so as that knowledge work grows, there will be opportunities in lots of different spheres. If you try to conceive what, I don’t know, what retail is going to look like, right? Or what healthcare is going to look like. All of these things will look different when we remove the places where human interaction isn’t needed. But then we lean into the things that humans can do.
And this is the line that I think we need to get comfortable with is knowing really what the human interaction is versus, you know, what we rely on machines for, which make our lives wonderful and much better and much simpler. But there are some things that you still enjoy doing with people, like this.

TEGAN JONES

Right, and change is incredibly exciting. It’s incredibly empowering, but also it can be a little bit scary.

BOB SAFIAN

It’s like surfing, right? And if you’re in the ocean and you try to fight the waves, you know, you get tired. It can be dangerous. Not a lot of fun, right? But if you’re in the water and you’re like, you know, I’m going to ride these waves, I’m going to surf these waves. Then it is fun, right? And the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more fun you have with it.

We’re all going to wipe out sometimes. This is the reality of the risk of this world. But you have to acknowledge where you really are, right? We really are in a place where the waves are coming, and they’re going to keep coming. And so let’s get to be better swimmers and better surfers and ride those waves as opposed to pretending that tomorrow the waves are going to stop, because they’re not.

TEGAN JONES

They’re not. And I think for young professionals, young project managers entering the workforce, this can be a little disorienting, right? Because it’s: Before I knew I needed to study this, I needed to learn these skills, I needed to pass this test, and then I would be able to do my job really well.

But now, there’s a lot more nuance and a lot more factors that influence their success. So I’m interested to hear, what are your thoughts around the types of skills that these people, these project managers in particular, need to develop and need to focus on in order to make sure that they’re positioned for success in this environment?

BOB SAFIAN

I was asked this by actually someone on the PMI board just earlier today, sort of what is the most important skill for people to learn right now? And the most important skill is to learn how to keep building new skills. That’s the skill, and that’s the habit that we all have to have. And part of the reason why is whatever skill I might give you today, and say, “Oh, these are the three skills that you need most in the economy today,” three months from now, three years from now, it’s going to be something different. Right?

TEGAN JONES

And that’s one of the reasons people come to conference, right? To learn. But, of course, we also come to celebrate, and this weekend we are celebrating PMI’s 50th anniversary and all of the amazing projects that have changed the world over the past 50 years. So, I’d love to get your thoughts on that. What are some of the projects that stick out in your mind as being particularly inspirational and influential?

BOB SAFIAN

One of them that really gets my imagination, because I remember it growing up, was the Live Aid concert, right, that was sort of geared to raise money for famine in Africa. And I remember it being great fun to listen to the music. You know, it was a 16-hour concert that took place in London and in Philadelphia overlapping, and something like a third of the planet watched it. It was broadcast all around the world.

They were looking to raise US$10 million, and they raised US$125 million for communities that really needed it in Africa. I mean, tremendous. And this project came to fruition in just 10 weeks’ time. You know that there was a news report that got the attention of, you know, Bob Geldof, who was a musician in the Boomtown Rats. And he got his friends together, he used his human connections, right, to build enthusiasm for something that did not exist before.

And the impact, you know, not just in that case, but all of the follow-on things that have been done to raise money and to raise awareness for issues and communities. All of that comes back to that one idea, that one creative, crazy thought of like, “Hey, let’s see if we can raise some money to help people who are starving in Africa.” I mean, to me, that’s a super inspiring and really influential project.

TEGAN JONES

You know, I think that Live Aid is a great example, right? You see so many charity festivals these days where for all sorts of different causes, Farm Aid, right? Everything. And so I was wondering, what do you think it was about Live Aid? What is it about the projects on this list that really made them able to have an influence that lasted beyond that project?

BOB SAFIAN

You know, when projects have outsize influence and outsize impact, there are two things that they’re doing at the same time. They’re sort of identifying and tapping into a particular inflection point. Right? And then at the same time, they are accelerating that inflection point to the future. You know? So if Bob Geldof had tried that five years earlier, maybe the technology wouldn’t have existed to be able to get that exposure. Maybe you know it wouldn’t have captured imagination quite the way it did. But at the right time, it reaches that cultural tipping point. Right? And then by doing it, and doing it so effectively, so expertly... Listen, you didn’t have to care about famine in Africa to really enjoy watching Live Aid and listening to the concert. Right? It was sort of the hook.

But if you were listening, if you were paying attention, it inspired you to act. I just think that that’s what projects have the power to do. Imagine something that doesn’t exist. Wouldn’t it be great if, they said it couldn’t be done, and then here it is, right? And listen, you can do that with the ... wouldn’t it be great if cars didn’t have any toxic emissions, right? Well, how do we make an electric car? You know, like, well, let’s start with a hybrid car. These kinds of dreams are what create and generate these projects that create impact.

TEGAN JONES

So as we look towards the next 50 years at PMI’s 100th anniversary when we’ve got the most influential projects of those 50 years, what do you hope is at the top of that list? What’s your imagination?

BOB SAFIAN

What’s going to be on that list?

TEGAN JONES

Yeah, your dream that you want to see a reality.

BOB SAFIAN

Yeah, I mean, listen, at the session that I just talked with, one of the questions was about climate change. And I would love to be able to look back and say, “Here is the project or probably the series, the sequence of projects, that helped us get ourselves under control and how we interact with the planet.” It is the one resource we all need to rely on. And we have become somewhat cavalier about how we use it. You know, at the same time, there is a life that all of us on this Earth are entitled to and should be able to enjoy. And as larger populations around the globe get to enjoy that life, right now that means we’re going to use up a lot more of our planet. And so I hope we can find ways to do both, that we’re not excluding people in the process, but we’re helping make the planet healthier and also helping all of us be healthier also.

TEGAN JONES

I hope so, too. That’s a great vision for the future. Thank you so much for joining us today, Bob. It has been a wonderful conversation.

BOB SAFIAN

All right, well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

NARRATOR

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