Redefining and reinventing project management for today’s post industrial digital age

In many organizations, employees know more about their work than their managers. This reality should force organizations that still cling to the old, top-down style of managing to recognize that many employees today are very capable of managing themselves


With this opening salvo, Mitch McCrimmon writing in the Ivey Business Journal, gets to the heart of the reality facing managers today and provides the intellectual case for managers to get rid of the industrial age mindset along with practical advice on redefining and reinventing the function of management for the post industrial age. Doing that would enable management to ” resume its rightful place as a core driver of organizational performance.”¹ ( Mitch McCrimmon 2010)

With project management being a specific application of management, the same hard-headed advice can be applied to redefine and reinvent project management for today’s post industrial digital age, so that project management practitioners, teams and organizations can use modern project management practices to drive organizational and project performance. The pragmatic advice is particularly pertinent, as there is a gap in project management – rooted in the industrial age mindset – practiced by project management practitioners, and the project management practices required for organizations to succeed in today’s post industrial world.

The advice isn’t to banish management and replace it with leadership, which seems to be the surprisingly popular but misconceived panacea for management’s ills, both perceived and real. Leadership and management are different, they both have their place but they aren’t interchangeable – no amount of leadership will compensate for poor management. “Leadership is the process of influencing”¹ ( Mitch McCrimmon 2010), while

Management can be defined as a way of achieving goals that add the most value². It’s about being sufficiently organized to identify the right goals and the best means for achieving them.

2 Joan Magretta, What Management Is, Profile Books, 2003

However, this definition doesn’t come to mind, when thinking about management, instead the first thought that comes to mind is of a manager who occupies a role and exercises a restricting or controlling function over people (or more likely the first thought that comes to mind is of Dilbert’s pointy haired boss) . While this was true during the industrial age – the function of management was performed exclusively by the manager role, it is no longer true in today’s post industrial digital age. Quoting the essay, today ” the function of management, as distinct from the role of manager, has become every body’s business.” ( Mitch McCrimmon 2010) . Management now happens at an individual and a team level.

In a project management context, scrum teams and DevOps teams are a manifestation of the dispersion of the management function, with individuals and teams using domain specific  management practices to manage different types of work : Lean Startup, Design thinking for discovering the product to be built; XP, Scrum and Scaled versions of scrum for product development; and DevOps for product delivery and product operations. Although these domain specific management practices  manage aspects of work, they don’t manage all of work required to achieve project goals. Managing all of the work holistically, has to be performed  by the modern project management function that leverages self managing capabilities of individuals and teams, to achieve “the goals that add the most value.”

And the role of the project manager has to change from directing and controlling team members – the industrial age operating model,  to a modern post industrial age manager. Some one  who now gets work done through engaged and self managing knowledge workers working in teams, using management practices suited for the type of work being performed. Extending the analogies used in the essay to illustrate the role of a modern manager, to illustrate the role of a modern project manager : the modern project manager shares ” some attributes with investors, customers, sports coaches and partners without being identical to them” ( Mitch McCrimmon 2010)

  1. Project manager as an Investor : As an investor of the team’s knowledge resources the project manager works in conjunction with knowledge workers to  allocate the knowledge resources and structure teams of knowledge workers to “achieve the goals that add the most value”.
  2. Project manager as a Customer :   With team members owning some of the management functions, they now become  like internal suppliers of services, supplying their services to the customer – the project manager.  The project manager as an engaged customer helps suppliers understand the project goals and team members as savvy suppliers of services actively work with the customer to help achieve these goals. Also, as any reasonable customer would do, the project manager as a customer will have respectful but tough conversations with suppliers – team members, if their services are falling short of what is required to meet project goals.
  3. Project manager as a sports coach : With project teams now consisting of knowledge workers across geographic, functional, organizational, generational and cultural boundaries the defining management challenge for today’s project manager is to forge a collective we – one project team – from a bunch of  I’s – individuals and individual teams,  and get them on a shared mission to achieve the project goals that deliver the most value to the organization paying for the project. This is akin to the role of a great sports coach –  who forges a high performing team from a bunch of skilled individuals and gets them on a shared mission to do something great. Project manager as a coach will be the key to creating high performing teams that deliver consistently and predictably.
  4. Partner :  The modern project manager doesn’t treat team members as resources, but treats them a partners, forging a professional and empathetic  relationship with them. And like good partners, they discuss and debate, understand and empathize with each other’s point of view and then work together to get things done to meet the project goals.

The onus is now on project management practitioners to transform project management, so that the function of project management is utilized effectively to drive project performance.  This will require project practitioners to reskill and upskill.

Reskilling will involve getting rid of the industrial age mindset and embracing the post industrial age mindset that leverages the knowledge of individuals and teams to get work done.

Upskilling will involve learning domain specific management practices – Lean Startup, Design thinking, Agile, DevOps  – and then leading the adoption and effective utilization of these practices. Both PMI and Axelos provide guidance for upskilling project managers : PMI with the PMP ACP certification provides the body of knowledge based approach to learing domain specific management practices – XP, Scrum, Kanban ; Axelos with Prince2 Agile certification provides the method based approach on how project practitioners can tailor and use these practices in a project context, DASA ( DevOps agile skills association) a community-driven organization that is helping build and define role-based competencies for the DevOps way of working provides management oriented DevOps certification.

With that said, now here is the call to action for project management practioners – Take Mitch McCrimmon’s advice to heart, read ” What management is: How it works and Why it’s everyone’s Business²”( this is required reading for everybody) , leverage the knowledge of individuals and team to get work done, reskill and upskill, and let us make management and project management a key driver of organizational and project performance in the post industrial digital age.

PS: Definitions & List of references

Project: A sufficiently complex initiative that the organization paying for it has chosen to manage it as a project or program.

Project manager : A generic term used to refer to the person the organization paying for the project,  has assigned to manage the project with the explicit responsibility and accountability for delivering the goals of the project. This person could have titles such as project executive, program manager, project director, project manager etc.

List of references

¹Ivey Business Journal, Mitch McCrimmon, July/August 2010, accessed Feb 13 2019 , < >

² What Management Is: How It Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business Hardcover – Dec 25 2012 , by Joan Magretta ( Author ), Nan Stone ( Contributor )


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s