A Responsible Approach to Using AI in Project Management

we want to preserve the professional capability while tapping a new tool

August 14, 2023 | Helen S. Cooke

artificial intelligenceArtificial intelligence is a topic getting a lot of headlines and airtime lately. The technological breakthroughs are likely to affect a lot of things in our work and in our lives. At this point there are more questions than answers, so we may as well sketch out the threats and opportunities that AI presents for the project manager and for the management profession writ large.

Project Management is a unique profession in that it integrates the wholistic view of time-bound management initiatives with the long view of delivering value in a changing business environment. The project manager taps the relevant elements of management science, the knowledge base of a given field of work, appropriate technological tools, and team leadership to deliver that value. The individual who performs this role does so with power skills and business acumen.

The project manager sometimes feels like the twenty-first century’s version of the proverbial “Renaissance Man,” working minor miracles using a broad range of talents and capabilities. As such, they’re uncertain whether AI developments will touch the profession. They will. But unlike in more technical roles, the potential future roles of AI within project management are less clear. To try to predict the general impact, let’s step back and take the long view. What other technological upheavals have gone before, and what did we learn?

Big changes can threaten social stability and transform the economy. The printing press in the sixteenth century started as a minor upheaval in how knowledge was disseminated, yet eventually threatened power hierarchies, increasing stress on the social structure and fomenting violence and war. Centuries later, the computerization of business processes changed whole organizations and occupations. Eventually, by encapsulating complex interrelationships in digital form, applications allowed us to see the effects of prior decisions and select smarter paths to our goals. It allowed us to do many things simultaneously. Our workplaces, our personal lives, and our work routines changed.

We have been living with nascent versions of Artificial Intelligence ever since computers came into use during the 1970s in math and science, and microchips created new ways of doing business in the 1980s. AI has been creeping up on us for decades. So why all the fuss?

The recent advances do feel different. Back of mind, we can sense big changes coming. The unknowns and potential chaos that AI could bring leaves us a bit nervous. We know that individual decision-making based on logic can be replaced by automated research. Quick access to both historical information and current, ever-evolving information can shape many professions. Automation has been affecting legal strategies, condensing months and years of research and deliberation into weeks and days. But AI goes beyond searching, combining and resequencing actions: it changes its own approach as it progresses.

In the past, tapping new management tools seemed less consequential. If one tool was not useful, we would simply pick another. We lost a few repetitive jobs, some layers of management, and a few clusters of specialties. But the gain was obvious and we went with it, much to our collective societal advantage.

Has something changed with the recent AI leaps?

Layer all of those prior incremental changes into a single autonomous and eclectic mechanical process. Speed up the repetitions by millions. Tap historical precedents and an accretion of the entire knowledge base of humanity into a searchable database. Consult recorded and supported factual viewpoints as well as farcical and fictitious rumor repositories. Consider the lack of guardrails in decisions made by a machine devoid of ethical standards or awareness of human limits. Where is the “paper trail” of what decisions have been made, much less why and when? Were those decisions made within the context of social and cultural norms? If so, whose? And how would we know?

Someone recently compared AI decision-making to that of a ten-year-old with full access to the Library of Congress. Are you comfortable with trusting what emerges?

Many professionals have been reluctant to use artificial intelligence as a first line of attack wherever complex human decision-making is needed, including in the project management profession. If we allow the machine to take the first cut on sorting out the important factors, we find ourselves in an increasingly narrower lane of decision-making. Specialized viewpoints will be compounding other specialized viewpoints. Like a first ascent of Denali, when the initial selection of the mountain to be conquered was wrong, the expedition conquered the wrong peak.

We learn wisdom through experience. If we delegate experience to a machine, the machine will not become wiser. We risk losing our edge in navigating the nuances of choice. We will become the follower, not the leader. We might even become the fool if others navigate the complex waters of decision-making using nuanced fallacies, and we accept their conclusions. Mimicry and image management can usurp our trust by pretending to be a credible source, and if we go with it, we may be over the falls before we notice the error.

Managers use many analytical methods and human sensory data to check and confirm trustworthy behavior among our peers. Those methods and checks will always be needed; they cannot be relegated to a machine. We must always use our professional judgment first, and then perhaps check it using a broader or more divergent tool to see if we have “missed anything.” As we mature in our profession, we are capable of learning more sophisticated ways to assess our options and choose the best course of action.

The best advice for us now is to engage the challenge. Explore the nuances of risk and benefit. Define the source of your professional value. It is common for those who do not understand “what a project manager actually does” to suggest it can be automated. Even current versions of project management software caution that you need to be an experienced project manager to use it. If a machine can be defined as wise and can indeed outdo us in our professional execution of our profession, it may be a moot issue. We will be left in the dust. Will reality be the real judge of outcomes, or public misconceptions and stereotypical judgments? Big question.

My advice is to stay alert and keep your eyes open as common usages of these AI capabilities emerge. Exercise your role in collective decision-making around the use and control of Artificial Intelligence. If we need guardrails, help define how they should be deployed. If our profession engages complex legal and moral issues, working across cultural lines, you could help define how the differences will be resolved and what takes precedence. And don’t hesitate in this proactive approach. Change is coming fast.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.