The Future of Work and the Need to Adapt

be ready to welcome change and continuously innovate

November 28, 2018 | Helen S. Cooke

need to adaptChange has always been a part of our society and economy, but during the past several decades, the rate of change accelerated and continues to accelerate. Looking back on the past forty years alone, the changes were seismic. Companies that existed for decades disappeared, merged, created monopolies, or declared bankruptcy. Technology and transportation shifted as relocation became common. Families scattered. Some businesspeople traveled excessively, then learned to rely more on teleconferencing. Then technology shifted again and today, workers relocate less and work from home more.

Now we use shared data and join social media groups to communicate. Phones seldom ring. We text each other. We communicate with our friends and colleagues on Facebook, and some we never meet in person at all. We store mega data in remote locations and store personal computer files in the cloud. People work on one device in a single location and distribute it to compatible devices of linked groups of collaborators in different cities and countries.

Within this context of a rapidly changing society, the role of project managers has morphed and evolved. By definition, project management is about creating things that differ in some significant way from what has been done before. While not all projects are about innovation, it seems like project managers are especially suited to a changing world. Yet resistance to change remains endemic in society at large, and affects projects large and small. It’s almost as though the more things change in the world around them, the more people resist it in projects as well.

Dealing with resistance to change has always been a part of managing projects. Innovative projects are often initiated by senior management, but the vision isn’t always shared by the “rank and file” of the organization. When you think about major projects like transportation overhauls or technological developments, the early planning stages are often put on hold or phased in gradually until eventually the benefits become obvious and no one feels the need to stop the project. Getting everyone on board doesn’t happen all at once. But with the internet and social media everywhere, gradual reveal seems no longer possible. Resistance can emerge at any point and seemingly for any reason.

Resistance to change can be frustrating to project managers when the cause is not evident, whether they’re entrepreneurs or employed at a large company. Over the years, I’ve realized that when people resist change, it’s not just a personal defense mechanism but a broader social phenomenon that may or may not have anything to do with the project itself. People are increasingly afraid of change in general, and don’t know how – or whether – to adapt because they may have hit their adaptability limits.

A book that shaped my understanding of change early in my career is Future Shock, a surprisingly prescient book written by the futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970. It was published decades ago, but the wisdom in the book is evergreen and bears repeating. The book addresses the accelerating pace of life and how individuals respond to overstimulation and rapid changes in their external environment, operating outside of what Toffler calls their “adaptive range.”

Toffler writes that in the modern world, “We are forcing people to adapt to a new life pace, to confront novel situations and master them in ever shorter intervals… transience, novelty and diversity pose contradictory demands and thus place (the individual) in an excruciating double bind. If we are hit by so many novel situations… life becomes painfully disorganized, exhausting and anxiety filled.”

In effect, what Toffler described is a society in which individuals are continuously asked to change, adapt, and re-program themselves. The good news is, there are ways to cope, both in our personal and work lives. Toffler explored “situational groupings” where people came together to discuss personal objectives, plan personal strategies for the future, and the like. Forty years ago there were “newcomer’s clubs” in neighborhoods when people relocated with a job transfer or support groups during massive layoffs. The updated versions of this concept are internet communities and social media groups organized according to specific topics and interests where people can relate, respond, and even advise. These are today’s situational groupings.

What does this all mean for project managers? For one, it means understanding, accepting, and supporting the realities of today’s workforce. Your project will benefit from embracing these realities. Are the people on your project two-career couples with a young family to raise? Does relocating people to a new location for any reason—project, job change, education for another credential—make sense anymore? Are most of your projects going to be “virtual projects” whether you like it or not?

Let’s face it, the changes that neighborhoods and communities undergo are kaleidoscopic and unpredictable. Cities have now become the favored location for new families so that two-career couples can manage a young family without a commute. The people you’re working with might be uninterested in buying a home. The return on investment isn’t as safe as in the past, and remaining “untethered” makes more sense for some. Other factors – like rising sea levels threatening the financial security of homeowners – will become more important. Quality of life has become more important than ‘moving up.” It is harder to generalize about workers and respond with broad based program initiatives.

With all of this in mind, think about where you will recruit your team in the future. Who has the special skills you need for a project, and where do they live? Suburban developments face a future of decaying, graying, or becoming inaccessible to the average worker. Corporations are moving to the inner city. Homes in more desirable neighborhoods keep going up in price, limiting buyers to upscale workers in higher tax brackets. So today, it’s likelier that members of your team live in another city, or in a rural area where they can afford to live on a stagnant salary. Part of adapting to today’s work climate is accepting a dispersed project team.

Clearly you know that project management is always about managing change in the face of unknowns. Define the projects that will take you where you need to be in the next decade. Put your knowledge, wisdom, skills, and talents to use on your own behalf. Your career, your job title and your place of employment may change, but the knowledge, skill and talent you have learned as a project manager may be your best support as we face unpredictable change in the future.

For both project managers and individual entrepreneurs, a big part of adapting to a changing environment is accepting that whatever niche you’ve carved out for yourself might be bought, sold, or phased out. Staying educated, up-to-date, and flexible may be your best bag to pack for your journey into the future.

If you’re an entrepreneur working out of your home today, it’s probably wise to prepare yourself for a “Plan B” career. Knowing your own strengths, passions, and talents can help direct you to a friendly island in the sea of change. Whatever your industry, being the best gives you a better chance of getting hired, retained as a consultant, or keeping your customer base. Entrepreneur means “taking from between.” It’s all about looking for the currents of change and recognizing jobs and careers that don’t yet exist.

Having a “Plan C” career might be a good idea, too. If you have talents in finance or business, develop other talents for your personal resource bank. Are you a knowledge worker or technical guru? Could you become the advisor to organizations effected by artificial intelligence?

We quickly went from a work world of agrarian and industrial physical labor to “knowledge workers” at desks with gym memberships. We then shifted again to workers moving about with smartphones, sitting in coffee shops or beach patios or kitchens. Today, we’re somewhere in transition from people going where the jobs are to people creating their own jobs. And who knows what tomorrow will bring.

In the face of certain change, the best defense is offense. Stay educated and remain aware of the trends. Your career may be on-again-off-again as the market shifts. Today there is even a renewed need for apprentices in the physical labor jobs that shrank so rapidly in prior decades. Meanwhile, develop secondary expertise and work on broadening your skills and capabilities over time. You are the captain of your own ship. Study up! We are all preparing for a voyage into unknown waters.

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  • 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 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.