Project Managers Are Being Replaced by AI. Here's how to Avoid That.

April 26, 2017

AI is increasingly replacing project manager jobs. Here's what project managers can do to avoid that fate.

It seems like a day doesn’t go by that you don’t hear about how AI, also known as artificial intelligence, is eating away at once sacred, white-collar jobs. What’s most concerning for project managers, especially technical PMs, is the increasing reliance on machine learning.

What does this mean for project managers?

Machines are becoming more agile and able to adapt in real time without being programmed for the task in advance. Also, it’s possible for them to analyze larger data sets and deliver faster, more accurate analyses than humans. The result – good paying project management (and knowledge worker) jobs are increasingly being replaced by more efficient machines.

Even a recent Bloomberg article highlighted how Amazon is using AI to fuel its success. Let’s face it…AI is here to stay.

How will this financially impact project managers?

According to the latest LinkedIn salary data, the median total compensation range in the United States for a project manager is between $52,000 and $127,000. That’s a decent chunk of change. I don’t have to tell you this, but project managers have a lot to lose.

The big question is –

“How can I keep steady employment as AI rapidly encroaches upon traditional project management roles and responsibilities?”

Well, the last thing you want to do is passively sit on the sidelines and wait for the ax to come down on your good paying career. There has to be a better way to not only survive, but also thrive. 

Let’s look at three ways project managers can stay relevant in today’s rapidly changing job market.

# 1 – Adopt Holistic Thinking

As a project manager, relying too heavily on shortsighted thinking can be detrimental. It can be extremely tempting for you to overanalyze problems by dissecting them into smaller and smaller parts until you come to the most logical conclusion. 

This is old school thinking. 

This can be particularly challenging for subject matter experts, commonly referred to as SMEs. The reason being is they may have been promoted into project management because of their technical prowess and ability to work at a detailed level (e.g. software development).  

When problems arise, and they will, many times a technical PM will be tempted to reach further into their existing toolbox of technical skills rather than think outside of the box all together. An alternative approach would be for them to build strong project teams, implement systems that their teams can follow, and establish trusted relationships with outside parties who can quickly be engaged as needed.

You are managing projects that have a myriad of interrelated processes that are constantly evolving. Add to this the fact, these processes are churning out more and more detailed data. Eventually, your technical expertise will become an impediment to growth.

Today, project management jobs require a higher level of thinking. Holistic thinking to be exact.

Step back from the minutiae of data, look at the big picture, and start to figure out patterns. Once you have a good sense of the overall trend, you can then turn your attention to the underlying data. This is where artificial intelligence can add the most value.

As a project manager, you should think of AI as nothing more than a tool to help you do your job better. It’s really no different than driving a car to the grocery store instead of walking there. In this way, AI becomes a project manager’s friend by curating and validating large volumes of data that can be delivered to you when you need it most.

Imagine one day you’re preparing a status update. Instead of you parsing all of the data using spreadsheets and project management software, you call on your digital analyst to crunch the numbers and give you the results. Your job will be to spot trends, come up with an action plan, and present the final findings to upper management. Additionally, you’ll be able to refine the system over time, so you can get even better results.

Based on how AI is progressing, here are 6 areas that are ripe for wholly, or at least partially, being taken over:

  •     Requirements collection
  •     Schedule creation and monitoring
  •     Budget creation and monitoring
  •     Quality control
  •     Resource planning and monitoring
  •     Risk analysis and response planning

Additionally, AI would be great for ongoing tasks such as variance and trend analysis. This can be used to progressively elaborate information that has already been gathered and eventually conduct predictive analysis.

But, you still might be asking yourself: If AI is taking on all of these traditional project management responsibilities, what’s left for project managers?

Well, someone has to set the criteria that AI initially uses. Also, projects will need to be integrated and later presented to stakeholders. Questions will still need to be answered and future adjustments will need to be made.

Machines are good at collecting, analyzing, and monitoring data flow. However, projects still need human input to fill in the blanks that the data leaves out. 

# 2 – Cultivate Stakeholder Influence

There’s something AI can’t do. Be human. 

It might sound simple (and it is), but it really is the secret to remaining competitive in an artificial world. You have to do what only you can do.

How does this relate to project management?

Every project involves people in some capacity. In project management terms, these people are called stakeholders. The funny thing about stakeholders is they like to be engaged and kept informed about what’s happening on the project. This is where you come in. 

A machine is incredibly efficient at communicating with other machines, but things get a little dicey when it comes to translating those communications to the average stakeholder. Humans aren’t robots. 

They have subjective feelings called emotions. These emotions can make humans unpredictable at times. This requires another human to use their intuition to read between the lines and figure out how to empower and motivate people to take action towards a mutually agreed upon goal.

"Are you starting to see the advantage you have over a non-emotional machine or software script?"

Let’s make it real plain and simple.

In order to survive the machine onslaught, you have to move upstream. Quickly. It’s only a matter of time before Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa learn how to laugh and cry.

Develop your interpersonal skills. More specifically, learn how to engage and influence your project stakeholders.

Here are a few of the skills you’ll want to focus on:

  •      Leadership
  •      Diplomacy
  •      Negotiating
  •      Public Speaking
  •      Emotional Intelligence
  •      Communication (verbal and nonverbal)

These skills will come in handy when you have to negotiate project constraints, motivate team members, set vendor expectations, assign roles and responsibilities, and even rally stakeholder support. Turn your ability to navigate the human experience into a key advantage.

At the end of the day, you have to show your stakeholders (both internal and external) that you care about what’s most important to them. You have to connect with them on a deeper, emotional level.

#3 – Embrace Rapid Adaptability 

Have you read the famous poem, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost? Let’s focus our attention on the last few lines of that poem.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

It’s a cleverly written poem. No doubt about it. And, you’re probably wondering how it’s relevant to you staying ahead of AI. 

The answer is…E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.  

AI is good at predicting future patterns based on past results – the road well-traveled. On the other hand, AI is less accurate when it comes to making predictions where very little past performance exists. This is where great project managers separate themselves from good project managers. 

You see, the proverbial road less traveled represents being proactive rather than reactive. It means leaving the comfort of the well-understood path you’re on and exploring a potentially better path. 

You can increase your value to the organization by not just taking the road less traveled, but also encouraging others to travel with you. Before you know it, your project team and other stakeholders will hold you in high regard and recognize the added value of your contributions.

This is key to your future success.

Ask yourself –

"How can I take the road less traveled, stay on top of AI, and be a change agent?"

It starts by making trends your friends rather than staunch adversaries. This requires a willingness to take initiative.

You’ve probably heard of agile project methodology. However, have you considered taking this thinking to the next level and adopting an agile mindset?

For example, you most likely witness numerous activities and procedures that could be improved in your organization. If you're like most people though, you simply go about your normal routine. The one you're most familiar with. No one is asking you to make things better, so why bother?

On the other hand, if you applied an agile mindset to this situation, you would intentionally look for areas that you can improve. You could then document and review them. Next, pick one or two you can quickly implement and show a positive impact. The fact you’re taking initiative is what matters most, but make sure you follow company protocol as well.

As your organization’s practices are streamlined and operations are incrementally improved, you will begin to get noticed. Before you know it, you’ll be known as a change agent.   

Ask yourself the following questions as you go through your day-to-day work routine –

  •      What problems do I consistently observe?
  •      Which problems can I quickly solve?
  •      What is the most efficient way of implementing the change?
  •      How can I inspire others to embrace this mindset?
  •      Are there other groups within my organization that have similar problems?

In this way, your agile mindset can turn into a habit of rapidly adapting to change. You don’t just wait for change to happen. You are the change agent who initiates it in the first place! 

Eventually, this habit can become infectious and spread across your entire organization. It all starts with you adopting the right mindset and others will begin to follow your lead. 

This mindset can be adapted to all kinds of organizations and environments. Examples include software development, technology implementation, healthcare, finance, legal, and even government.

The beauty in embracing this way of thinking is you never have a boring day. You look at change in the same way a home run hitter looks at a fastball. All you have to do is connect the dots and watch the ball sail out of the ballpark.

Remember, the enemy of change is the status quo. And, the status quo almost never wins in the long-term. It’s your job to make sure you’re positioning yourself (and your team) in the path of progress. This is the only way you will stay employed in the future.

Final Thoughts

Whether you realize it or not, there is a flight to safety taking place among knowledge workers. This includes the project management profession. 

The only way to predict the future is to create it. Machines are great at imitating, but it still takes a living, breathing human to come up with an original creation. If you want to stay at least two steps ahead of the machines, you’d better think bold and act evenbolder.

*Image from Global Panorama, Flickr

Oliver Yarbrough, PMP®, is a speaker, author, trainer and leading expert in project management, PMP® Exam Prep and strategic marketing to raise competitiveness. View his LinkedIn Learning course, Project Management: Government Projects, today.