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PM Skills: The Keys to Success in the Future Workplace?

written by: Michele McDonough • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 9/10/2012

Project managers are used to playing many roles and adapting to new situations on as as-needed basis. Could these and other PM skills define the qualities of the in-demand worker of the future?

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    A Murky Crystal Ball

    10 Key Skills for Future Workers Today’s career landscape is very different than the one we knew 10 years ago, and it’s continuing to change at a rapid pace. There are so many factors contributing to these changes – such as economic uncertainty, advances in technology, evolving perceptions of higher education, and the desire to have a career instead of “just a job” – that it’s extremely hard to predict where this path will lead us over the next 10 years. Still, we keep trying to navigate that path the best way we can.

    In December 2011, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) published a report presenting thoughts and insights on the types of work skills that are in demand now and will continue to be for the next decade. The very fact that the IFTF publication focuses on skills in demand rather than jobs in demand is another sign of the changing times. Traditional job titles don’t mean quite as much as they used to, and the act of wearing many hats has become the norm instead of the exception.

    These things, by themselves, probably sound quite familiar to many project managers, but several of the skill sets discussed in the IFTF report should ring a bell, too.

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    1. Sense-Making

    Machines may be able to collect, compute, store and even analyze large amounts of data, but humans are needed to look at the information in context and determine its significance. On top of that, the meaning and importance of these findings will often need to be explained to different groups of people, with emphasis on how each group is affected.

    Project managers frequently have to play the role of the middle man – collecting requirements from various stakeholders, translating those requirements into work to be completed, and then communicating the results back to those who made the original requests. The overall success of the project often hinges on how well these communications are conveyed.

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    2. Social Intelligence

    We may be able to program a computer to emulate Mr. Spock’s logic, but getting one to mimic Counselor Troi’s empathy is a whole lot tougher (if it’s even possible). As collaborative efforts continue to grow and workplace culture becomes a more prominent focus, the ability to connect with other workers and adapt to different personalities isn’t just a desired trait anymore – it’s a necessary one in many work environments.

    Sounds a lot like stakeholder management, doesn’t it?

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    3. Novel and Adaptive Thinking

    Some might associate this description with “thinking out of the box,” and while that is definitely a component of this skill set, it’s not the only one. Novel and adaptive thinking also involves recognizing what you have to work with and coming up with new ways to produce something fresh and original from those items. In addition, it includes the ability to adapt general solutions to better fit specific problems.

    In other words, be creative within constraints.

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    4. Cross-Cultural Competency

    The notion of adaptability is present in many of the skills on this list, and it’s absolutely central in this one. The IFTF report defines this skill as the “ability to operate in different cultural settings” but it’s important to note that the term “cultural” doesn’t just apply to geographic location. More generally, it applies to different groups of people who share similar perspectives, experiences and outlooks.

    As an example, working with a group of millennials who are fresh out of college is usually quite different than working with a group of baby boomers who have been with the same company for decades.

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    5. Computational Thinking

    Does this mean you need to learn how to code? Not exactly, but it does mean that understanding the basic fundamentals of programming – as well as knowing the limitations of various programming languages and tools – is a huge asset. Also, it’s important to be able to look at any data used to generate a result and determine its validity, and never forget GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

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    6. New-Media Literacy

    Do you scrutinize infographics and videos as closely as you question textual reports? It’s easy to be drawn to visual media formats because they’re appealing and engaging, but often we don’t question the information they portray as rigorously as we would if the same material were presented to us in the form of a written paper or slideshow presentation.

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    7. Transdisciplinarity

    I dare you to say that word three times fast. Despite its unwieldiness, I actually like using transdisciplinarity as a new term to describe the melding together of generalism and specialization. In the past, a generalist was a person who had a broad understanding of many different disciplines while a specialist had a deep understanding of one area. While both roles still have their place, we’re seeing the emergence of a new type of role – a person who is a specialist in one or two areas, but who also has a good understanding of other related fields.

    For a project manager, the ability to communicate with various stakeholders and work groups on their level is crucial if you want to get everyone’s buy-in and respect. You may not need to have a full understanding of every individual’s role, but you do need to have enough of one to recognize his or her value – and, even more importantly, to make that recognition clear to the person.

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    8. Design Mindset

    Have you ever experienced a creative block and found that taking a walk or just moving to a different part of the room opened up your mind? Our immediate environment has a profound influence on the way we think. If we’re able to recognize what types of conditions stimulate certain types of thoughts, we can use that to work more effectively.

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    9. Cognitive Load Management

    “Information overload” isn’t just a passing buzzword. It’s a real problem that gets bigger with each passing day. The sheer volume of data to which we have access can be paralyzing at times, making it seem impossible to separate important details from trivial information. The ability to filter out the noise and zero in on what really matters is – and will continue to be – a prized skill.

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    10. Virtual Collaboration

    When interacting face-to-face with another person, we’re not just listening to what they say. We’re also taking in how they say it, by paying attention to body language and voice intonations. In virtual collaboration efforts, we don’t have access to all of this additional sensory information. If we’re not careful, this can lead to big miscommunications.

    Additionally, when the only form of communication we have with someone else is virtual, it can be harder to forge those social bonds that are often crucial to building a successful collaborative effort.

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    How Many of These Skills Do You Already Have?

    When I first read the IFTF paper, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Wow, it sounds a lot like the authors are describing a project manager here.” But, does this mean that the discipline of project management is influencing other fields, or is it just easier for me to see how these skills are being practiced by project managers?

    On another note, if organizations start expecting all of their employees to have solid project management skills, will the role of the dedicated internal project manager evolve into something else? Of course, this is all assuming that the skills listed here really are what employers will be looking for in the future. Do you think any major skill set has been left off this list?

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