Of project portfolios and an uncertain future

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend the Gartner Project Portfolio Management (PPM) and IT Governance summit. I approached the event with some trepidation—this is my field and it would clearly be useful to be amongst peers and understand what the latest thinking is, but I expected it to be full of vendors voraciously pushing their wares and lots of attendees who were wrestling with nuances of Microsoft Project and getting ‘resources’ to work with the processes they had rolled out. Although there was indeed some of this, 80% of the content over the two days was extremely valuable. Many of the sessions had big overlaps with topics covered in Lean Enterprise, a fantastic book I read earlier this year which has really honed my thinking about the right way to approach IT and product development work within a large organisation.

The final keynote presentation of the day was extremely thought-provoking. Donna Fitzgerald and Robert Handler gave a talk called ‘Gartner Predicts the Future of PPM’ but it was so much more than just a talk about project portfolio management. The key issue is on how fast the world is changing around us and how quickly we will need to adapt. Early on, they quoted Ray Kurzweil in saying that:

“Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference.”

The basic messages that I took away from the presentation were as follows:

  • Technological advances are exponential (think Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s law etc.)
  • Anything that can be automated will be automated.
  • Things that yesterday we generally believed were impossible to automate are being automated (e.g. self-driving trucks, textual analytics etc.—this table from this paper was reproduced in the Gartner slide deck)
  • Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts.
  • Applying this to PPM, classic project management will be a generic skill, versatility of skills will be a necessity and the role of the PM will be to enable the team to get things done and shift obstacles out of the way.

As I sat there in the audience I couldn’t help but drift away from the PPM world and think back to an article I read in Wired magazine fifteen years ago. The article had such a profound effect on me that I can still remember exactly where I was as I read it—on a Northern Line tube train, heading to work one morning. It’s called Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us and is by Bill Joy, then Chief Scientist at and one of the founders of Sun Microsystems.

My main memory of the article was that humans pursue technological and scientific progress for its own sake, because it is in our nature to explore and discover. Out of this could come unintended consequences such as self-replicating nanotechnology that takes over the world in a horrendous ‘grey goo‘ scenario. Over the past fifteen years, this quest for scientific progress has become synonymous in my mind with the quest for continual ‘economic growth‘.

On my way home from the conference, with thoughts from the keynote still fresh in my mind, I decided to re-read the article. Two things surprised and struck me when I did so: (1) first part of the article focused on Joy’s meeting with Kurzweil so the keynote and the article seemed to have a common thread or root and (2) the article didn’t just focus on technology but also economic growth:

“Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven – this time by great financial rewards and global competition – despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and imagining.”

“I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.”

I tweeted that the keynote had got me “worried about our drive to automation and the unemployed masses” and a friend responded, stating that I should read about the so-called ‘lump of labour fallacy‘.

I did look into this, and found out that this basically says that the following line of thinking is fallacious:

  • There is a finite amount of work to be done.
  • Where work is automated, the overall pool of work is decreased, so the people unemployed by automation will not be able to find new jobs.

The reason it is ‘widely accepted’ as a fallacy is that historically, through technological, economic and societal change there is new work to be done and over time the labour force shifts to having these new skills. Think about the industrial revolution and the jobs that were lost because of the changes and how the population developed new skills over time for new jobs that had previously never existed.

Of the various excellent articles I have read on this, three things make me think that this historically has been a fallacy but may not be in the future:
  1. The speed of technological change. As per the Kurzweil quote at the top of this post, progress is not linear and it is getting faster. The speed of progress means that people may not have time to re-skill within their own lifetime.
  2. If it is true that “Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts” then how do you become a seasoned expert if there are no lower-level tasks to be done that allow you can learn the ropes? Will your field still be un-automated by the time you get to be a seasoned expert with a couple of decades of experience behind you?
  3. The work to be done may shift and new jobs may be invented, but who is going to do that work? Will it be automated from the get-go?

I think there are genuine reasons to be concerned. Personally, I do not understand how we blindly accept ‘economic growth’ through capitalism as a singular goal that is commonly agreed on as being an aim for a company, a society, a country or humanity. Expanding populations and finite resources surely mean that there are limits to continual ‘growth’. I know that many people much smarter than me must have examined this question and that people can point me towards countless texts where this is considered. What I do understand is that even through something as gigantic as the recent financial crisis we did not come up with anything better than what we have today—even though many great minds were questioning it and reasoning as to where we should go from here—and that while our current configuration is still in place, it is not an option for an organisation to avoid seeking growth in the form of increased revenues and lower costs through technological innovation, automation etc. If you are participating in capitalism and not striving to be the best that you can be then someone else will take your customers and you will be out of business. The pace at which this is happening is accelerating. 50 years ago, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was 75 years; as of 2014 it was less than 15 years.

I don’t have any conclusions right now. I know that as an individual with a family to look after, a mortgage to pay etc. I am very much an active participant in this process. But as per Bill Joy’s article that I read all those years ago:

“My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of software. Software is a tool, and as a toolbuilder I must struggle with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I can now imagine such a day may come.

This all leaves me not angry but at least a bit melancholic. Henceforth, for me, progress will be somewhat bittersweet.”

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