This article was inspired on the one hand by a discussion paper of the McKinsey Global Institute, which explores the emergence of a new era (‘Zeitenwende’) and is on the other hand also based on our experiences during the past three years. Without going into the many events we have all experienced during this period of time, we can state with confidence that they have shown us equally the limits of humanity on this planet, as well as the faith in a positive future for all of us.
However, what is easily lost in the flood of all-too-often negatively biased news, are the numerous opportunities that have emerged as a result of these turbulences. We not only managed to fight the pandemic with effective vaccines, due to the restrictions during the pandemic, we also discovered new ways of working, which offered more flexibility for work as well as environmental protection. The disruption of global supply chains has also increased awareness of local value creation, which will ultimately also benefit the environment. Meanwhile, the discussion about the purpose of the European Union (EU), which was sparked by Brexit, has turned around in the wake of the Russian-instigated war in Ukraine, and not only Ukraine, but more and more states also want to become part of the EU. This shows quite clearly that in every transition there are also opportunities waiting, which we can take advantage of in a concerted effort.
A change in thinking
What we need, however, is a change in thinking, a different way of dealing with instability, change and turbulence. These also surely await us in the coming years, especially in connection with the worsening climate crisis and its consequences. The trends mentioned in the McKinsey discussion paper will also challenge us. These include a multipolar world, between whose poles further tensions will arise. Demographic developments in many countries also hold explosive potential for society. Migration from the global South to the North, or migration from the countryside to the cities, due to poverty, climate impacts or the struggle for scarce resources, will continue to increase and pose additional challenges. In my view, it will not be possible to solve all these social challenges with money, technology or the help of politics alone. These are ultimately limited. What is not limited, however, are human capabilities. With the birth of the 8th billionth citizen on earth and a widely high level of education, it is time for the citizens to take their destiny into their own hands. All they need is the right mindset and capabilities to organize and deliver extraordinary solutions. This leads me to the role of projects in shaping our future.
In my series “Projects and project management from a social perspective” in the PM World Journal, the changes that projects and project management have undergone to date were highlighted. While projects were a unique phenomenon nearly four hundred years ago, requiring extraordinary skills that only a few people possessed, the picture has changed and projects are now part of everyday life. Even though in recent years we relied heavily on processes, methods and tools of project management to implement projects as efficiently as possible, the realization is now gaining ground that projects are an effective organizational form for collaboration in various situations in life. Not only in our professional life, but also in our leisure time, in sports and in the context of our communities, there are many projects which we can get involved in and shape. We often do this unconsciously, without thinking much about ‘project management.’ Ultimately, it’s about skillful networking with other people, symbiotic efforts in finding new solutions, and also the release of unimagined potential. In the third and fourth parts of the series, using the the example of the refugee crisis in Germany and reconstruction after an earthquake in Nepal, I was able to show what forces are unleashed when projects and project management put themselves at the service of society.
As we realistically assume that volatility, uncertainty, and that the number of challenges will continue to increase, mobilizing the population to engage in projects for the benefit of society is the only effective way to keep pace with developments. To do this, we just need to show people that they can make a difference by getting involved in projects, working with others to make a positive contribution for shaping the future. This does not require any elaborate training measures or certificates, but above all self-responsible or entrepreneurial action. Anyone can get projects up and running. It’s all about skillful networking with other people who bring complementary skills to the table, organizing activities towards an agreed upon goal and orchestration of the communication between all participants.
Citizens as “project activists” : the project age
We need ‘project citizens’ or ‘project activists’ to take on the scores of challenges. The state can support citizens in this process, for instance, by defining the overall strategy and appropriate framework conditions, providing resources or project incubators. From an early age, projects should be part of our education and self-realization. Lifting successful projects onto the stage and thus offering inspiration to others will give the project age the decisive kick. Projects must become barrier-free, integrate a diversity of perspectives, and mirror the breadth and depth of our society. Only in this way they can make a sustainable contribution to solving future challenges. Nowadays, it seems as if you have to have studied beforehand or need unique skills in order to make projects a success. I argue that everyone can realize projects and is already doing so unconsciously but does not yet dare to venture out more. We have to change this and unleash the potential of all citizens to become projectors. The whole discussion about the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies adds to the barrier for many people in our society when it comes to approaching new tasks. Technologies are tools that are useful for networking and collaborating in teams, for analyzing and preparing data, but co-creation is still a domain of people that needs to be strengthened in the context of projects, maybe elevated by dedicated coaches or facilitators. Boltanski and Chiapello describe in “The New Spirit of Capitalism” their vision of an emerging ‘Project Society’: “The project is an occasion and reason for the connection. It temporarily assembles a very disparate group of people, and presents itself as a highly activated section of network for a period of time that is relatively short, but allows for the construction of more enduring links that will be put on hold while remaining available.” In this way, they point to a perpetual flow of projects that is fed by successful networks of people who come together in projects, enjoy working together, and reconvene in the same or a similar constellation.
Currently, many are demanding that politics, the state, or the United Nations take care of the problems on our planet. In my opinion, this cannot be the solution. We should all take the reins of action into our hands, organize ourselves, on a local, regional and cross-regional level. By working together, we can also get to know each other better and build trust. Perhaps this will prevent unnecessary conflicts and builds bridges.
In this respect, I am already looking forward to the project age and wish already “happy projects” and a successful year 2023
Author: Prof. Dr. Reinhard Wagner, Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung