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Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity: Why project management is essential in a VUCA world

Some fifteen years ago I received an amazing gift. On the first of May of that year, I started as a regional manager with a company involved in a merger. I received three things: my new laptop already set up to start working, a printer in a box, and a file. In the folder were details of a three-day project management course I had to attend, with the details of another few days to do a course on the MS Project programme.

Those courses changed the way I approached projects and events. We were taught how to do everything – small and big, personal and work projects – as a way of working through a project management approach. Today, that is still how I tackle my deliverables at work and commitments in my personal life.

Acquiring project management skills is a gift each person needs to give themselves.

It is important to know what project management is and what the role of a project manager is –especially when implementing a strategic marketing campaign.

According to the PMI Standards Committee (1987), project management is the “the art of directing and co-ordinating human and material resources throughout the life of a project by using modem management techniques to achieve predetermined objectives of scope, cost, time, quality, and participant satisfaction”.

Every project – no matter its nature or industry – has five stages in the process: defining the project, creating the business case, planning the project, implementation and control as well as completion and close-out on each project to measure its success.

According to the IMM GSM, in today’s world of business it has become evident organisations that perform best tend to be those that manage projects better and quicker. Previously, it was acceptable when project managers were mainly trained as technical specialists when required to deliver complex, technical programmes of work. No longer.

The VUCA world of work

In the VUCA world of work, more innovative marketing strategies are inspired by strategic foresight and visionary leadership to deal with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. As a result, more and more organisations across sectors expect a wide range of staff to adopt a project management approach as part of a strategic approach. More managers are allocated to project teams – often outside the normal line management structures –tasked with delivering changes and improvements to goods, services and operations on time and within budget.

What does project success mean in a VUCA world? In an era when marketing projects have become increasingly common in organisations, this question is more relevant than ever. In answering, Shenhar et al. (2001) remind us that the distinctive skills and roles of the project manager have become much more widespread and has become a strategic imperative in marketing.

No matter what the motivation for the project, the question of its success is strongly linked to an organisation’s effectiveness. Central to this, it has become important to attend to front-end matters before jumping in and just ‘doing’ the project (IMM). In a VUCA environment, marketing projects require team members to devote more time to the early phases of their assignments.

It is crucial that the objectives, options and processes in marketing projects (including events) are clearly defined at the beginning; otherwise the success of marketing projects comes into jeopardy with adverse impact on the organisation.

Skills required to be successful in marketing in a VUCA world require specific training. According to the IMM, key skills for project managers are technical (i.e. knowledge of the business sector in which the project is being conducted; and interpersonal (i.e. communicating to and managing effectively the different parties with a stake in the project) in nature.

Three essential skills

Project managers need certain skills to ensure successful marketing projects. According to the IMM, these skills are defined in three categories.

Firstly, human skills are vital to ensure the ability to mobilise the mental and emotional energy of their sub-ordinates, team members and stakeholders involved in marketing projects. Developing human skills will also allow marketing managers to cope with situations by having an open mind, flexibility, patience and persistence.

Furthermore, project managers that focus on their own personal development through becoming a leader of self with a high emotional maturity display high self-esteem and a more empathetic approach in their dealings with both internal and external stakeholders.

Secondly, technical skills are needed for in-depth project knowledge and in the understanding methods, processes and procedures as well as specific knowledge in the use of project management tools and techniques.

Lastly, conceptual and organisational skills are required in terms of organising, planning, strong problem orientation skills and the ability to visualise the relationship of the project to the industry and the community.

Three project management techniques

Through such training marketing professionals will learn to identify why a marketing project may fail, how to avoid any failure, how to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of projects, and how to measure project success to meet time, budget and quality goals with stakeholders.

Furthermore, training should introduce the three main project management techniques that have been become prevalent in organisations:

  • Agile project management
  • Integrated project teams; and
  • Heavyweight project management (IMM)

Within the VUCA world, many organisations are now starting to adopt one or more of these techniques when delivering certain projects, and although no substitute for core traditional project management skills, they are proving useful in certain projects.

In closing, project management has become a strategic imperative for marketing. There is a solid business case with an associated return on investment (ROI) to implement a project management approach in marketing projects to understand the cost drivers for a project, identify its risks and strategies for managing them, and to develop contingency plans to ensure their success.