People are the Heart of Project Management: Why AI Can’t Replace Us

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How do you manage people in the age of (AI)quarius? Already with a terrible pun. I bet the AI wouldn’t be so bold! ChatGPT! I challenge you!

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Um, excuse me AI! You can insult my writing but you can’t insult my puns!

It would not be so bold to say that humanity is sitting on the verge of one of the most significant seismic shifts in productivity – one to challenge even the industrial revolution. Humanity learned many lessons after the industrial revolution (others were not learned… sorry Earth!), and most of them were about how to manage people.

So, what is this verge we are sitting on? Here’s what the opening paragraph should have alluded to – we have a front-row seat to the AI revolution and the show has only just started, where the power of the information is at our fingertips!

But before we go too far into my mind rambles, let me give you the briefest of introductions to how I view people and AI.

An Origin Story in Two Parts

Part 1:

I am a project manager by (now) profession. But the journey to this point was never straightforward.

Originally, I wanted to study IT networking, but (plot twist) ended up becoming an apprentice for an electrical and mechanical engineer who built bomb disposal suits and micro lighting headgear. Side note: my NDA expired after a decade.

From there I decided I had enough secrecy in my life and went on to study theater. After 9 years, I ended my theater career as a production manager at one of South Africa’s premier theaters and went into project management.

This shift to the theater was the best decision I could possibly make. Here, I traded logic for people. Brains for people. People for drama! NUMBERS FOR FEELINGS!

I realized I love listening to people, figuring out how they tick and how I can support them. I suppose you could say a large amount of what I did then is what I do now: wrangling timelines and budgets, listening to people, and figuring out how I can create the best space for them to be their best.

Part 2

Even after several years working in production and project management, my soft skills needed a bit of hardening. Apparently, experience isn’t enough – you need that certificate saying “One of Us” to be accepted into the cool kids/manager’s club. So, listening to the advice given to me by my then-manager, I decided to take a 10-week introductory short course into project management.

Through this course, I realized that I had spent far too many years not knowing what risk was (unless you mentioned the board game). But I did indeed learn a hodge-podge of useful tips, rules, and concepts – all of which I found focused too heavily on putting everything down to numbers. But people aren’t numbers.

If my time in theater taught me anything, it is that people are anything but numbers.

Can you really quantify everything about a person? I am sure an actuarial will jump out of a calculator right now and try to prove me wrong, but this felt like a foundational misunderstanding of people management (which the course spent a whole week talking about). 

There is a fundamental misunderstanding that not everyone will operate at 100% all the time.

This was echoed in my first corporate project management job. I had to push out a timeline because of a team member who was experiencing problems outside of work and couldn’t bring their all to their job – no amount of support could speed things up. In our project management meeting, I brought this issue to the table and the reactions ranged from “But think of the deadline!” to “Well then we will have to think of replacing Susan (not their real name).”

Not everyone will be able to stick to the magical number you give them, and there are many reasons why. It is up to a good project manager and people manager to recognize this and adapt. Sometimes rules are made to be broken, right? 

Will AI understand that not everyone is a machine?

The Numbers Don’t Lie… Or Do They?

Herein lies the crux of my thinking. The very foundation of AI is that it adapts through progressive learning algorithms to let the data do the programming. AI finds structure and regularities in data so that algorithms can acquire skills. If AI learns that project management is all about numbers and rules, will it ever consider something immaterial that it cannot quantify?

Can we teach it how to feel human intuition? Will it realize that a loss of two days now gains a month later? Is it even capable of that?

(“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”)

We are sitting on the cusp of a time where AI is creating art and poetry, while humans are performing minimum-wage jobs. We can ask AI to create timelines, but will AI understand the concept of illness? Depression? Lack of inspiration?

Company culture, team culture, and morale cannot be put down in numbers. COVID-19 industry surveys have shown (repeatedly) that remote and hybrid jobs increase job satisfaction, and productivity, and increased job retention. Yet many businesses are returning to the office.

Happiness is something intangible (again, I sense a statistician writing to me a strongly worded letter), something that means different numbers to different people. If we are to use the mythical productivity number to quantify the effect of happiness, could we? Was it ever taken into consideration? Could AI take this into consideration?

But to pause, take a breath, and stop pointing weapons at the toaster (in the event it becomes self-aware and burns our toast out of spite), the power of AI lies in supplementing and supporting human creativity. AI should never be used to replace, only to augment in my humble, human opinion.

Back to the Beginning

Remember what I felt in the beginning? We are on the verge of a new seismic shift the likes of which we have not seen since the industrial revolution.

The Writers Guild of America is striking against exactly this. How much should AI be allowed to write before the writers start losing their credits, and their jobs? You could go into ChatGPT right now and ask it to print you a screenplay of your imagination. For Free!

In my theater studies, I wrote a thesis on using technology to replace the actor on stage. Trust me, I bit off more than I could chew and I was not popular with the actors. I came across Donna Haraway, who wrote “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway hypothesized in the 80s that humans are already cyborgs! Part human, part machine. Haraway said any man-made object that humans use to enhance their abilities, makes us cyborgs.

Do you wear glasses? Cyborg. Do you have prosthetics? Cool Cyborg. Do you wear hearing aids? You are living in the future.

And this is where humanity sits on the precipice: are we transforming into cyborgs – using AI to enhance our human abilities, or will AI take over, leaving humanity to readjust to a new normal?

The Human Element

I have learned an important lesson that feels too nuanced to explain to AI. Everyone works differently, not everyone will be able to work at 100% all the time. Not everyone can be their best in an office, not everyone is going to find happiness in a 9-5.

We live in a time post-COVID where people are learning to understand themselves a little better. “Hey, you know what – I am going to do the laundry while I think of this.” Or maybe it is a case of them not feeling their best selves, and only working at 50%.

Maybe we need to schedule a mind walk. We are learning that maybe – just maybe we don’t need to work for 8 hours a day. But to achieve the best results we only need to set aside 4 hard hours and use the rest to fill our cup.

This is where a good manager exists. This is where good humans exist – recognizing what makes each individual operate at their best. This is where the human element of caring needs to be.

In a time when AI is threatening to take over a lot of job responsibilities, can we really afford to underestimate the value of the human element?

Once more… but with feelings.

The benefits of AI are undeniable, but there is always a time and place for it. That is where I envision the future of project management of learning, particularly in the dawn of the AI revolution. We cannot lose that human touch – we cannot lose that human connection to the quality of work we produce. If the creator is enjoying the work they do, it carries through in the quality of work.

We should all be thinking about quality over quantity! How do you provide quality? Heed the warning signs of replacing human creativity with chat prompts. That is the beauty of AI, to help us distill vast amounts of data and turn it into nuggets of inspiration that can set us off into the Pacific of creativity.

But the ultimate end goal, in our journey to becoming cyborgs, is to blend the man and the machine. Use AI to reduce our menial tasks and use the time we have won to listen and learn. Be like the AI – but this time, with feelings.

A good company culture gives the people the tools they need to be at their best, but they should never feel they are under threat of being replaced. Give the people the safety to be their best, give them the support they need and we will reach new levels of learning, incomprehensible just a decade ago.

I learned in my theater days that people would rally around someone who listened, made their concerns heard, and gave them the space to thrive.

People are people.

Numbers are numbers.

But we can work together to create something beautiful, sustainable, and more productive.

Don’t fear change.

Embrace it.

But also – I’m watching your toaster.

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