The necessity for Project Management skills: The transition to freelance and project work

The Only Person that Likes Change is a Baby with a Wet Diaper. Anon

By nature we hate change; seldom will we quit our old home till it has actually fallen around our ears. Thomas Carlyle(1795-1881)

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. James Baldwin(1924-1987)

When you’re finished changing, you’re finished. Benjamin Franklin(1706-1790)

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. George Bernard Shaw(1856-1950)

This post will provide some references around how projects are becoming the new normal, and also provide some interesting trends and stats around how much we invest in projects. This has created an evolving engagement model for people working with organizations, and around the organizational evolution towards “projectification”.  Based on these trends, we highlight how everyone should recognize the necessity for project management skills, and what can be done to develop these in the new work environment.

Projects are Becoming the New Normal

Over the past decade, there appears to have been a global transition away from the employee model towards a more freelance, contract or project model.  Often referred to as the Hollywood model:

  • A project is identified; a team is assembled; it works together for precisely as long as is needed to complete the task; then the team disbands.
  • This short-­term, project-­based business structure is an alternative to the corporate model, in which capital is spent up front to build a business, which then hires workers for long-­term, open-­ended jobs that can last for years, even a lifetime.
  • Distinct from the Uber-­style “gig economy,” which is designed to take care of extremely short-­term tasks, manageable by one person, typically in less than a day.

This has a number of exciting implications both for management consulting (specialist advisory expertise) and project management, though this blog post will deal with the latter.

There have been several thought leaders supporting the observation about a transition towards freelance and projects.  Seth Gordin observed that people without specialized skills are finding it harder to find work, what he called the end of “the end of the average worker.”  Daniel Pink wrote in the Free Agent Nation (2001) the emergence of “Supertemps,” who are “top managers and professionals, trained at the top schools, who have chosen to pursue contract work over regular employment.”  Malcolm Galdwell’s book Outliers (2011) describes how all experts develop their special skills over long periods of time (7+ years to become excellent), and ultimately become world-class in a very focused area of expertise and skill.

In line with this, jobs are becoming more specialized and we are working more in teams and cross functional boundaries. As professionals our success is being redefined by expertise, not span of control.  In today’s high performing companies, people now take on “roles” not “jobs.” They are responsible for “tasks” and “projects” and not simply “functions.”

Demonstrative Trending for Projects

For context, it is estimated that one-third of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in society is expended on projects (Turner et al., 2010)(Schoper et al., 2018). Global GDP Trending Projects

Exhibit 1: Percentage of Worldwide GDP on Projects

So for 2016, based on the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) calculations (IMF, 2017), that would be 30% of $75,212,700,000,000 (USD) (Statistica, 2016)… or approximately $22 (USD) trillion spent on projects annually (using the American system for naming large numbers… Rowlett, 2001).

Possibly more interesting though, is the fact that this percentage of Global GDP has been increasing over the past century as presented in Exhibit 2.

Exhibit 2: Global GDP impact on Projects vs Operations (Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez (2012): The Focused Organization, Gower, London)


The Changing Engagement Model

So if the world is focusing more on team and project work, the role of the project manager is expanding.  If one takes into account the complexity and speed required of these new project engagements, this demand is amplified exponentially.

For more background on the changing employee model, it has been a recent trend towards recommending the following (borrowed from the Psychology Today 2013 article “The End of Careers As We Know Them“:

  • Realize that the old social contract—employee work in return from employer loyalty and job security– is dead. Even if you work for someone else, think of yourself as an entrepreneur;
  • Become comfortable with change. It’s likely you’ll be in several careers during your lifetime, sometimes as a result of changes outside your control;
  • Establish and develop a strong social networks. Connecting with people on an ongoing basis will strengthen your capacity to manage your career;
  • Create and develop your own personal brand. To be marketable in the workplace, you need more than experience and an education. You are more than your job, and being able to see and promote who you are in totality, makes you more marketable;
  • Establish and develop your professional reputation. It’s portable, and hugely affected by social media. A positive reputation can make or break individuals or organizations;

The following comes from The Atlantic’s 2011 article “The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time“: As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased over the past six years… These trends will have an enormous impact on our economy and our society:

  1. We don’t actually know the true composition of the new workforce. After 2005, the government stopped counting independent workers in a meaningful and accurate way. Studies have shown that the independent workforce has grown and changed significantly since then, but the government hasn’t substantiated those results with a new, official count. Washington can’t fix what it can’t count. Since policies and budget decisions are based on data, freelancers are not being taken into account as a viable, critical component of the U.S. workforce. We’re not acknowledging their prevalence and economic contributions, let alone addressing the myriad challenges they face.
  2. Jobs no longer provide the protections and security that workers used to expect. The basics ­ such as health insurance, protection from unpaid wages, a retirement plan, and unemployment insurance ­ are out of reach for one-third of working Americans. Independent workers are forced to seek them elsewhere, and if they can’t find or afford them, then they go without. Our current support system is based on a traditional employment model, where one worker must be tethered to one employer to receive those benefits. Given that fewer and fewer of us are working this way, it’s time to build a new support system that allows for the flexible and mobile way that people are working.
  3. This new, changing workforce needs to build economic security in profoundly new ways. For the new workforce, the New Deal is irrelevant. When it was passed in the 1930s, the New Deal provided workers with important protections and benefits ­ but those securities were built for a traditional employer-employee relationship. The New Deal has not evolved to include independent workers: no unemployment during lean times; no protections from age, race, and gender discrimination; no enforcement from the Department of Labor when employers don’t pay; and the list goes on.

Organizational Projectification

I first heard about the word projectification in China at the 2014 IPMA Research Conference in Tianjin. There were a number of excellent papers presented dealing with differences between project management in the East and West. A presentation by Derek Yang and Yongxia Chen entitled “Projectification in a Chinese Firm” provided some interesting background on the specific topic of the projectification of organizations. At the time of their paper, the researchers found 50 papers in China on projectification and around 10 internationally. Unfortunately most of the Chinese papers, are well in Chinese, but some had been translated:


The presentation identified that the seminal paper on projectification was in 1995 by Christophe Midler, entitled “Projectification of the Firm: the Renault Case” (Scandinavian Journal of Management, 11(4):363-75, 1995). Midler defined projectification as:

A process which took place in a series of changes in the structures for organizing new product development at Renault for a 30-year period as they moved from a functional to a heavyweight project form.

The presentation is provided here: 2014 IPMA Research Conference – Projectification in a Chinese Firm – Yang

The following quote comes from another exciting 2018 paper “Projectification in Western economies: A comparative study of Germany, Norway and Iceland” (Schoper et al., 2018):

With the creation of the term “projectification” in 1995 Midler foresaw a phenomenon that describes the current development in Western societies. Currently there are more than 1500 papers that deal with the observable fact that tasks are increasingly carried out in the form of projects and less as “ordinary” line work. Projects are omnipresent and happen in all parts of the society and life. However, there were only rough estimations about the extent of projects in the economy. The following study aimed to close this research gap by delivering a measure of the degree of projectification in the three countries: Germany, Norway and Iceland.

Even within corporations the following trends have taken hold (taken from the Forbes 2012 article “The End of a Job as We Know It“):

  • They reward results and expertise, not position.
  • They break down functional silos and facilitate work across business functions.
  • They reward continuous learning and “learning agility.”
  • They hire for values, innate skills, and fit, not for experience.
  • They encourage and promote horizontal mobility.

The Necessity for Project Management Skills

Though a frequently used tongue-in-cheek graphic in systems development projects, its humour stems from our experience in seeing so many similar examples:

Exhibit 3: Project Cartoon

Projects are becoming the new normal. We as professionals need to understand the disciplines and components of project management in order to protect the brand and maximize the organizational value and benefits while at the same time reducing cost and risk. GPM Global can help with this by providing foundational project management understanding, as well as leading sustainable project management skills and techniques such as P5.



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Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

One thought to “The necessity for Project Management skills: The transition to freelance and project work”

  1. Good post, Peter…. Well researched!!!

    i don’t think people realize exactly how many jobs are now and have been for many years being”project based” or “project centric”. That includes virtually all “service” jobs including doctors, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, barbers, hairdressers, auto mechanics- ANY job where people either walk in unannounced and wait their turn OR make an appointment seeking services which to some degree or another are “unique one time events, with a defined start and defined finish”.

    Another category of “projectized operations” are companies like airlines where each flight from City A to City B is a “project”. Schools and Universities fall into this category as each class taught is a “project” (and in fact may consist of sub-projects done by the students) and the projects together form a “degree program”. Other examples of projectized operations are hospital operating rooms or many medical diagnostic centers (MRI, CAT Scans etc) Here is an example where one of our students shows how earned value was adapted for use in underground mining OPERATIONS Farming is yet another example of “projectized operations”.

    Bottom line- like you, I too see project management COMPETENCY as being more valuable in the coming years as evidence that we are all becoming part of the “contingent workforce” (project based jobs) is increasing. For more on how to find work in this changing environment, look to sites like Zintro or 360Expert as well as Linked In as the way to find “project based work”.

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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