Well I am one of the generation of accidental project managers. I was working in an organization that decided to implement a new system; it was a manufacturing resource planning system at that time. And I was reasonably successful. The next logical step was the system has to be upgraded to the next release, they asked me if I would like to oversee that and try to remove some of the customizations as well. And from there, although I didn’t realize it at that time, I started doing ‘project management’.
Actually it was five or six years into doing such project management in a couple of companies, before someone was kind enough to actually put me on a project as a project manager and give me some training in project management.
You have been in project management for a long time, if I were to ask you what is your vision for project management, how would you respond to that?
My vision for project management, my hope for project management, is that it won’t be like when I came into project management, and many, many other people, the accidental project managers, the people who happen to do projects by virtue of being available. My hope for project management is that it continues on the path of becoming a key skill that all business managers, all business leaders have.
One of the things that I identified in a book I wrote on PMOs (Leading Successful PMOs – Gower) was that the challenge to people who are leading PMOs is very much when business is trying to push people who do not understand the nature or complexities of projects. The biggest failure rate I saw was where people were put in charge of these new project organizations that did not understand projects. I really do believe that every business manager and leader in the future should learn the nature of project management. It is an ever-increasing part of all organizations activities across the industries and across the globe. And therefore I would like to see project management as a key skill in all business schools, in MBAs and so forth.
People enter organizations with other key skills; they have these days a basic understanding of IT skills and computer skills, etc. so they should have an understanding of project management.
So are you saying that it is really a skill for all leaders to posses? And that a number of people can play the role of a project manager, but there may not be a standalone project manager role in future? Can anyone assume the role of a project manager who has the right skills?
My thought there is that I still feel that there will be a role of project manager, that certain people will just do that, be project managers. And I think it comes down to a scale and level of complexity. I think there are a lot of projects that can be undertaken by a business manager or similar – quite small, quite simple ones – with a low-level of resource allocated to them. I would expect a future business manager to understand projects and project management. But there will always be project and programs that require a very special and dedicated skill.
Now I ran some research where I asked that very same question – is project management a core skill or is it a niche capability? (Research Results ) If it has to be something that is specific to project managers or is it something now a core skill that future business people should just have. It was really interesting when you looked at the responses I got from that survey. It was very age related actually I would have to say. The older project managers saw it still very much as a niche skill. The younger people coming into the world of projects and business saw it very much as a core skill and the people in the middle saw it as a mixture.
I think, that to me, the way I read all of that, is the reality is that everybody should understand projects to a certain level if they are going to be in this business world, because there is so much project activity that goes on. Now, that does not necessarily mean that each of those people can manage significant projects themselves, they will still lean upon specialists project managers who have the capability, experience and skill to deliver such projects. But they should absolutely support them with some level of understanding of what it means to be a project manager, and what it means to deliver it successfully.
In the PMO book I set the kind of challenge – because you know when certain people are coming into the organization they fast track through the organization they are seen as future leaders, future C-level executives. They pass through a business organization; they experience marketing, manufacturing, finance, etc. just to get a flavor of the business. I would love future C-level executives to pass through the PMO at some point in time so that they understand projects. So as and when they commission and support future projects and business strategy they have that level of understanding of what it is to be like within a PMO, behind the project managers that make these things deliver business success.
That is the sentiment I have also heard. You are a thought leader in the project management world, you have been very successful, writing books, leading PMOs, speaking and thought leadership. Looking back at your own career, can you point out some things because of which you think you leaped to the next level? Do some things bubble up to the top?
Probably a couple of things.
I think one is – and I talk about this in some of the books and articles I have done around new project managers. I was very fortunate in having a very good mentor and coach in the early days, who for whatever reason recognized I had some capability around project management, even though neither they nor I described it as project management at that time. However they were very good, they were just there for me to go and ask for some guidance. I think what I would love to see are those mature and experienced project managers spending more time mentoring, coaching and supporting the new project managers. That really, really does help.
You can only learn so much from a course, you can only learn so much from a book, you can only learn so much by becoming certified. The real on the ground, experienced project managers have the knowledge of how to do certain things in certain situations and that comes from just doing it. And therefore that is the first thing, if you could find a mentor or coach that really is going to help you out.
The other thing I have recently been obsessed with is communication and marketing – all project managers are capable of communicating at a high level but combine that with marketing and magic happens. I have been trained in project management; I have also been trained in marketing. And I can look back and see how I always done a lot of promotion of the project, marketing of the project, engaging the widest possible stakeholder community etc. Whether it is within projects or in creation of a PMO I have found that reaching out and communicating what the project does, what the project achieved, what the PMO does and is trying to achieve, how great the project managers are that are working within the PMO, is key to being accepted by the business. All of that really does help convince people of the value of what you are doing. You are doing a good job, important to the business, and the PMO is a great function.
So one is if you are a newbie, try to find a good mentor or coach. And secondly work hard on your communication skills of course, but really do also consider the marketing aspects.
It is interesting you say that because a lot of project managers do communicate but don’t quite communicate in the way that you are saying. Not in the marketing tone or sense.
It sets off my mind because I am just finishing a book about that actually; it’s called Project Branding (Gower – out in 2012). It’s about the whole marketing and branding of projects. A number of people I have spoken to in the past said we wouldn’t know how to do that. Then I say, “Does your company have a marketing department?” “Well yes, of course they do.” “Well go and talk to them.” They are the people, who know how to do this, I am sure they would love to sit down with you and chat with you. It will pay rich dividends by investing the right amount of time.
In a lot of your books that you have written, you focus on the 80/20 rule; you focus on the items that make the most impact. On your blog you have some funny items like the project management from 37,000 feet and Mowgli and Baloo the Bear singing about the Bare Necessities of Life. When I was reading all those items I was thinking about agile. Agile has gained popularity, what are your thoughts on agile?
I think agile is a very interesting approach to project management. My experience has been that companies have attempted to use agile but have almost been too afraid to commit to deliver agile. Therefore they have kind of done it half heartedly and the result of that has been not successful. They try to apply it in a safe and traditional approach and that combination just hasn’t worked. You kind of get the worst of both worlds. They kind of wanted to be agile, declared it so, but they didn’t really invest in it nor do it properly. I think done properly with the right level of skills and expertise; it can be successful in certain projects.
In the PMOs that you led, or are leading, is agile part of the methodology?
It isn’t really, the PMOs within the last two organizations I worked for has had an iterative based methodology because in the commercial world there are a lot of activities like gates and thresholds and controls to pass though. So the construction of the methodology has been well beyond waterfall, it just doesn’t work in the software setting. But it has been sort of phase by phase and milestone driven. There was a fair degree if iteration within the phases. But agile has come more from our customers than actually us driving agile.
You know talking of PMOs there has been a mixed bag of experiences within companies. I have seen some PMOs dissolve while others have centralized their PMOs, some are moving to a business PMO model. What are you seeing in companies that are trying to find a direction for their PMOs?
It’s a complex landscape. There are so many types of PMOs. There are departmental PMOs, there are enterprise PMOs, there are PMOs within your own organization. As a software provider, we have PMOs ourselves. But we also engage with customers PMOs. There could be temporary PMOs particularly for very large programs. There are a whole different ways in which PMOs are working whether they are light touch or heavily involved, and on top of that you have the blended ones.
The PMOs that don’t work tend to fail because they are not connected at the right level in the organization. I think a PMO has to be connected to the C-level and has to be connected to business strategy. You can’t just be a PMO that just looks after projects that are disconnected from that level.
I think PMOs also suffer from lack of understanding and accepting in an organization, and here I come back to the whole marketing aspect and promotion of what a PMO does. Because you know a PMO can be seen as somewhat of a threat the organization when this new unit is being created. There is a job for PMO leaders to really explain what a PMO is about, talk to the business leaders and managers – promote and market, and represent the PMO well. If you don’t do that it becomes a very isolated unit, at the very worst the unit can be seen as something that is high cost to the business and isn’t delivering value for the business. These are tough times now and have been in the last couple of years. Any time the business looks at itself and sees it as in an investment and if they don’t see the value that’s when you see PMOs disbanded and project managers sent back into the organization.
You have to get the scale of the PMO right. When I was the PMO manager at Siemens one of the nicest things declared about the PMO was – and this was at the height of the recession – the PMO was declared to be ‘too valuable to lose but not expensive to keep’. That balance between too valuable and not too expensive to lose, we got it just about right. And on that basis it was left completely untouched because it was seen to be delivering value to the business.
What are some of the things you are working on now? You mentioned that you are in the process of writing a new book.
The Project Branding book is pretty much written; I am putting together the last couple of case studies and will submit the manuscript to the publisher. There will be a third in the lazy book range, now that we have had the Lazy Project Manager. There will be a book called ‘The Lazy Project Manager and the Project from Hell’ (Infinite Ideas – 2012).
The other big thing I am pushing is engaging people in a conversation in the whole area of project sponsors. I think project management is doing OK; there is an ever-increasing interest in development and training. But now I have started the campaign for real project management sponsorship. I see so few organizations around the world who correctly invest in project sponsorship. They don’t develop project sponsors, they don’t support project sponsors. They just assume that if someone gets to the right level in the organization, they will naturally be a good sponsor. Sadly that isn’t the case.
In the future if people have been trained in project management as a core skill, when they reach a certain point where they are likely to be project sponsors, they are likely to be better prepared. But right now I see that as a weakness. The very worse is that if you are stuck with someone isn’t a very good project sponsor; it adds a burden to the project manager.
Those are some of my big topics for 2012.
What got you into writing books? What made you write your first book?
I started professional speaking and really in talking to some people they said having a book is really good. I had always enjoyed writing.
And then I was really fortunate, I put together an idea and I was lucky – through a chain of contacts – where I eventually got into conversation with a publisher. They liked the strange and quirky title – The Lazy Project Manager – and the rest, as they say, is history.
From there the first book was launched. I am pretty pleased that it has done so well around the world. That kind of got me going and once I started, then there was no stopping me. I subsequently produced a few more books. Now I have ideas on a regular basis.
There is website that I host which is http://www.pmpublished.com. When you have published a book you find that lots of people talk to you about book writing. On this website, you just go to it, you don’t have to register, and you can just look at the information on there. You can download a free eBook on how to get published – it has ideas and statistics and talks about self publishing. There are some video clips of me talking to my publishers, talking about my own personal experience. And if people want, my publishers have said that they are willing to have a conversation with people if they have an idea for a book. There are absolutely no guarantees; it’s a tough world to get a book published. But it’s there; people can have a conversation with my publishers. And my publishers will be very honest, it they think it is a completely mad idea, they will say so. It’s just a ‘way in’ for people to at least have that first level of conversation.
Any last word of advice for projects managers?
My advice to project managers is – it is a fantastic time to be a project manager. And I am quite jealous that this didn’t exist when I was young. Just make the most out of the fabulous network that is out there. Because there are so many people who are blogging about project management, who are writing about project management. There have never been so many books before.
There are wonderful communities of people on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook etc; there are so many ways to connect with people. I have been amazed and thankful for the ease with which it is to connect with people. People will really try to help you. On top of that there are some fantastic podcasts. There is the The PM Podcast; you can listen to as well as my own free podcast on iTunes (The Lazy Project Manager).
I would really recommend that project managers spend some time, looking out there, and reaching out to that wonderful network of people.
What are some of your hobbies?
I love speaking and presenting. That kind of takes all the spare time that I have. The rest of the time it is home with the family.
Peter is a dynamic and commercially astute professional who has achieved notable success in Project Management.
He is also an accomplished communicator and leader and is a professional speaker as well as the author of ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ (Infinite Ideas) and ‘Leading Successful PMOs’ (Gower) and ‘The Lazy Winner’ (Infinite Ideas).