Don’t just run a well defined project from A to Z. Make sure the company reaps the benefits of your work – says Michel Operto – project leader from France.

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Michel Operto, author of and a project leader in France.

You have been doing project management for a long, long time, I see, and you started your career as an engineer and software developer. So how did you go from there to getting involved in project and program management?

In fact, it was quite a natural evolution. I started, as you mentioned, as a developer, when was that, 26-27 years ago. I was a developer. I was coding programs, and then progressively I ranked up and I had a little team to manage of developers. I was very interested also in IT consulting, so I did some IT consulting when I was with Digital Equipment at the time. And then came the opportunity of taking a program, an IT deployment program in Europe that was about automating the call management, contract management, spare parts provisioning and field engineers dispatch, i.e. most of the customer services functions, of NCR in Europe and have the exact same solution deployed in each of the countries.

So that’s how I moved from actually managing a team of developers to managing a team of project managers and being myself a project manager deploying an IT program that had both the IT side, the process side, and the local issues with the change management in various countries in Europe. That was very successful, and then they decided that NCR, since it works fine in Europe, why don’t we deploy it everywhere? So that’s how I became more of a program manager, supervising project managers, deploying our Customer Services Management solution (CSMS) across the world from Japan to the U.S., Canada, and all of the European countries.

Then we started deploying the CSMS solution in all of the countries across the globe, and as I was doing that, I had become a program director, supervising a lot of project managers deploying in all of these countries. I started to realize that I had become, by default, a project manager, a program manager, not by training.

So, I decided to join a big program we had at the time at NCR that was trying to professionalize the project management practice and the project managers within the company, and that’s how I started to learn about PMI. I went to a bunch of training, I passed the certifications for PMP back in ’98, I believe. Since then, I’ve been very involved in project management. I created the local chapter of PMI for the South of France, which grew from 12 that we were at the beginning to now more than 1400. I’ve been active in a lot of the conferences that PMI organizes as a speaker, as an organizer, generally involved in all of the project management, project leadership-type topics.

Does that give you an overview?

Yes, yes. That’s good. When you started that first chapter in France, how did you get your first 12 members? Were they friends? Were they people you worked with?

In fact, it was because, after the PMP exam when we became certified, a small reception was organized to celebrate the event with the people who had been successful at getting the certification at the same time. Whilst we were there, we discussed amongst each other and said it would be stupid to just stop there and not have an opportunity to work together again in the future and to develop the project management profession in the region as we thought it had a big potential.

This group was a group composed essentially of people working in large multinationals in the area where I live and work in the Sophia Antipolis business park area, but from different companies such as IBM, NCR, and HP, and also Texas Instruments… we have different big multinationals there. A group of a dozen of us decided to go for it and actually create a first event, which was very successful. We had over 120 people coming to the very first event. Then we decided to create a small non-profit organization, and after 3 or 4 years, it became truly a PMI chapter.

120 people for the first event? That is a lot of people for a first event.

We didn’t start from nowhere, because I had been quite active in the past in another non-profit association focused on technology watch and looking at new opportunities, et cetera. Sophia Antipolis is a very innovative business park, so I had contacts in schools and universities, and we were already holding events which were quite successful. So I started from the file of the members of the association who were attending the other events to invite them, and that’s how we already had over 120 when we started organizing Project Management events.

Oh, good, good. So you already had some list to start with?

Yes, absolutely. Otherwise, it’s what takes time really: to develop the mailing lists.

Right, right. You mentioned you have done large ERP or large programs all over the world, Japan, I think you mentioned somewhere in your LinkedIn, India, Cairo. When you did projects or programs around the world, what I want to get at is do you find that the difference in the team members or the project managers in France and the way they work, especially and culturally between PM’s in France and PM’s across the globe – for project managers who are listening to this telecast, if they were ever to come in contact with people from France, is there any advice you would give them in terms of culture, and work ethic?

I think obviously the culture plays a big role, not only on the project manager, but also on your project management team and your project team. We see more and more of the teams now having people coming from different countries, different cultures, and it’s something that as PMs we have to manage all the time.

I think the PMs in France come from very often a background where in school what you are told is that as a manager, you’re supposed to have all of the answers to what your employees may ask you. That’s probably one of the biggest differences with the more Anglo-Saxon approach, where you’re not meant to have the solutions, you’re meant to be able to find the person who has the right answers.

You don’t have to be the expert; you can rely on people who have the expertise. I think in France, a lot of managers and also a lot of PMs, we still have been trained in this mindset that we need to have the answers to all of the questions that may come from our teams, and that’s probably hindering sometimes our effectiveness, as we are less open to ask questions and more willing to provide answers.

Yes. In fact, I was speaking to someone else who worked in Switzerland, and he said the exact same thing. He said the PM’s from Switzerland had to have a very detailed plan, and they wanted to have all the answers, versus the PM’s from the U.S. who operate in a different mode.

Absolutely. It’s again very different if you go to Japan. There, it’s more of a collaborative plan that you’re going to be building and far less of a top-down plan that you try to get everybody to accept and commit to.

You mentioned when we were conversing, one of the topics you talked about was the value of certifications, and you do have a couple. So do you want to talk about that? You got certified way, way earlier, as a PMP.

In fact, when I became interested in PMI and becoming certified as a PMP, it was, as I mentioned earlier, essentially because I had become a PM by default, like many others. There is no real school to become a project manager. You first get the job, and then you try to figure out what does it mean to actually have to do this job. So after a few years of being a project manager, it was for me 6-7 years, I found it very interesting to go back to the basics, go to training, and learn the actual theoretical basis behind a lot of the things that I had been doing by either trying to mimic what other good PM’s were doing or simply trying myself to find what would work for my projects.

So I did find it of a lot of value for me to go through training after having a significant number of years of experience, because it did help me put this experience back in focus on a really more solid theoretical basis, to understand also where I had been very successful, why was it. Very often, when you look at the theory, you see that yes, you had done a number of things definitely right, which explains the success, and vice versa. When I had not been so successful, usually when I looked back at the best practices and at the tools and at the theory behind project management, I discovered that I had done a few fundamental things really wrong on that project and that’s probably why it didn’t work out the way that I expected.

I did also appreciate the fact that, even though you’ve been a project manager for 6-7 years, it doesn’t mean that you’ve seen the full picture of project management from A to Z. Very often, especially in large corporations, when you’re a project manager you see a fraction of the activities because you have finance people who are going to be taking care of the finance, you have provisioning people who will be taking care of the procurement and the contracts and all of that, whilst when you go on training, you learn exactly what it is that these guys are supposed to be doing for your project to be successful, instead of having to rely essentially on them without knowing what exactly they are meant to be doing for your project.  And also, when it turns out that you end up working for a much smaller corporation or company or maybe a start-up, then you know all of the things that need to be done, and not only the things that you do as a PM in a large company.

So that’s essentially why I did appreciate going through the certification process, not so much for the certification, even though I do recognize that it adds value. First, it adds to your credibility, because when you go to an interview, a job interview for a PM position, and you say, ‘I’m PMP,’ you automatically get less of the basic questions and you get more into the business questions and the motivational questions. So that’s a big time saver, and it increases your credibility in the target company. It also probably increases your market value, as there are not so many certified project managers around, especially in European countries or ones having international experience.

But where I appreciated the certification the most is in the learning, because it forced me to learn a lot of things that I had not seen before, in going through and firming up my basis for the areas which I thought I knew, like risk management, et cetera. And also, for the network, it allowed me to create with people preparing the certification at the same time as I did, having a lot of exchanges with the people during the training classes, during the preparations for the exam. And also getting to know more best practices, more tools, and more places where to go to find new areas, new ways of doing things that allow project managers to be successful in their areas.

That’s why overall I appreciated the certification process itself.

I remember when I took my PMP certification, the thing that I remember the most I learned from was the steps and planning. There were so many steps, and I remember the kickoff meeting was towards the end, and you do so many things before the kickoff meeting. Anytime I get a new project I get that list in front of me and I sort of try to go through those steps. That is very, very efficient.

Yes, it is. It’s the same for risk management. For example, where it gives you a really structured process to go after the risk management piece, the identification, the assessment, the ranking, et cetera, which just structures your process so that you don’t miss anything, and also it’s more natural after a while to do it this way.

I prepared by the way the PRINCE2 certification and I got the basic foundation certification in PRINCE2 a few months ago. I did find there as well some new interesting learning for me, especially in the project governance and the change management area where PRINCE2 is probably stronger than PMI. I did find that again very interesting, even though it was at least a dozen years or more after I took the PMP certification.

Yes. Or not, yes. Maybe for the benefit of our audience who are listening, can you maybe tell us a couple of specific things that maybe made you successful? Or maybe a couple things that you thought you needed to do better at?

Well, if we start with the second, things to improve, I definitely learned there when going through the basic principles was around, for example, stakeholders management and the very structured process to actually identify all of the people who will be impacted directly or indirectly by your project, and making sure that you have a plan to address their concerns, address their expectations from the process, keep them informed, keep them motivated, move them from eventually a negative or even simply a passive attitude into more of a proactive and supportive attitude towards your project.

That’s a big area where I was not so strong before I took the trainings, and it has really enlightened my approach when I had taken the learning to see all of the things that I could have done before to ensure the success of my project just from a stakeholders’ engagement standpoint, which I don’t think is something that comes naturally if you haven’t learned how to do it and you don’t have a structured process, you will certainly miss a number of stakeholders. You will probably not understand where they’re coming from and why they’re not so supportive to your project. You will not think so much about how to turn them into supporters, even if initially you would have a tendency to try to avoid them because they are quite negative towards your project.

So that’s, for example, an area where I certainly have improved, thanks to the project management training I followed.

By the way, at the time when I was at NCR taking these classes, we were really taking the PMI and the project management profession very seriously, and the training was extremely heavy. We had one week of training every six weeks until we had covered the nine key knowledge areas of PMI, and only then could we prepare for the exam and pass it. So we were not focused so much on ensuring people would get a certification paper, we were more focused on ensuring that people had the full training that would make them successful project managers.

Which is something I’m not seeing so much today in the people I talk to about training and about their approaches to the certification. A lot of them are just trying to find the quick way, the quick win, doing a 6-day, 8-day type of class, and after that, passing the exam with success. Yes, I agree that this works when the objective is only to have a piece of paper written ‘PMP Certified’ on it. They can succeed this way. But if they really want to improve the maturity of their project managers in their company, I think it’s far from being sufficient. They should go through the full-blown training requirements that really make a PM have a very sound basis.

In PMI Minnesota here in the U.S., they do conduct this PMP prep workshop, and it’s sort of elongated like this. The discussions and what you learn from that is so valuable than just the certification. I do agree.


You’ve been doing project management for a long, long time. You founded the PMI chapter in the France region. What is your view on the future of project management? Where is it going, and how would you articulate what the future looks like?

I think what we see more and more is that we’re expecting project managers to not only run a project, a well-defined project, from A to Z, respecting the famous triple constraints of time, contents, and budget, but go beyond that. That’s just the basics of project management, to deliver the triple constraint. What really we want project managers to do is to ensure that the change aspect is taken into account, that the benefits expected from the project will be realized and that the company will have the real benefits of implementing this project.

So I think we’re asking project managers to move from pure managing of a project to managing plus leading a project, leading the change in the company, ensuring everybody adopts the new processes, the new product, the new deliverables, whatever they can be, and that the company really reaps the benefits from having initiated this project and implementing the project.

I see project managers becoming more and more accountable for the overall project bottom line, like the P&L of a project, rather than “simply” the triple – I say simply between quotes because it’s not so simple – but “simply” delivering a project on time, on spec, and on budget. I think that’s where really the profession is now evolving, that we’re being more and more demanding towards project managers.

You as a project manager, if you talk about the benefits of a project, usually what I have seen is those benefits are realized in some functional organization or domain, which after the project gets over or completed, you have very little control over monitoring. And most of the time, the benefits are procured maybe on a time like this, after the completion of the project. So are you saying that project managers need to be sort of be engaged until the benefits are realized? I’m just trying to clarify what you mean by benefits, and when you say a project manager needs to be concerned about benefits.

Sure. Yeah, obviously, the project manager, when the project is over and is fully implemented and the change is realized, has to move on to his next project. But he or she should not do that without having put the mechanisms in place that will allow the company to measure these benefits over time. And I think actually it would be a good idea to call the project manager back a few months later, or whatever time frame is expected to actually measure the actual benefits for the company, come back and show us, with the mechanisms that you’ve put in place to collect the benefits, that indeed the project did bring the expected outcome.

Because too often, on the other side, it’s quite easy to do a business case that looks fantastic for a project and get the project funded and approved and spend the money, and eventually deliver on time and on budget. But the benefits side very often gets forgotten very quickly, and that’s not what the project is for. The project is really here to allow the company to achieve these benefits.

Now I’m getting what you’re saying. Like for example, put a mechanism in place, maybe for customers, I want to, because of this system, you’re going to reduce your time from 40 minutes to 15 minutes, something like that that you can go in and sort of measure sometime later.

Absolutely. Or if one of the benefits expected from your project is an increased customer satisfaction, then you need to have put the mechanisms in place that measure it Today and eventually Yesterday what this customer satisfaction was and will continue to measure it over time, so that it will be possible to see whether your project significantly impacted the trend.

Yes. I get it now.

That could be a simple customer survey, by the way, in that situation. Something that’s not discussable, that you can run and everybody can see the results.

I see that you blog – You know, I took French for about three years, very basic, but I cannot speak French. Your blog is in French, and some of it is in English, I was going through it. What made you start to blog?

In fact, it was a demand we had on our chapter of PMI in the South of France. People wanted to be able to exchange more information, exchange good practices, et cetera. We were struggling to respond to this demand for quite a long time. We tried to create forums. We have, by the way, some that are still running, a  Viadeo groupand also a LinkedIn group (PMI France-Sud) that are quite active.

But, I was always feeling a bit restrained with these mechanisms for communication, because very often there are very few people who actually contribute to such forums, and it’s always the same people who express themselves. Also, in these media, the medium itself that we were using, the tool to actually publish the articles, were not so fancy, not very pleasant to read the published articles in the end. We had a lot of demands from our members for more communication in French, because of course they can find these articles in English, but they don’t want to make the effort to have to read a lot of English articles to find out which one is actually a good one as it requires quite an effort for them to translate and understand what’s meant by the other person in the English language.

So, it was clear for me that there would be value-add in having a blog in French about project management that all PMs in France, or speaking French, because there are a lot of people following my blog who are not French.

PMs who are actually from North Africa, from Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, a few of the Asian countries that speak French. Actually, there are quite a lot of countries with French speakers. They find it pleasant, according to the feedback I am getting from them, to get a good selection of articles that are in French and that they can read just for the pleasure of reading and learning something new in their own language.

That is really a good service. And I see that, am I right that you post about 500 posts a year?

Yeah, close to it. It’s usually one to two per day. But this accounts also for all of the announcements of events about project management. People are really looking forward also to a centralized place where they can find a sort of an agenda for the project manager, all of the events that happen around project management. So there aren’t going to be 500 articles with content in there, but at least 5 a week, so that’s about 250 a year that are real articles with content.

 But even that, that’s a lot of work. Do you do it alone, or do you have a team that does it with you?

No, no. For the time being, I do it alone.

That’s a lot of work.

It’s my little hobby, yeah.

Talking about hobbies, what are your other hobbies and interests? I believe travel was one of them.

Yeah, I love travel. I like running as well. I run at least 2-3 times a week. I’ve picked up again swimming. I had stopped that, but I started now swimming. I like mountain biking, skiing in wintertime, reading. And of course taking care of my family, even though my daughters are now much older, so they do not need/want as much attention as they did when they were young kids.

You also mentioned travel, what’s the most memorable travel trip that you’ve taken?

I think it depends on the type of travel. In the travel for pleasure ones, I really enjoyed a tour we did with my wife and kids in the U.S. that was around the Four Corners area, and then we did also Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Napa Valley. That was really a great trip for about three weeks, touring around all of the parks at the Four Corners area, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon et cetera. It was really gorgeous. In terms of business trips, probably the most exotic one was Japan, where I went a few times.

One week, we had one free week-end and we took the bullet train to Kyoto, we went from Tokyo to Kyoto. Kyoto is a very nice and old Japanese city that has not been hurt too much during the war, so it still has a lot of old housing, and it was quite amazing for us. We were two European guys, one from the Netherlands and I from France, and we were probably the only two white people we saw for the entire week-end in the city. So it was very, very interesting. Very different.

Yeah. My son is five years old and he is fascinated with the bullet train, and maybe someday I’ll take him.

It’s very nice. It’s a nice country, and the people are extremely nice in Japan.

Great. Thank you for your time.

Thanks. Bye-bye.


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1 Response to Don’t just run a well defined project from A to Z. Make sure the company reaps the benefits of your work – says Michel Operto – project leader from France.

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