On the 20th of May at the InQbet campus, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez will present a masterclass on how project managers can drive change by altering their approach to project management. Workero had the privilege of interviewing Antonio before the event to hear his thoughts on project management and how it is changing.
Project Management: an underestimated skill
Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve heard you say in an interview that you quite accidentally came across project management and that you immediately liked it. But there’s a reason that you’re the leading expert on project management. What is it exactly about project management that draws you and that keeps you intrigued?
It's true that many people get into this field accidentally. What I really like is the fact that projects are never the same. I don’t like routine, I get bored very quickly. With projects, every day is different, every day you need to use your brain, your creativity, your soft skills, and your technical skills, all while leading your team through difficult times. And that’s probably one of the most exciting parts for me.
I also like that you’re building something new that will deliver benefits for the organization, for people, and the world. So that’s the second thing: delivering something concrete.
And the third thing that makes me love this profession, is that I found that it wasn’t appreciated enough: it was really considered as something very technical, tactical, and not really considered as something strategic for most organisations. I found that there was a big challenge to convince senior leaders that project management is a great skill and that it's for everyone.
You often tell the story of when you were fired for advocating project management at a consulting company: yet despite this setback, you persisted with your passion for project management. Why is this? Did you realize back then that project management was the future way of doing business?
Yes, already back then it was clear to me that in order to change and to create new things, you need projects. And another challenge that I noticed [that companies would have in the future], is that one project is already very difficult to do. So imagine companies that are doing 200, maybe 400 or 600 projects - and I thought "wow! This is a big mental challenge: how would you manage 600 projects that are running at the same time in one company?" And I found that fascinating to see that first, there wasn’t a lot of work done on that kind of dilemma or topic, and there was hardly any attention paid to it in management theory. So I found and open space or a gap for me to learn, to research, to build my own theories and to ultimately share my theories. So yes, that’s the big reason for why I’ve dedicated more than twenty years to this.
Change and its relationship with innovation and project management
You speak about “change.” You say that companies of the past primarily focused on day-to-day operations and continuous running of the business, but today’s companies are more focused on - or should be more focused on - projects and change. Do you mind telling me what is meant with change or change management? And where does innovation fit into the picture?
In the last - maybe 80 - years, companies have been focussed on efficiency. So, most of the innovations, most of the management concepts were focussing on the question of how to do things faster, cheaper, and with fewer people/more automation. In short, the aim was to increase productivity.
But this took place in a world without globalisation and that was not experiencing constant chance. You could have a strategy or a vision for your business which could state that in seven to nine years, this is where you wanted to go, and you would not change this vision or strategy too much.
But today, you cannot do the same thing for eight or nine years. You would be dead in most of today’s industries. Now, you need to rethink your business model, your products, your services, your partnerships (and so on), every six to twelve months. And that’s what I mean by change: we’re in a world driven by change. So to answer the question, change, for me, is readapting your business. It is constantly rethinking your business model: do you want to do more business online, do you want to do cloud services, do you want to expand, do you want to introduce new technologies, do you want to build new competencies, do you want to make sure everyone in your company works on innovation? That’s what I mean with change and this is the area where I think that organisations are struggling the most. We don’t have the competencies, we’re not organised in such a way as to deal with change, we don’t have strong innovation capabilities, nor strong product management. There’s still a lot to do, because the world won’t slow down, change is here to stay. So every six months, in a company we probably need to hear “we’re changing again”. And I know people are getting a bit tired of this, but we need to admit that it’s the reality.
Change, again! (Maybe that's why chameleons look so sullen)
Project-centred companies are Agile companies
It’s interesting that you point out that project-oriented working is a “silent disruptor” in it’s own right. As a company, if you're not project-focused, you might find yourself obsolete in a few years. Why have projects become so central to the way we work?
Because traditionally, when you were operating in the framework of efficiency (as opposed to change), companies were structured according to hierarchies. You have the CEO at the top of the pyramid, then you have his or her team, which have their teams, and which in turn have their teams. Sometimes you have 15-20 layers. That is a good structure when you’re working on efficiency, which implies that everyone has to be really good at one thing. You must, for example, spend 25 years in marketing or in sales, and that’s how you become good in every step and that makes the whole thing work.
But today, you need to react fast, we need agility, we need to put teams together. And the hierarchical structure is slow. Imagine you’re building a new product, and it has to get out quickly, but you’re still depending on the old structure. Say you have a big decision to make: you cannot wait for three weeks for the matter in question to reach the top of the hierarchy and for someone to make the decision after all that time. You’ve lost three weeks.
The project-based way of working, on the other hand, is a very flat way of working. There’s the project manager, there’s the sponsor (which is also the steering committee), so there’s only two or three levels in this structure. So things are going much faster. If you’re in control and you have fully dedicated resources and a budget, you can go super fast. And the challenge is, how can you move from a hierarchical, disciplined, and bureaucratic organisational culture to a fast-moving, project-based, and multi-innovational (risk-taking) organisational culture.
That’s why I feel we need to move to a project-based approach. Yet, you still need a bit of structure, you still need to be efficient, but that’s just one part of it.
Studies and recent surveys have shown that people want their work to be more meaningful. So, the fact that companies will become more project-based - which implies that people will have more ownership over their work and feel that their work is more meaningful, is good news!
Yeah, people feel empowered: they can actually take decisions, see things happening quicker, and they get to work closely with very knowledgeable people. You get to experience and see some things firsthand that you wouldn’t have if you had worked in a more hierarchically structured company. Previously, you might have seen your boss occasionally, and his/her boss perhaps never. Projects remove the distance between employees, managers, and those in the C-levels: everybody counts, just like in a sports team.
The success rate of projects
Another intriguing thing that you often mention is that Project Managers need to know when to stop a project. Some projects fail, and that’s just part of the process of change. Yet, I’ve also heard you speak about how many projects fail, and how you would rather have a lower failure rate. Do you think we should make more room for failure and assume that a large portion of our projects will fail, or do you think more projects should be a success? Where does the balance lie?
It’s a bit of a philosophical question, because if you’re successful in all your projects, maybe you’re not taking enough risks. And that’s not something you want.
I’m writing a book for Harvard that will be published in October, Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook: How to Launch, Lead, and Sponsor Successful Projects and there I categorise the projects according to Clayton Christensen’s three types of innovation.
Category one is about efficiency: these kinds of projects should be mostly successful (at about a 100%).
Category two is sustainable projects. This includes things like launching a new product, buying a new company, or perhaps implementing a large technology project. The success rate here should be at about 70-80% depending on the project (you don’t want to fail at a digital transformation project, or a SAP implementation, for example).
In category three you have transformative projects. For example, you might be a phone producer, wanting to produce cars in the future; or you might be building websites today and wanting to go to Mars tomorrow. With these kinds of projects, you can expect a five to ten percent success rate. Inherently, it’s about continuously failing and learning from these failures, until you reach success.
It is therefore important for organisations to be clear about what kind of projects they are doing [and thus to know the corresponding acceptable failure rate of these projects]. However, in many organisations these distinctions are still absent and all the projects are grouped together as the same, which has consequences for how transformative a company can be.
Project Management and Strategy Implementation
Next, I would like to talk about your recent shift in focus towards strategy implementation.
You say at the Thinkers50 Europe Event held in Denmark in 2017 that: “Without projects, innovation and ideas are just wishful thinking.”
In companies, do you find that there is often a divide between corporate strategy and the implementation of this strategy?
This divide is a real problem. You find that people who define the organisation’s strategy are completely different from those who need to implement the strategy. I think it should be together. We’re all part of the implementation of a strategy.
Both strategy and planning should come from innovation throughout the organisation. The best ideas come from the people who are closer to the customers and day-to-day problems that they face; not from top management that hardly ever faces the customer, or that does not experience problems first-hand. Innovation is found everywhere. Implementation should be everyone’s job.
Strategy implementation and making difficult decisions
So, as managers and employees, we should continuously bring strategy and implementation together, so that it forms a kind of feedback loop: strategy informing implementation, and implementation informing strategy. Does this mean that strategy should be mostly formed from the ground up? Or is it still okay to have a dedicated group of people within an organisation work on a company’s strategy? (Or to bring in strategy consultants?).
It should be a mix. You definitely need leaders to determine the larger strategies and make the big decisions on where companies will be heading. Strategy, for me, is making difficult decisions: it’s saying yes to some things, and saying no to others. In my research, for example, I found that Apple wanted to create a smartphone at a certain time, but Steve Jobs had to say no at that point in time, because he realized it wasn’t necessarily the right time for Apple to focus on such a challenging product. Instead, he wanted Apple to focus on the iPod and on iTunes, which proved to be a good decision. This doesn’t mean that Apple completely abandoned their work on the smartphone (as we well know). It only meant that they worked on it in the background, did some prototyping and learned from their mistakes, and only when the time was right, paid more attention to this project.
This is something that I often find missing in leaders. Leaders need to make difficult decisions. A great example is Ryanair. Everyone knows that Ryanair doesn’t care about you. They will not give you customer service, say ‘good morning’ nicely, or give you any added niceties. They’ve made it clear that they don’t care about customer service. And this is a very difficult choice for the CEO to have made; to have said: “we don’t care about customers. We care about efficiency. Our goal is to give you a cheap flight that departs and lands on time. And that’s it.”
Ryanair has been successful for many years; there are a lot of people who want cheap flights, and who don’t mind the lack of service. And this success is due to some hard, but clear decisions that were made by Ryanair’s leaders. You cannot expect your employees, or even managers, to make these kinds of difficult decisions. Of course, employees and managers should have control over smaller decisions.
Thus, decisive leadership is still necessary within this feedback loop of strategy and implementation - just as (you have said earlier) strategy is still necessary in companies that are project-based.
Project Managers as Deep Generalists
Seeing that strategy and implementation should be more interconnected, this probably requires that people become more generalist (as opposed to specialists)? For example, in the past, project managers might have received a project, carried it out, and then handed it over to the next department; but today, it is probably required of the project manager to be involved in every step of the project: from its ideation all the way through to thinking about how it adds value?
Exactly. Up until now, the tendency has been for project managers to only see one piece of the whole value-creation process. They have not exactly been responsible for results or for thinking about whether the product will sell or not. I think this has to change and this is why I feel the world needs not just generalists, but deep generalists. Project managers are already generalists, but need to develop more of an entrepreneurship mindset, CEO mindset, sales mindset, and assume an attitude of “this is my project, I am going to fight for its success."
Thus, I think project managers have to learn new skills, but also have to change their mindset from “I’m delivering something” to “I’m taking ownership of this project.” Alibaba is a great example of project managers that have this mindset, and that eventually go on to become CEOs. Alibaba is the company that has produced the most CEOs in the world - about 450 - because of this mindset change.
Is there anything that you would like to add, or that you think is important for companies to know in terms of project management?
I think that everyone is going to be project managers in the future, or at least be doing project-based work. I really want to encourage people to learn: anyone can learn project management. Of course, I would also like organisations to spend more time developing these competencies.
Thank you. We look forward to hearing more about the reinvention of project management and about strategy implementation at the Masterclass on the 20th of May!
- The interview has been lightly edited for brevity. ** If you want to be part of the Workero by P&G's corporate accelerator program, and get access to high quality monthly masterclasses (amongst other things), join us here.