Nigel Creaser is an author at The Sunday Lunch Project Manager, and a Project and Program Manager with over 20 years of experience leading change for public and private organizations across a vast array sectors and technologies. He is the host of The Sunday Lunch Project Podcast where is conducts in depth interviews with leading project professionals from around the world, working out what makes project managers tick. He has published a number books on Project Management and Amazon Alexa. He has also just launched his first and possibly the only original Project Manager music. When he is not working, writing, interviewing, coding or being a dad and husband, he likes to relax on the Judo mat or run along the canal near his home in North Shropshire.
PMTips: Today we are interviewing Nigel Creaser, a Project Management professional and a Senior Project and Program Manager who has worked in the industry for 20 years. Nigel, we are honored that you accepted our invitation.
Thank you for making the time for this interview with PMTips.
Nigel Creaser: It's a pleasure to be on. Thank you very much for the invite.
PMTips: Considering you have many years of experience in the field of project management, what is your view of the profession? What do you think are the greatest benefits of being a project manager?
Nigel Creaser: It's funny, I would say variety is the first thing kind of pops to mind. With every piece of work you get a subtly different piece of scope, different budget, different team, different stakeholders, so none of them are the same, which is good and bad sometimes. Because sometimes you can feel comfortable with that team, comfortable with your stakeholders and then when you move in something new, it's quite a big difference. The other is that it feels, like I said, [that] change is a constant now and it's increasing in pace. And I was at a conference recently and Randy Black from PMI was talking about the fact that organizations are moving away from the traditional siloed delivery organizations. And because change is happening so much, you've always got projects going on, so that's the great thing about being a project manager – you can change the world.
PMTips: During the last 20 years, you have had the chance to work on a large number of projects across multiple industries and technologies. Can you tell us what kind of challenges you’ve faced in your career and the experiences that shaped you as a project manager?
Nigel Creaser: There's a couple of things that spring to mind. I had a project a few years back where there was a software that the company had bought and was new to the company that I was working for, and we were implementing it for one of our customers. Unfortunately, during the acquisition most of the UK knowledgeable people had gone, we had limited access to our US technical guys – the training had been fairly sparse for the team as well. And the customer had taken – we partially implemented a product, but they had to put something live to meet a key milestone, so they put it live even though processes were taking over 24 hours to run, and then falling over and not delivering what they needed to do. So when I arrived it was a case of get it working and exit the project with the least cost for both sides. The problem was that the dev environments didn't have the same scale of data that was in the live environment, so any of the processes ran in minutes or seconds, but we couldn’t go near the live, it was sacrosanct, they wouldn't let us touch the live environment. It took me several weeks, maybe into months of persisting and working with program management from the customer side to explain what we needed to do. We eventually did get it, and we got some of my really talented technical guys on there who sat looking at a screen and it was like watching something from the Matrix. All this data, showing how the data was flowing through the things and databases and they tweaked them, and the rules, and they got there, and we got it working, and we delivered the project. And the thing was sticking to my guns I think was the key thing there, I persistently tried to persuade our customer that we needed access to the live, which they said was impossible, but we got there. So asking to do the things that you know is the right thing – sometimes it takes time to get that decision.
And the other really was around – I managed a portfolio projects with 100 people in the team. It was my first department large portfolio and the profit wasn't great in that area at the time, and I've been asked to turn it around. And I looked through what's going on, instigated cascade to results of the team and that made sure that the team understood how we were doing from a point of view of profits and costs etc., and what was expected of them to improve that productivity, and that really, really worked. And the guys came to me before that certain point, asking me questions that I thought would have been obvious and they weren't, but once we’d started sharing the profitability with them they realized that their impact had a direct effect on our productivity at the time. Though it wasn't all rosy in that job and I wonder how I cringe when I look back that my approach to managing the team was fairly aloof. Some of the team I built really good relationships with, some I didn't really know. When I kind of look back now and think I really should have invested more in knowing every person in that team and understanding how they fitted in better, because I think I could have been a better manager if I’d done that.
PMTips: You have helped diverse organizations across the United Kingdom with directing change, one example being the successful delivering of change valued at over £20 million. How do you bring change in an organization?
Nigel Creaser: I think, again, it's similar to the other one – it's around that communication element. I think working with the stakeholders, understanding that end business, making sure that everyone knows what your goals and aims are. I think everyone dislikes change, and therefore if you dislike change you aren't necessarily going to embrace it, but even if an individual is corporately minded or socially minded, there's still going to be a resistance, because deep down we like a norm to happen. So I think, again, it is all about communications, having a good understanding of what is being delivered for the project, what the benefit of the organization is from that project, because as an individual, and connecting that to you as an individual, so all of that, being able to promote the fact that what the benefit of that is. I did some desktop rollouts where there was actual physical hardware. One of the benefits of that was being able to take knowledge from individuals. A comment from one person was that by changing a device, type of device they were using, they weren't carrying as much paperwork around. By not carrying as much paperwork around, that paperwork they did use to carry around was really sensitive and that meant it was more secure, it meant less stuff carrying around, they had it more organized. And taking those stories from people and playing them back to the people who have other people who are about to have the change imposed upon them, I think is key. Making sure that what's in it for me is huge, I think.
PMTips: In situations when a project influences an organization and a change to the structure is required in order to implement a certain system, who do you believe should be managing the organizational change? Can it be expected of a project or a program manager to have the necessary competencies or should a change manager be entirely responsible for it?
Nigel Creaser: I've seen the role of the change manager and program manager generally used as two different roles. Many organizations I've been in you will have the IT-led change, but I think there's a benefit of having that blurred, because if you do have those two split and reporting up into the sponsor, that puts a large burden on the sponsor then to be much more engaged. Because you've got two sets of changes going on, one for your IT, one for your business change, and someone needs to be accountable for both of that for it to make it a success, because you can put in, say an IT system, you can put in whatever processes you're putting in, or tools you're putting in – the only success is the adoption of those tools, the adoption of the IT system and the leverage of the IT system going forwards. So whilst it makes it a much bigger piece of work, I think it's beneficial for that blurred accountability. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'd have the project, the same person doing all of the business change, planning business to change thinking. But actually having that one point of accountability so you can report all of that up into the sponsor is good, because sometimes the business change and the technical change, if you like, can conflict sometimes, and you don't want that. But those two, you've got to be hand in glove with those two groups of people.
PMTips: How do you instill confidence within people who are expected to absorb and implement change initiatives and how do you convince them that the changes will successfully persist?
Nigel Creaser: I think that's hard. I think all boils down to communication. As I said, I've mainly been involved in IT changes, but where some of those changes I’ve done, they've influenced the way that people work in their business. And what I said earlier, about the person being able to change by taking their device around with them. I think in a lot of organizations we got the fly-by-night initiatives where everyone gets really fired up for six months, it's really important – this is the most thing they’re doing. And either this key sponsor goes or the promises of what it was going to do drift away, and then people either stop using it or stop thinking about how they can use it more and the next initiative comes along. And it just, it's that follow-ups, you've got to keep an understanding of how you’re going to put that change in, what benefits it's going to do, when you're going to get those benefits out of the organization. And I think that Benefits Management tends to be around ‘Right, what's our money? What's our bang for the buck for it?’ Which some of the benefits, those more ethereal kind of benefits, are harder to measure. But you need to plan to do those and be able to look at it and step in and go okay, so this is how we're using this tool, this is the bare minimum of how we want people to use it and leverage it, and then here's the next level. And people aren't always going to embrace technology. I've done a lot of desktop stuff, and the spectrum of people using desktop capabilities is massive, from the devices where you can handwrite on them, you can voice record onto, to just people who just use them to do their email. It's part of the organization culture as well, to get that consistent behavior of gaining the trust of the individuals, to know that this isn't just part of another change that's not going to be followed up, that’s not going to be supported – and it comes from the top, it comes from the sponsors who make sure that they're engaged and they're consistently empowered to drive through these initiatives to their completion. And if that person is not interested and it all swaps on to the next big initiative that's there, the project may deliver what’s in scope, but the change will fail. I think it's driven from that top-down, from the sponsor and the culture of the organization. Having said that, you can have a fantastic sponsor, you can have a fantastic project, even a fantastic product, but if the culture of the organization isn't one that is embracing this particular change, it's very difficult to make an organization change its culture.
PMTips: The two major obstacles to change are change overload and change fatigue. In your experience, what are the most common warning signs of them occurring and how does one recognize the signs of their presence?
Nigel Creaser: From a personal point of view, I've experienced this and I've seen it where our organization’s changed the major contracts with customers, we've had equipment changing, people leaving. And I found there's a period of a couple years where there was an immense amount of change overload and fatigue as you say. And personally, I kind of went through those – that is called a Kübler-Ross model, where you've initially got the shock of some of these changes, the denial, often frustration and anger. We all go through those change processes of bargaining, through to depression and acceptance of them eventually. And I think in a leader in organizations, whether you're at the top of the organization or part of the team leading the organization, you have to support people, you have to talk to people and you have to listen to people, and that has to be done by everyone, and by listening to people you will get messages from your team. It might be really subtle, but you'll get messages from your team saying ‘I'm not comfortable, I'm struggling with this level of change,’ and then you address the difficulty. I went through, where we had some training, where we had some redundancies at that one company. And we had some training on that change, and about the fact that we were told how to deal with it and talk to people. It’s communication, and in periods of mass change lots of communication is what we need to do.
But I think the other point these days is that, as I said before, change is something that is becoming a constant, not an unusual. And in project economy most organizations are kind of structured from the ground up as a set of projects that deliver a set of services. And everything in our normal day-to-day life changes that often as well, even to the point of change in TV channels. Netflix has become available on Sky and it's kind of like ‘Well, when did that happen? Alright, that's change,’ and talking to the family and they were, ‘We need to use this to be able to watch Netflix,’ and then, ‘Oh no, we don't need to. Now we got it on Sky,’ and just the little things like that. We’re all getting change all the time, and I think it is about talking, listening and paying attention.
PMTips: How important is it for project managers to regularly check in with team members to see if any obstacles could stop them from meeting the assigned deadline? Being a project manager yourself, how do you set goals for your team, but also how do you track these goals?
Nigel Creaser: So there's a difficult balance on this. I think it's around not sitting on your team's shoulders, I think it's about setting boundaries, so I think those boundaries need to be agreed and clear with your team. And where they are not able to make the dates that they've committed to, or that you're pushing them for, they need to feel comfortable to come to you and say ‘Actually, I'm not going to meet this deadline, okay?’ and you work with them to do it. What you can't be doing is going every day and saying ‘How’re you doing? How you’re doing? How you’re doing?’ But again, with the task management processes that we have these days and the different changes in techniques, where you have things such as the Agile and Kanban things, well there is a daily check, but it's self-managing in there. So I think it depends on the relationship, the frequency of the work that you've got going on, and the individuals, because some team members like the autonomy and they are comfortable being left alone and they will deliver when they say they're going to deliver. Others need that help. It isn't one-size-fits-all, and setting goals is more about agreeing goals rather than me setting them, so talking to the team and asking them when are they going to complete it, are they sure they're going to complete that, and if they are and they commit to it, that's good.
Then the next part of it is feedback, it's a feedback loop, because someone missing a deadline, the impact of that, of them missing that deadline needs to be made clear. So regular communication with your team around when you miss this deadline that means that this piece of work over here is not able to be completed. So I think that is the key thing there, is feeding back constantly, feeding back rather than constantly checking, making sure it's clear what the impact of someone [having] missed the deadline is.
PMTips: As a Program Manager you have been responsible for the successful concurrent delivery of a group of projects for large public organizations with well over 50 000 seats. Can you tell us how challenging it is to work on the high profile organizations’ projects or generally projects that are exposed to public scrutiny?
Nigel Creaser: I'd say scale is the main challenge, in a positive and a negative manner. So when you have an organization that is big, you've got a vast interconnectivity, you've got a lot of stakeholders and you've got a lot – the pace of change can be slow, because there are a lot of people to get and other things to consider, I suppose, really. But to come to that because you can have an organization that has resources and has the right level of sponsorship, you can get some quite difficult things completed quickly, so it's where the bigger the organization is the more pressure you can get, and when a decision’s made you get it done. But I think the other thing is you do get used to the scale after a while, and you get used to the pace sometimes as well, which again is not good, and you kind of catch yourself thinking, well, that's a big number, or say stating a big number, or a cash value, or a number of seats, or devices, or whatever and then suddenly think, well, actually that's huge.
And on the scrutiny side of it, I think, the other thing you have to remember [is that] the bigger the organizations are, the bigger impact a small change or small delay can be. So if you've got 60,000 users, for example, then you say 15 minutes, say of each week of their work is affected by a specific project outcome, well that suddenly becomes 15,000 hours a week and then 780 thousand hours a year, and then 520 people a year, and that's 7.5 hours a day, 200 days a year. And so a 15 minute interruption of someone to be able to do their job can have a massive leverage across an organization.
I think on public scrutiny, I think all organizations – now we've got that public scrutiny – the advent of GDPR, the fines that are out there now. If you are an organization even of a reasonable size, you are subject to accountability for your actions much more visibly, certainly within the IT industry, than I've ever seen.
PMTips: Managing a single project can be quite challenging, but there are times when project managers are called upon to manage several projects at once, which is when the real challenge comes to the fore. How can managers approach such a situation and successfully manage their own portfolio of projects?
Nigel Creaser: The fundamental thing for me on this is understanding relative business priority. For me, we're not there to deliver projects, we're there to deliver benefits for the organization that we're doing projects for. So if you have three or four pieces of work that you're delivering as a project manager, knowing how they fit into the strategy overall in your organization and how they have an impact on your end-users, how they have an impact on your customers is key, because that will allow you to say well, I have email here from this part of the organization delivering this project, I have a phone call coming in from this one, I have text message from this one, I have a Skype message from this one, okay, which do I deal with first, and using the relative business priority is good. Obviously, you've got a play-in urgency in this, political elements of that as well within an organization. And you may have situations where you'll have two projects and two stakeholders, they're conflicting and they're not affecting the delivery of value, and they just want attention because it's their own agenda. And that's unavoidable as part of life really. And as a project manager you need to be able to go and negotiate with the relevant stakeholders and relevant people expecting stuff, and say look, we've got four pieces of work I've got to deliver here, this one is going to deliver the organization the highest value, I'm not going to be able to do that for you and there's going to be a delay, but I'll get back to you on it. And that may damage that relationship. It may not, but it may damage that relationship a little bit, and then you'll have to go back and rebuild that relationship. But that's kind of where we're in that position, where it's not easy to be a project manager sometimes, and we just have to take those hard decisions and deal with the consequences of those hard decisions afterwards if we're going to deliver the value for our organizations.
PMTips: Even companies that are not inclined to applying change initiatives sometimes realize that some level of change is inevitable. What is the best advice you can give to change managers that must direct change within a company for the very first time?
Nigel Creaser: I think all organizations are undergoing change and they may not think of them in a structured sort of manner or the way that we do as project management professionals. But fundamentally it's a simple question, really, I think, with project management, is who does what, by when and in what order, and they're fairly straightforward when you boil it down to that. Now, there's a massive amount of support on the nuances of those things, how to do those, about how to avoid risks, etc. But the level of governance change that you need to apply is dependent on that organization, and if you're a PM or a change person trying to go in there, trying to maybe convince why you need to have structure, I personally think the best way to demonstrate that is use those tools, use those templates as part of your team, and whatever tooling you use to get that change made, and demonstrate that when you've done that change it has been done in a better way than other pieces of work that aren't following those tools and techniques.
But again, it just boils down to who does what, by when and in what order. I was reading a book a couple months ago now, [by] a guy called Colin Ellis – a project book – and he talks about, in his summary of project management, that what you need is a balance between leadership method and culture. And you can walk into an organization, have no tooling at all, but if you've got incredible leadership, and you've got incredible culture that is embracing and wanting to do the right thing. Actually that method isn't necessarily going to help, it might stifle it. And on the flip side you can have the best methods in the world, but if the leadership or the cultures of the organization are against you, doesn't matter what methods you bring in there, they're not going to work. And it all boils down to understanding your organization, being able to have that conversation, and being able to explain the benefits of why putting in some structure, recognize it as a change initiative, not as a BAU [business as usual], doing some different approaches to what that organization may have done previously. So again, it's boiling down to that communication with it, again, it's about talking, it's about understanding what the business needs and wants.
PMTips: Nigel, thank you for joining us today, for providing advice, and for sharing your professional experiences with our readers and listeners.
Nigel Creaser: It was my pleasure. It was an absolutely wonderful conversation.
Nigel can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can also check his YouTube channel, listen to his podcasts, find more about his books, his music and Alexa skills. Nigel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.