PMTips: Here with us today is Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, best-selling author, professor, keynote speaker, award winner and former Chairman of the Project Management Institute.
Antonio, considering you are a global champion of project management and have a formidable background in the industry, with the short time we have today, we will attempt to graze the surface of your achievements and ask about your experiences and then lead the conversation toward you providing the readers of PMTips with your expert advice.
But, first of all, I would like to welcome you and thank you for doing this interview. We are honored to have you with us today.
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Thank you, Ana. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you and share a bit of my knowledge and hopefully the listeners find it interesting. It’s a wonderful opportunity, now people working in projects.
PMTips: Great. It is said that you have transformed project management into one of the central issues on every CEO’s 2030 agenda. Could you tell us what that means for the community of project managers and their future as professionals?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Sure, Ana. I’ve done a lot of research based on a personal experience in which I felt like senior managers were not putting enough attention to project building, project competencies in the organization, training people, certifying people, playing a good role as sponsors - the project management was not a key topic in the agenda of executives, it was always about innovation, growth, strategy, marketing, branding, but projects, that was something for engineers or IT people and usually is not a big topic. My focus over maybe 10-15 years has been to tell these people that actually no, they play a big role, that projects are deliverers of change, and even more now with the importance of change and the need to change of organization, so they realize that yes, actually, projects can make a big difference and to do that I focused most of my career in publishing articles and books and in media which are read by executives, not project managers, but executives, like Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Thinkers50, Peter Drucker Forum. So, slowly but surely there is quite a lot of attention today on the world of projects by the executives. That’s what I mean.
PMTips: OK, wonderful. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, you introduced the “hierarchy of purpose”, a framework that executive teams can use to better prioritize strategic initiatives and projects. Could you elaborate further on how the application of this framework is beneficial to executives?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Yeah, sure. I’ve been working with executives on prioritization for, I think, 18 years now. I set up a project management office and portfolio management, and I realized that, when I started on this, most of the ideas and frameworks were making a lot of sense on paper - that you would prioritize your 150 projects based on criteria and weights, but actually it was not very practical, reality is much more complex. So, I came up with a framework, which is the “hierarchy of purpose”, which signifies that it is a process. One of the key enablers in prioritization is the purpose of that project and how does it fit the purpose of the organization. By simplifying the constants, by focusing on purpose rather than business cases - we all know that business cases, most of them look very good, I’ve never seen a bad business case, they all look good - but then how can you choose a project based on a business case? The purpose is much stronger, not just for the project, but for the engagement of the organization. That’s why I used purpose as a prioritization tool, and everybody can read the article in Harvard Business Review and get a bit deeper into the framework.
PMTips: You have said: “Every time an organization stops a priority, the organization becomes more focused. Every terminated priority is an opportunity to learn and do better next time.” In terms of changing priorities, how difficult is it for managers to make these tough decisions and adjust to the changes that come as an after effect? In the end, how does prioritization affect the overall success?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: I think that’s a key issue and a key strategic tool. Prioritization is something that I came across doing my job, I didn’t realize that when we talk about PMOs, you would think more about building capabilities, methodologies, trainings, but actually one my biggest task was to help the executives to prioritize, and second, to decide which projects to follow. And it wasn’t an easy exercise because you have to let things go, you cannot do everything. But, it’s hard to make choices and what I realized is that the more focused the conversation was on one or few priorities, for example the customer service as priority number one, the rest follows. Or we want to get a customer-centered organization like Amazon, then everything is prioritized based on that. It helps to grow the company because everybody knew what was the priority number one. So, it’s been hard to say “I’m going to care about the customers, and not so much about other things,” but it does cause a big impact in the organization - everybody knows, when they need to make a choice in their day-to-day job, that the customer is number one priority. There’s another example, which is very famous in Europe, it’s a low-cost airline called Ryanair. And Ryanair, their priority is the cost of each seat, not the customer, which is a bit unusual for airlines because the customer was very important, but Ryanair said “No, I don’t care about the customer, I’m not going to treat the customers well, I’m not going to spend any money on them, I’m just going to care about efficiency. I want people to come to our airline if they want to fly on time and they want to fly cheap.” And they’re very, very successful, and there’s just one priority which is a key one.
PMTips: Leaders sometimes make the wrong decisions by prioritizing the wrong thing and sometimes they do not clearly signal their intent about what matters. In reality, how important is it for managers to communicate clear priorities to their employees?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Well, it’s maybe one of their top-three tasks, I think, for a leader or a manager is their communication piece. And, I think, often they underestimate the effort it takes to keep everybody in line, to keep everybody on track, on progress, on goals, on challenges, so I think it’s a bit like a coach. When you watch sports you see the coaches on the benches, in basketball or in football, and they’re always talking to their teams, always talking and talking, and things that they’ve done before, but they keep communicating, so I think for a leader today communication should be one of the key priorities. They should be spending time, and it’s not just talking, but it’s about listening, asking the right questions to help people develop and help them achieve what they need to achieve in their tasks. So, yes, absolutely a key priority, especially in projects where you don’t see the team every day, in projects where you meet just once a week, you will impact the stakeholders which are not present. If communication is important in the day-to-day job, it is even more important in the virtual world, in a project-based world, it’s super important.
PMTips: Since you are the co-founder of the global movement The Brightline Initiative, could you tell us what was the main idea behind the creation of this movement? What is its main purpose?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Yeah, there’s two big purposes to Brightline. It was a venture, a project launched by the Project Management Institute when I was the chairman of PMI. And the purpose was two-fold. First, we wanted to connect to the senior executives, we wanted them to understand the value of projects. And we thought that by connecting strategy execution and projects, the attention would be bigger, that people would understand better the connection that we tried to make: one is to session projects at the highest level of the organization, and second we wanted to build a body of knowledge in strategy implementation - there’s not much about that. And we did see a lot of failure rates, when companies tried to implement their strategic projects, their strategies, the numbers are shocking, some 30-40% don’t achieve their goals. So, we thought that we could do better, help organizations, governments and individuals with their projects, and that’s the second goal of this initiative.
PMTips: In what way does the Brightline Initiative help organizations improve their ability to deliver on strategic intent? More specifically, what kind of benefits does this initiative offer those that are responsible for strategy implementation within organizations?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: I think there’s a lot of resources in Brightline which are available for free: thinking, ideas, articles, best practices. There’s resources that have been built and developed for individuals to want to learn and how to use those techniques and best practices for their own sake. That’s how Brightline is helping the community. There’s a consortium which is formed with operations, universities, consulting companies, who are providing this knowledge for free. I would just recommend people to visit the site brightline.org and they will find there a lot of good practices, resources, and some principles to apply when looking at strategy.
PMTips: You are the author of the best-selling book The Focused Organization. In this book you introduce a new way of looking at a company through the two very different and often conflicting dimensions, running-the-business and changing-the-business. How challenging is it for executives to find the right balance between these dimensions and how does it affect the strategy execution and its success?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Well, good question, Ana. I think this is one of the most difficult challenges that organizations are facing and leaders are facing. How to get this work right is very complicated, because there is like priorities for the day-to-day, the business activities you need to perform, you need to sell, you need to meet your commercial targets, you need to report to shareholders and financial analysts if you are in the stock market. The pressure to deliver in the short-term is huge on the executives, but that’s not enough, that will not help the company in the long term. We saw that with Nokia, we saw that with Kodak. The company that works successfully, at one point they forgot to develop and change, count on projects and transform themselves and create new products, so it’s not possible to create a formula and say “Well, 80% of my resources will be on the running on the organization, 20% [on changing it] and that’s the right mix.”. No, there is no right mix formula, but it’s very, very important that executives think about this, and they don’t leave it just by chance, because the inertia of business, of the markets will be always the short term, yeah, and when you are working on a transversal projects, which is trying to change the organization, there will be lot of friction, resources will always be focused first on the business as usual, the operation, time will be very limited to help you with change, so it requires your executives to say “No, this 10-20, the resources will only change the business activities and we’re going to support them, and we’re going to run three projects and they will get all the sponsorship and resources to help us build the future.” So, it’s a cold topic in strategy implementation that I’ve researched about and it requires proactive management to address it and make benefit from it.
PMTips: In your recently published book The Project Revolution: How to Succeed in a Project Driven World you explain how individuals and companies can develop the competencies required to transform and thrive in the new digital and project-driven economy. Is there a formula for the successful delivery of a project or would you say that it is not that easy to achieve absolute success?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: From my own research I strongly believe that there’s a formula to, not 100% guarantee success in projects, but it makes the chances very, very high and the formula - it’s on one slide that I am happy to share with the readers, we can post it as a download or so - but, in one sheet of paper you can look at four big areas in a project. And, if you have that address and proactively [are] taking care and if it’s well managed the chances of success of a project are very, very, very high. And the four areas, just quickly to tell you, are: first is the Why? - why do we do the project. Often people start a project without knowing why, you implement a system, you transform a company to digital, but why, what’s the real purpose. Then, the second big area is the Who? - who’s accountable, who’s sponsoring this project and taking in that part is absolutely a must. Often projects start quickly, no sponsor or with many sponsors and then they cannot support you in the change. Then the third block is about the How, the When and the What? - what are we going to deliver, how are we going to deliver it and by when. This is the more traditional project management, but techniques and project management like risk and scope management, and then you have the soft skills, so that third block is fundamental. And, the fourth and last area which we look at is Where is the project being implemented, how important is the project for the organization, does the organization have competencies and ability to support projects, or we were talking just now about the running-the-business and changing-the-business chapter and whether and how to change the organization or not. It’s a tool which I use a lot and in one view you can tell whether the project will be successful or not.
PMTips: What kind of advice would you give to those managers who are not prone to taking risks when prioritizing is necessary? How can they exit the comfort zone, start minimizing their priority portfolio and focus on fewer priorities?
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Yes, that’s one challenge I see very regularly, because either the culture of the organization is risk-averse - it’s often not the people. I think I find people who are mostly keen to learn, and taking a risk and moving out of your comfort zone is the best way to learn, but the culture of the organization will penalize mistakes, or will penalize too much risk, so I think it’s a question of the individual not being afraid. Of course, there’s risk and risk - you cannot share confidence and information, you cannot, if you’re in the financial sector make big bets with other money. So, the risk that I encourage people to take is to develop new skills, if you don’t like to present in public, try to present in public, if you don’t understand finance, try to go and understand the budget of your project. This is the kind of risk that I encourage, because risk-taking is very rewarding when it succeeds, and if you fail it’s an opportunity to learn. So, do it carefully, but do make risks.
PMTips: Well, that was the last question. Antonio, it was a pleasure to talk to you today. Thank you very much!
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Thank you, Ana! The pleasure was nice and mine. And I look forward to seeing the comments of the people. I’ll be happy to answer them and happy to get in touch if they want, and thank you for the opportunity. I hope we can keep the dialogue.
PMTips: Yes, yes, of course. Thank you very much.
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Thank you, Ana.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska