Mike Clayton is a project management expert, facilitator and advisor, with a background in integrating complex change in major national and multi-national organizations. He has worked as a Senior Manager at Deloitte for 8 years, where he was involved in the delivery of complex change for clients like British Gas, General Motors, Scottish Electricity Settlements and Railtrack. He is also the CEO and founder of OnlinePMCourses, a program that offers high quality video-based Project Management training.
As a professional speaker, he specializes in influence, organizational change, project management and getting things done. He is an opinion columnist for APM’s Project Magazine and a best-selling author, who has written fourteen print books, including How to Speak so People Listen, The Yes/No Book, How to Manage a Great Project, and The Influence Agenda.
PMTips: Today we are doing an interview with Mike Clayton, who is a project management expert, best-selling author, trainer, adviser and keynote speaker.
Mike, welcome and thank you for doing this interview. We are honored to have you with us today.
Mike Clayton: It's pleasure to be here. I'm looking forward to the interview.
PMTips: I am interested to know how your career started and developed over the years. How did you come to pursue writing and become a well-renowned speaker and trainer that specializes in a number of fields?
Mike Clayton: Well, I guess my career has evolved – I started out expecting an academic career and then I realized that wasn't for me. I was in consulting for about 10-12 years all the way through the 90s and into the 2000s working with Deloitte in their London office leading major projects for our clients. So, that's what got me into project management. But when that career was kind of coming to the point where it was no longer what I wanted, I decided to set up as an independent trainer because I so much enjoyed doing training whilst at Deloitte, training our new consultants, both in project management and in general skills. So, I took on a training career, built my own business throughout the first decade, and around about 2008 things were very busy for me.
I had a lot on, but also my daughter was born in 2008 and I wanted to actually be spending less time out on the road and away from home, and I had the opportunity to start writing. I managed to get a publisher interested in a book, so I started writing in 2008 and found I really enjoyed it. So, that was a large part of my work for the next five, six years or so. And then like many people in training I started looking at converting some of my training into videos, which is a nice kind of crossover between sitting down quietly and writing stuff in my own office and going out and training the staff – I could write the training and deliver it, and craft that into courses. So, it's been an evolution, and I look at my work life as having those kind of four phases of consulting, training, writing and online, but I've never really left any of them completely behind. I've just changed the emphasis and where the balance lies, so today I would say about half of my work life is devoted to, maybe more, to the online and most of the rest to training, but I still write and I still do a little bit of consulting with one or two clients
PMTips: As a Project and Program Manager, you have been involved in the delivery of complex change for a number of large companies. In terms of implementing complex changes within large organizations, are there sure ways that guarantee a positive outcome?
Mike Clayton: If I could tell you what the sure ways were, then I could be a very rich person. There's so many organizations that are implementing large and complex changes and they're not all succeeding - we know that. I think some of the figures that are banded around overemphasize the mistakes and overemphasize the number of failures, because in truth I think a lot of these projects are neither complete failures, nor complete successes. And it's almost a political decision as to how you label them. But I think there are some keys that can do a lot to increasing the certainty around delivery. And I think given that, you know, these days we've got a far more sophisticated understanding of project management, even than when I started, which is you know about 30 years ago.
But, I think the one thing the one constant, the one absolute constant, if I were going to pick out one thing that’s really important, is good stakeholder engagement, because it's your stakeholders who define whether your project is a success or not, or your program, or your portfolio programs even. The stakeholders are the ones who decide whether you've been successful because of that kind of political dimension. And also because if the stakeholders don't engage with whatever it is you're delivering, whether it's a new building or a new process or some new technology, and it doesn't matter if the building matches its specification perfectly – it doesn't matter whether the process works, if your stakeholders aren't using the process properly and engaged with it. If they're not using the building the way it was designed to be built, then it's a failure. So, you've got to engage positively with your stakeholders right from the specification and design stages all the way through to delivery and beyond.
Apart from stakeholders, I'd say you're then into the territory which I think is really key for a project manager and a program manager – is to really understand the nature of this project and to understand how this project is different from other projects and what makes each project special. And I always talk about [how] each project has one or two levers, one or two particular parts of the project toolset, skillset that are going to give you the greatest leverage in succeeding with a project. So, I had one project back in in 2000 where it was very clear to me that my people knew exactly what they were doing. The plan was robust, it had been rigorously developed, we had good morale, we had a lot of the things that any project manager would crave. And it struck me [that] the only thing that would stop us succeeding were some pretty large risks – some of which were not entirely under our control – and so for me the one lever for that project was risk management. And so I put about 50% of my time in managing that project, into actively working the risk register day after day after day.
And I think that's what you have to do – you have to say “What is the one lever or what are the one or two levers that are going to be important?” and it's not always going to be risk management, it could be progress monitoring, it could be team morale, but whatever it is if you are a sharp project manager and you can figure out what that thing is and you give it the attention it deserves, rather than try and spread your attention equally across all the domains, then I think you give yourself the biggest chance of success.
PMTips: You are the CEO and founder of OnlinePMCourses, a program that offers practical and engaging Project Management training. What was the inspiration and intention behind the creation of such a program?
Mike Clayton: I think there’re probably a number of reasons why I wanted to build OnlinePMCourses. But I suppose that the main one was that I wanted to get my training out to more people. And whilst I do training that isn't project management and have done for many years, and I built some video courses for a range of different training topics, I think it's my wife who said “Well, look, project management's what people know you for. It's what you really live for. It's what you do really well.” So, I moved from doing small classroom training, [with] 12-15 people to doing large seminars with fifty to a hundred to two hundred people, and conference events, and I thought well, actually I hardly ever deliver training outside of the UK, you know a handful of times, and I thought well, there's a whole world out there of people. And I've crafted a way of talking about projects and helping people to understand project management from a standing start.
So, I wanted to get it out in front of more people, but at the same time, as with the books, I wanted to be able to make my working life more compatible with my family life, because when you are an active project manager, or when you are an active trainer, then you are going to be needing to be with your clients on the project, or going out and visiting clients and delivering training. And that means being away from home, and I had the opportunity to find a good business opportunity that worked well with my family and personal aspirations as well.
PMTips: How can self-development resources, like those offered at OnlinePMCourses, be of help to project managers? What kind of value do they bring? What is their effect on the development of one’s career?
Mike Clayton: Well, I think we have to start with what is a project manager and I think fundamentally anyone who aspires to a project management career and takes that seriously is also aspiring to be a professional. And professionalism means constantly being able to deliver the best service to your clients, and to create the best results on their behalf. And for that we need to keep learning throughout our career. I think the difference – well, I actually I don't suppose there are very many jobs nowadays where your job is static and it's going to stay the same year after year. But, for us project managers there's always more we can learn, and as we move through our careers, taking on new projects, taking on newer and perhaps bigger responsibilities, we have to keep learning.
And, so at OnlinePMCourses I worked hard to create some core courses right from the start, because I know that new beginner project managers who are going to be my first audience, they would want to focus hard on core technical project management skills: How do I craft a project definition?; How do I plan my project?; How do I monitor and control the project during delivery?; How do I manage risk? So, I built those, but I also think it's vital to get the breadth, as well as the depth, because if as a project manager you are prepared to learn across lots of different areas of thinking, then not only does that give you options in your career –and I know someone who, you know, passionately believes that where you set out to go may not be where is right for you to end up. For many years as a project manager I wanted to do more and more, bigger and bigger projects. At some point in my life I realized actually that isn't what was going to suit me, so by learning we have options. But, also if you are a project manager and you are delivering a big complex project in particular, then the wider your knowledge, the broader your base of understanding of business, of leadership, of human psychology, of communication, of personal effectiveness, then the wider your perspective will be and therefore the more effective you'll be as a project manager and that's what OnlinePMCourses is all about.
PMTips: You also work as a business advisor, provide coaching, and counsel for a small, selected group of clients to help them be more effective in their senior leadership and management roles. Is there a particular success story that makes you feel proud of being an influencer and a source of knowledge and skills applied toward its execution?
Mike Clayton: That's a tricky question, because there are many times when I've worked with clients and created changes that I've been particularly proud of. And, I think, thinking in terms of where you're coming from, you know, the idea of PMTips and what's relevant to your readership – I think for me the most impressive or almost pleasing work has always been the basic project management skills training that I've delivered to people who some of whom are setting out to build a project management career, and they want that first set of information, that first set of knowledge, so they can start building a case, to be given that opportunity to manage and lead their first project. But, also a lot of the people who come on my courses, and a lot of the people who buy online PM courses – their aspiration isn't to be project managers. Their aspiration is to be effective managers, but the reality is that many of us in the world of work these days have to manage projects as part of our responsibilities.
So, it's all those many, many project management training courses that I've run, and one that comes to mind was a client who came to me and said “I've got a community about a hundred and fifty people who serve their clients and run their businesses and need to serve their clients better, and we think that project management skills will allow us to do that, allow each person to broaden their skill set and provide a better service.” And we designed up a series of four conference events and a series of communications and webinars to sit between the conferences. The community that I feel I built up amongst those people, and the results that some of them were able to achieve just by thinking about project management skills, I think was remarkable. They gave better client service, their businesses became more profitable. So, I see project management skills as core business skills, very much, as financial skills and managerial skills are. But, I look back over the last 20 years and I mentally can still remember many, many people who have made that transition from wanting to manage projects to managing projects and then onwards to leading large and complex projects themselves, and that I find hugely satisfying.
PMTips: Since 2017 you have been publishing a series of Kindle-exclusive Project Management e-books. Can you tell us more about the concept and the purpose of the series? How many books have you published so far and what are the main topics that you explore in these books?
Mike Clayton: Well luckily, each time I publish one I add it to a list, so I can tell you that the last one I published about a week or so ago is number 17. So, that's how I published in that series. The idea behind the Kindle exclusives is to take a lot of the very popular content that I put onto my website for free and to adapt it and to supplement it, and to take a topic and bring five or six articles on that topic together along with some appendices, and create something that is very easy and portable and convenient for a project manager. So, there are 17 project management topics, broad topics that I've got. So, one of them is about team management, there's a couple about different aspects of leadership, there's one on governance. The idea is to create what I think are important and useful topics for project managers and to give a really convenient format to take on a chunk of information that is going to be more detailed than they would get in a general project management book, but written for easy, easy consumption and priced at a price which makes it a no-brainer. “I need to know more about project leadership,” – well, for under $3 or for around $3 US, or their local equivalent, you can have 10-15 thousand words of very practical, very easy to action advice and often with some useful appendices to make it even more useful.
PMTips: Your latest book Time Management Pocketbook is a pocketful of tips, techniques and tools for those who want to make effective use of their business time. What is the challenge of “too much” that you explore in this book and what solution do you offer for dealing with it?
Mike Clayton: Okay, so the Time Management Pocketbook is – firstly, I mean it's a book I'm very proud of because it's in a series of pocket books. There's over a hundred of them – I'm very friendly with the editor, she published my very first book and we've stayed in touch, this my third book for her. But, also time management is a topic that I very quickly made my own, and in the UK built up quite a following for people who were not interested in project management but were interested in personal time management. But, for me the main process for managing your time is based on – but I speak about it in very different terms – it's based on how we manage projects. We set a goal, we figure out what we need to do, what are the tasks we need to do to achieve it, we then estimate how long those tasks are going to take and schedule them into our diary, and that's my fundamental approach to time management, as well as the project.
And when you say “What is the challenge of ‘too much’?”, I think the problem is that there are some people who are supremely good at managing their time. They can cram a huge amount of productive working to their day and yet they still feel like they're not getting what they need. And my argument is that we have to realize there that there comes a time when you are genuinely overloaded. There is no way that you can deliver the amount of work that's required of you in the time available to the standard required. And when you run out of time management techniques – and I have very much, I have a toolbox approach to training in general and time management in particular, where I don't say that there is one solution, there is one system to follow and you'll be successful, I say there's lots of different tools, techniques, systems and each person should find the ones that work for them – but even when you found the ones that work for you and you've put them into practice and you've mastered them and they work well for you, there comes a point where you still can't get any more done. And, that's when we need to look to the master technique of time management, which is to recognize that you have sometimes to say no, and the solution to having too much is to reduce the amount of work in front of you and that's by saying no. And, one of my best-selling books is called The Yes/No Book and it's about when to say yes and when to say no and how to say yes gracefully, but also how to say no in a way that doesn't cause people to despise you – it maintains respect. And, so the art of saying no and the craft of saying no is how we respond to the challenge of having ‘too much’.
PMTips: One of the many books you authored, How to Manage a Great Project, is a step-by-step guide on how to plan and execute any project of any size. Is it possible to manage a “great project” from start to finish and always be on time, on budget and on target?
Mike Clayton: Well, I don't know about always being on time, on budget and on target, but I think for many projects – a surprising number of projects – I think yes, it is possible. The key for me is the definition and the planning stages. And I have it – I have a diagram of the project lifecycle which I will draw for people in seminars and in workshops and in training courses. And I always point out that if you look at the way that timeline is divided up, the first two chunks, the definition and the planning stages, take up half of the diagram. The delivery stage takes up most of the other half. But when I get people to think about it they say “Well, sure, I would have expected you allow more time for delivery.” But, my argument is if you take the time to understand what your client, what your stakeholders need, you define the project with precision, and then you plan carefully – then actually the delivery stage is not difficult, it's hard work, but it's not difficult. And therefore, in the book How to Manage a Great Project I divide the process of delivering a project into eight steps, and five of them certainly, arguably six of them, are about defining your project and planning it. And so, it's about preparation – if you prepare well, if you do the groundwork, if you invest the time in listening to your stakeholders and responding to their needs and figuring out how you're going to deploy your resources, then I think you give yourself the best chance of delivering on time and on budget and on target.
PMTips: What would your advice be to all project managers? How can they start making better decisions, become better at time management and use all that to bring significant value to the projects they manage?
Mike Clayton: It's a lot of advice you're asking for – better decisions, better time management and value. I think start with something I've already stated – keep learning and learn broadly, cover as much as you can, just look for good quality articles. I know you, PMTips, produces some really good articles. I certainly work hard to produce a very substantial article once a week of two to three thousand words on a topic. Look at some really good videos, there are some great YouTube channels as well, and again I'm very proud of some of the YouTube videos that I've created about project management. But, go wider – look at general business, general psychology, general communication skills, personal effectiveness skills, look at books, look at videos, courses. Continually learn if you're a member of the PMI or the Association for Project Management, you will be expected to do continuing education and personal development through your career. But even if you're not, you should be doing that. And if you are, don't be limited, don't see the number of hours you need to clock up as some sort of a target – see them as a starting point. Just learn wherever you can, be interested in everything.
And, the second thing I'd say is that your success as a professional [is] not about luck. Luck clearly plays a part – sometimes you get an opportunity that other people haven't got and it makes a difference and sometimes you don't get the opportunity you were hoping for. But primarily, I think your success as a project manager is about hard work. It's about being diligent and doing everything properly and carefully and thoughtfully, and it's about persevering. And if we take that to the example of better decisions – what makes a good decision – it's not being right, because you can't be right all the time. But, it is about following a good process, accessing the best information and using that, to use your best judgment and bringing the best judgement of the people around you. And, so I would say that my main advice is really to act like a professional – and I recently published an article about ethics and codes of conduct in the project management world. I think we do need to think of ourselves as professionals, and I know here in the UK the Association for Project Management, very proudly a couple of years ago, got its Royal Charter as a chartered body for project professionals, and that's how we need to think of ourselves. Not as someone who does a job, but as someone who is committed for a period of time, which may be your whole working life or it may be a part of it, to being the very best project manager we can be.
PMTips: Mike, thank you for giving great advice to our readers and listeners. That was the last question. Thank you once again for being our guest today.
Mike Clayton: It's been a great pleasure, thank you very much for inviting me.
Mike can be found on LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska