Episode 189: Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, a thought leader in project management
July 22, 2019
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is a thought leader in the area of project management.
Antonio is the author of two books:
The Focused Organization: How Concentrating on a Few Key Initiatives Can Dramatically Improve Strategy Execution
The Project Revolution: How to Succeed in a Project Driven World
He has been awarded the title of Thinker of the Month by Thinkers50, and has presented on the topic of project management at more than 120 conferences around the world.
To learn more about his work, visit https://antonionietorodriguez.com/#!/about
Will: Antonio, welcome to the show.
Antonio: Will, good afternoon. Nice to be here. It’s really a pleasure to be in your show in [inaudible 00:00:07].
Will: Thanks so much. So, Antonio, in your recent book, The Project Revolution, you talk about why we are all project managers now. Why do you say that? Tell me what that means.
Antonio: Will, I think this is not a big surprise. It’s not a big statement, but actually I think we’ve not reflected too much upon that, and what I’m trying to just claim in the evidence is that today careers are project-based.
You move from one job to another, from one company to another, and you do three, four years stunts of projects, so I think what you will see is that there’s an acceleration of that.
: And basically we are carrying projects professionally. We are carrying projects at home, with our families, personally, so, yes, I think we are all project managers.
So although we have not seen ourselves like that, so I’m just claiming that we should look at us as project managers, and we’ll do better.
Will: How would you define project management, and what is a project manager? How is it different than just having a regular job? What is project management?
Antonio: Will, this is a great questions to start with. I’ve seen many descriptions, and I think what you see is that the academic descriptions tend to be very broad and difficult to understand.
I just say, “Project management is a way, a technique to help you translate ideas into reality.” That’s, I think, maybe the simplest way.
You want a dream. You have a passion. You want to do it. You want to organize and change your business. Make a project. Make it happen.
Of course, projects, they have a start and an end, and that will make you focus and make the team focus.
So an idea, into practice, that leads to change and transformation. That’s my own definition.
Will: Now, I know that you are well-known in the space of project management. In fact, you’re selected as one of the Thinkers50 for your work in this space, and you’ve been really working to elevate project management to be considered a much more strategic issue, away from the real nitty-gritty tactical piece, to becoming a strategic issue that CEOs need to concern themselves with.
Will: Tell me a little bit about that transition that you’ve been helping to drive.
Antonio: Sure. And maybe I can tell you a personal story on my career which marked myself, and I know there’s many consultants or ex-consultants listening to your podcast.
Will, I spent 10 years in one of the largest consulting firm in the world, PWC, in Europe, and at one point… and people will recognize that… We keep progressing in these partnerships, and at one point you’re about to become a partner.
To become a partner, you need to have a solid business case. So I was at that level, and my topic to become partner was actually to develop project advisory services because I had been working for 10 years in projects.
I already saw the need. This is about 14 years ago, and I saw the need. I saw how companies were struggling with projects, and I did a lot of research. I read the biggest and [1st Global 00:03:36] research around project, and my business case was to develop this practice, and so I was convinced.
I went to the partners, needed to pitch my idea. It went very well. They could see I knew the topic. They could see that I was passionate. I partied the whole night. I thought I was going to be partner. I invited my friends to drinks. I invited the whole bar to drink.
And then the day after, the managing partner asked me, “Listen, Antonio, we loved your presentation. We can see your passion, but unfortunately, we don’t believe in your idea. We don’t think projects are strategic. We don’t think that we can sell advisory services on projects. It’s too tactical. It’s too down the kitchen. We want to do strategic work, and so you’re fired.”
And I was shocked. I could not believe it.
So that was maybe the trigger for me to first understand why senior executives don’t believe, or didn’t appreciate the value of projects, and second, to try to bridge that gap.
So maybe a long answer to your question, but I think it’s important to tell my story. I was actually fired because they were not really appreciating the value of projects.
Will: So what are some of the questions that CEOs should be asking about how project management is done in their company, and how should senior leadership be involved in project management?
Antonio: Will, I think this is a fundamental questions that actually CEOs were not doing themselves util very recent. I think they’re starting to think about that more and more.
When I talk to some, they’re wondering how many projects they’re running. What’s this world of projects which many of them are out of control and take so much resources and time.
So, yes, they’re starting to question how to organize themselves to deliver projects, and for me this is a first step on that recognition that projects are strategic, and that can drive change and make a big difference in a company.
So I would say that, “First, they’re starting to question which is good. Second, they play a huge role.”
According to my research, and looking at the hundreds of projects as sponsor. We call them sponsor, Will. This is the executive role in a project… Play about 30 to 40% of the success of a project. They are direct link to the sponsor.
So imagine you’re the CEO and you’re sponsoring a project, but you don’t show up. You’re not in the meetings. Especially the important projects, the transversa, that go across your organization, the more transformative digital, [inaudible 00:06:36].
If that sponsor doesn’t show in the meetings. He’s not committed. He doesn’t support and pushes. That project will fail. It’s almost guaranteed, so their role is super crucial. The most engaged sponsors deliver the best projects.
And I can give you an example of sponsors just being in the project almost every day, checking progress. “How can I help? We have an issue there. I’ll help you. I’ll put you in touch.”
So listener if you’re an executive, a key role you’re playing in projects, so make sure you understand, and that you are actively involved, engaged, and pushing the project forward.
Will: What are some other key considerations for the senior team? So definitely, as sponsor, they need to support, remove road blocks from projects, ensure that they’re having progress updates and pushing it forward.
Are there other things that you encourage senior leadership to do, maybe like tracking projects across the organization, figuring out a talent strategy for staffing projects? What are the other things that senior leadership should be keeping in mind?
Antonio: Yeah. I think there’s several. Maybe start with the most important, Will. I think is starting projects, so I think is one of the biggest challenge that I see in organizations is to start the project.
So it is very simple, and it’s very cheap. You say, “Well, I saw the competition doing that. I want to do the same. I call out. I kickoff meeting, and we all have a kickoff next Monday.”
And actually kickoff is probably one of the words most highly used in organizations small and big. Kickoff. Let’s have a kickoff, and everybody’s excited. We love to start things.
So you’ll have the kickoff on Monday, and then the next meeting on the project, half of the people will show up.
So I think executives, leaders play a big role in deciding when to start a project, how to start a project, which project to start, so I’m more and more convinced that to start a project, you need to stop a project.
I tell that to many executives. “Okay. You want to start. Which one do you stop? Tell me. Show me your list. You need to stop. You don’t have the capacity, the attention, the resources to do it. So you’re just going to add more [inaudible] into the organization? No. For each project that you start, stop one.”
So that [inaudible] to start a project is super important. I researched one of them… And not every idea has to become a project straight away. Will, that’s the other thing.
There’s a phase before the project is officially setup where many things can happen. There’s innovation, design thinking, [inaudible] type concepts that can be used.
In fact, one of the best projects I’ve seen when I researched was the Purple Project. Project Purple which is the code name for the first iPhone. The official project in Apple started in 2004, but the idea of having a phone was around 2001.
So they explore with the concept. They did prototypes. They did small partnerships for three years. Once they had the capacity and the priorities right, then they decided to start the project full blown, and that was a huge success.
So, yes, the start of the project is a fundamental role to be successful in the project, and the rest of the projects.
Will: Let’s talk a little bit about your most recent book. So your book came out just May 7th, The Project Revolution, tell us what… Kind of give us an overview of the book, and what led you to write it.
Antonio: The main purpose of the book is simplification of the profession. Will, I’m sure you know projects. You’ve done projects, admittedly you’ve not used all the tools and techniques that are available.
And one of the reasons why we don’t use these tools and techniques is because there’s… very complex. They’re very good, but they’re very complex. The methodologies that are being there from the project management institutes and other associations are… Were developed by engineers for engineers, so if you’re not an engineer, it all sounds very complex.
So my goal was to, using these fundamentals, make them simple for anybody to use. I call it the Project Canvas. It’s based on questions that you need to ask yourself, your teams, your projects, to see how good that project is structured. How good that project is planned, and what are the chances of success.
So that’s The Project Revolution. The big part is simplification, providing a canvas that anybody can use, or kids can use it, or grandparents, anybody at work, outside work will use that.
So that was, hopefully, leading to more successful projects, and a better world, a better society.
So that’s why I wrote it, and that was my purpose, and it’s just announced. So far the feedback has been very positive, and I hope people appreciate the work that goes with it.
Will: Tell us about the Project Canvas. So if I’m looking at a Project Canvas, what’s on the page?
Antonio: Yeah. I can briefly summarize it in six questions. It’s, of course, been more elaborated than that, but if we want to be simple, I just work it on the six questions, and if you answer, “Yes,” to all of them, then that project is… Just has good chances to be successful.
Let me go through the questions, and maybe if you want to comment or reflect too on your site… Will, how you see this.
First is the why, and the why is not the business case. Methodologies in project management will pull you to doing a business case, a financial business case… most of the case… So what’s the cost and what’s the return?
But, let’s be honest, have you ever seen a bad business case, Will?
Will: No. Not when people do it for their own project. Usually, it’s a positive one.
Antonio: They all look great. Yeah. So I think there is good intentions, but, yeah, I think it’s not the sole decision-making.
I think the purpose of a project, the why… and what you see is often… When you talk about projects, people don’t talk about the why. They talk, “We’re buying this company.”
And you say, “Why?”
“Well, because we want to enter that market.”
“But why do we want to enter that market?”
“Because we see huge potential because we can capture 20% of the market.”
That’s when you start looking at the why. So it’s very important that we ask the question, three, four, five, actually seven times on the why.
I recently worked on an article for Forbes on how to use the Project Purpose which is the why tool, to engage and to decide on projects.
So the why’s fundamental. If you don’t have an answer on the why don’t even start the project.
Will: So what would a good answer to why look like? If it’s not saying, “Hey, we can get 50% of this market, or we think it will be profitable.” What would a good answer to the why be?
Antonio: We can go back to the Apple. The why of the iPhone was to transform the telecom market, to make a big disruption on the market, so that was very inspirational.
It was not to sell phones. It was to really transform an industry, and the more inspirational that why, the more attractive you make to people to contribute, to work on that project, to give the extra mile, to create high-performing teams.
So the why doesn’t need to be just financial. Actually, the more inspirational, the better.
Will: Okay. Great. What’s the next question?
Antonio: The next question is who. Again, it might seem very, very simple, but you cannot imagine how often you find projects where it’s not clear who is the sponsor.
And back to your question before is… The sponsor plays a big role. It’s about 40%. There’s cases where the sponsor is fully committed. In my book, there’s one case which I love. This project is in Chile.
I don’t know if you remember, it was in the press, 2010. 33 miners were stuck in the mines in Chile because collapse, and nobody knew if they were alive, but the president of Chile, said, “Yes. We’re going to go and do a project to save them.”
And they sent the minister of mining from the coal country to be on the site for 65 days, doing the work and supporting the team, so that was a highly stressful project, with high commitment from the sponsor.
If you want, there’s another example. I did a research on the healthcare.org website with the Obamacare. And I don’t know if you remember when they went live in October. I think it was 2013. It collapsed. The website collapsed, and if you go a bit deeper, it was not clear who was the sponsor in that project
Such an important project for the administration. It was a disaster because of the lack of sponsorship.
So first you need to know who is the sponsor, and then who’s doing what, so the governance of the project is super important.
Will: Okay. That makes sense. So who’s on the team? Who’s the sponsor? What’s the next question?
Antonio: Then you go into the more project management methodology kind of areas which is the what, so defining what we want to do with the project. How is it going to look like.
Some people would call that the scope of the requirements. Of course, it depends on the project. Sometimes you know what you want. Sometimes you don’t know. If you don’t know, then maybe it should not be a project yet. Maybe you’re in that phase which is more exploration, and innovation, and ideations.
So the closer you know what you want, and how it’s going to look like, the requirements, the features of that product, the new system that you’re building, the digital company that you want to have, the better you can climb. The better you can estimate. The better you can carry out your project.
So that what is very, very important, so you see some big failures. I don’t know if you follow in the U.S. There’s a project which started about two, three years ago in Europe which is called the Brexit. I don’t know if you heard about that, Will.
Will: Of course.
Antonio: Well, that project they don’t know the what. They don’t know. First, the purpose is not very clear. The why, it was based on some kind of information which was emotional not rational, and not correct.
But one of the biggest issues they have there is the what. Nobody has done this before. They don’t know what needs to happen. There’s so many treaties and contracts, so that part makes everything very, very complex, and they spent already three years, and they still don’t know what to do.
On the other hand, if you’re building a house, then the what is easier. You can prototype. You can see it. You can’t decide once you have the prototype clear, you make up a plan, and that project will be successful.
So the what, very important.
Will: That makes sense. What’s next?
Antonio: Next is how. So the how is how we’re going to do it. It’s making sure that we get the people on board, but also the resistance is one of the biggest challenge that you have.
We call them stakeholders, and I claim that’s there’s always one, at least one stakeholder, who will be very happy if your project fails. I don’t know if this sounds familiar.
Will: Well, there’s often someone whose interests aren’t aligned, so that’s probably a key part of any project is make sure you get alignment from the stakeholders.
Antonio: Exactly. And the sooner you get that alignment the better. So if you try to over impose your views and you’re, “The project should go like that. It should be like that.” You most likely get resistance, unless you’re in a culture where it’s very much directive, and everything comes top down. But I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
Like you said, the alignment between stakeholders, the alignment in the team on how are we going to do the project is very important.
So this will be the four questions, how are we going to do it.
Will: Okay. So we talked why, who, what, and how. Were there two more questions?
Antonio: Yeah. Two more questions. I would call this block like the what, the how, and the when which is a question fifth. The when is the finish line. This is how we see projects a lot. There’s a deadline. There’s a finish Line.
And it’s very important. This is really important to have. Yes, we all know projects have a deadline, but that deadline needs… It’s so important that means something to the people. That it’s linked to that purpose of the why, the inspiration.
I have a couple of examples. I don’t know if you will remember the Google Glass was launched, but nobody had really a deadline on that project. It was, I think, more a prototype. They call it a project but, yeah, there was no launch date.
It was a bit of a mess on the when, and they had to pull that product down, so that’s not a good case, not a good example of defining the when.
A brilliant example, I think this is using many ways. But of course, when J.F. Kennedy shot the moonlight, I remember his word. He says, “We’re going to be the first man on the moon. The first country in the world to put the first man on the moon.”
And he didn’t stop there. He said, “By the end of the ’60s.” So, “By the end of the ’60s” was the when. If he would not have said, “By the end of the ’60s,” I think we would not be on the moon yet, so that’s so powerful, and you see now Jeff Bezos coming with a 2024 deadline which is a bit in the same way.
So we need deadlines to focus. We need deadlines to feel the pressure and be challenged to go beyond. Fundamental, if your project has no deadlines, it’s not a project.
Will: And what’s the last one, number six?
Antonio: And the last one goes a bit beyond. It’s looking at the context. It’s called where. Where is that project taking place?
So, Will, if you have already 10 projects, and you’re launching a new one, I can tell you already, that’s not going to work. Yeah, we cannot carry so many projects.
So where that project place. Is that organization competent of delivering project? Is that organization prioritizing that project, top three, top five. The top three to top five projects tend to get the best resources, the most attention. They’re high on the agenda, so those are the projects that tend to be more better managed. Not always great, but they do have attention.
So the where is very important. So if your project is in the rank number 27 in your organization, it’s going to be very difficult to make it work. If there’s not enough attention to it, it’s going to be challenging. If you don’t have the competencies to manage it, it’s not going to work.
So the where plays a big role. This is beyond a single project, but it’s fundamental.
Will: Okay. I’d love here a little bit about your practice, Antonio. Are you going out and kind of leading projects yourself, or more do you go in and kind of advise companies on their overall project management strategy, or something else? Tell me a little about your practice.
Antonio: Yeah. I do I mostly executive education, Will. I am often asked by organizations to help them get better in projects, and that means with the executive team in the area of prioritization, and where do we focus, and how do we work as a team to do projects better, and decision-making.
And then on the building the capability, so creating a level of project management awareness and competencies that they don’t have.
For example, one thing that I never do is just training. Training to managers on projects, that will not have much impact, unfortunately, based on what I just told you.
: You realize how important is the executive, so I only train organizations if the executives are on the training too, or are being trained as well. That’s how you create more impact.
And that’s a big part of my work, advising. Sometimes, I do coaching, but you’re seeing more and more executive coaching on the project side. How sponsors should behave and create that project driven culture, project driven organization.
This is basically how I like to work. Create an impact, and that’s where I get the satisfaction. Is just seeing organizations change and delivering better results with their projects.
Will: What sort of deficiencies do you encounter in organizations where they’re weak at project management? Give us some examples of how a company could be weak at project management.
Antonio: I think one very typical example, I think, is very familiar to people is that most of people working in projects, they’re part-time project leaders, project managers, project members.
So what you’re seeing in organizations which are not project-based… Project-based I mean consulting companies. They just do projects. But any other type of organization when they have day-to-day activity plans, they’re trying to change and improve, that’s where you see that complexities.
People have a day job. You might be the marketing director or senior manager, and so you have a duty there to do your marketing activities, but on top, you might be working in three projects, the digital marketing plan, and the transformation, and the new internet system.
That’s a big problem. That’s where people get spread too thin. Where the priorities they need to make, it depends on often not the best priorities for the project, so that’s a very, very difficult problem that you see very regular.
Part-time people working in projects, it’s a big challenge because it’s proven that fully dedicated people into projects deliver better results.
Will: What are some other weakness or mistakes companies make?
Antonio: Yeah. Another big mistake that you see is that… I was referring to that before. That you call everything you do different than your daily job, a project.
So one issue I mentioned is that it’s very easy to start a project. It doesn’t cost anything. You call a kickoff, and that’s the start.
But the second issue is the definition of a project. So everything that has a start and an end, it’s a bit too broad and too loose.
I’ve been in some companies, and maybe the listeners can recognize some of the challenge, but some companies have more projects than resources, employees.
I’ve been in a company, a bio tech, where they were 80 people. They had 240 projects. Will, imagine how can you manage that? Plus they had to deliver to their job and sell their products.
So I think that’s a big issue is understanding that project management or project leadership, it’s something that requires time. It requires oversight. It sometimes creates additional workload, and you should just call projects the things that are really important.
I always have a sort of checklist of what would be a project, what should not be a project. It can go in the budget. It has to be more than a half a million. It needs to have four departments involved or more. It had to have a start and an end of nine months.
So just to make sure that you apply concepts of project management to the most important ones. The others, you can plan meetings. You can have a plan, but don’t call them projects; otherwise, you’re just going to be overwhelmed.
I see a lot of leaders overwhelmed. They tell me. “I’m so tired of having projects, and it looks like I’m just having more and more. Can you help me?”
Will: So smaller things, just don’t call them projects and don’t put all that infrastructure around them.
Will: On the capabilities part, would you talk about how one of the parts of your practice is building capabilities. Give me some of the discrete areas that you work on. Like what kind of capabilities are you working to build at companies?
Antonio: Will, I work a lot on the mindset of the people. I think most of the methodologies will work on process, and tools, and templates. I think that is not the most relevant part. I think that should be the outcome sometimes of the thinking process, so I’m very strongly focused on the mindset, on people getting the canvas in their mindset.
Asking these six questions when you think about a project. Is their whys clear? If the why’s not clear, challenge that and make sure that you have that. If it’s not clear, who’s responsible. If there’s no sponsor, work on that, or solve that, or stop it.
So I’m really working on the people to have that structure in their head, so when they’re working on their projects, they can have that strong dialogue. Everybody understands what they’re talking, and they can work into the concept of the project, then break it down into the plans, and make sure the execution happens.
So the mindset is very important, then a very like methodology. I think when you’re working in a company with several projects, people need to talk the same language.
So I break down very simple phases, 35 phases, with the initiation part, the planning part, the execution, and the closing, so then make sure that people know that at every phase, you have to play a different role, and there’s different ways to work on.
So the like methodology, the mindset framework, and then the third part I work on the leadership. What you see, Will, is that we call it project management. Today, I would say, “It’s more project leadership because of the challenges that we’ve been talking about.”
That you’re working in organizations where people have multiple tasks. They often don’t report to the project manager. They have a line reporter, so you need to learn how to engage them, on top of their daily job.
Then you need to learn how to talk to senior management and confront this culture, saying, “You’re not contributing. You’re Mr. Sponsor, Ms. Sponsor. You play 40% of the success. I need to see you every two weeks.” So that kind of leadership is super important today in organizations, so I’m working on that part.
Will: You mentioned the different phases of a project. Could you just go over that again in a little bit more detail? What are those different phases of a project?
Antonio: Yeah. Sure. And this is something that I believe is going to change. So the methodologies we know today are 40 years old. The biggest disruption that project management saw was the Agile Manifesto, the agile methodologies.
Where, Will, I’m sure you know in 2001 and 2003 which were challenging a lot of the concepts of project management which I think it was good, and agile is a very, very good approach to projects, some of the projects, not all of them.
But the phases is the initiation. We call it the phase where you think, and you make sure that there’s a rationale in the business case. You look at the options, scenarios, and then at one point, you come to a board, and they decide if that project makes sense.
If that makes sense, then you go into planning. Planning is a phase where you don’t make the plan first, but you define what you want to do. Remember the third question, the what. You will define that with the stakeholder, with suppliers, with clients.
I love one case that I had the chance to talk to which was Alan Mulally, the ex-Ford CEO. He was building planes in Boeing before that. And he engaged in the project team, the customers, the suppliers, so we need to think in the planning beyond our department, beyond our company sometimes. You can think about players which are outside.
So that would be the planning, a very important phase. If you do your planning right which means defining what you want and breaking it down into pieces that you can put into a schedule, that will for sure mean big chances of success.
And then from there is the implementation. You build what you’re doing, the project, the product, the system, and then you would test it, and then you will go live. So four, five phases are very important.
Will: Okay. Great. The Project Revolution was just your second book. Tell us a little about your earlier book on Focused Organization.
Antonio: Ah, yeah. So this is maybe five years old, the book. And, yes, this is about… Again part of research and then also observations, I started to realize that the companies, organizations which are focused, meaning they don’t do everything for everybody.
That they have a clear purpose, and they really stick to that purpose. They tend to be more successful, and not only that, but what I realized is that when people were… I interviewed some of the people working in this kind of companies.
They were happier. Because they knew about the direction of the company, they knew how they were contributing. They were playing a role. And there was this kind of… Everybody felt good about that.
So I realized that these were the minority of the companies because focus meant saying, “No,” to lots of opportunities. Focus meant saying, “No,” to some areas that should maybe not be exploring and focusing your resources on them.
I came with a number and at least 70% to 80% of the work, and the dedication, and the budget were allocated to their existing core business. There were some exploration, and that would be the 20%, but 80% was focused on one area, and that, I think, was very powerful.
And I realized that leaders had difficulties to say, “No,” to opportunities, and to say, “No, I want to keep focused, and we need to keep focused.”
So that’s kind of a framework I developed in the book to help organizations to become more focused and how to achieve that.
Will: That’s great. Antonio, what is the best way for people that are interested in learning more about your work to find you and contact you? Do you want to give out a website or any other links?
Antonio: Will, I have my website which is my name, antonionietorodriguez.com, or just google me, and you’ll find me. I think I will come straight into the linking.
And I’m very accessible. I love to talk to people, help people, interact. Yeah, so I think that’s the best. Just google either through my website or LinkedIn, you can reach out or find my email, but I’m always curious to help people and new challenges in this space.
I think we’re all faced with this challenge. I think that’s the interesting part. We’re all doing projects, and I think we can do much better than what we do today. So happy to exchange further, Will, and connect with people.
Will: Antonio, thanks for that and thanks so much for being on the show.
Antonio: Thank you, Will. Really a pleasure, really enjoy your discussion. Thank you very much.