An interview with Harley Lovegrove conducted by Katarzyna Schaefer

Could you tell us a couple of words how you started your journey with project management?

I started my first business when I was 21 in the high-fi world, designing loudspeakers. I have set up a number of companies over the years. Some people called me a serial entrepreneur because I’ve done and run so many companies and worked in so many different industries. At a certain point in my career, when I was running a fast growing international company, I suddenly realized that actually everything we do in business that is new is in fact a kind of project: Be it developing a new product, creating a new service, working for a new kind of client, in a new sector.

In the early 2000’s I spent much of my time trying to fix broken software IT companies, trying to save them from bankruptcy and finding innovative ways to make them profitable for their shareholders. I was called in as a problem solver which often involved having to cut them up in order to make them profitable. What I did was to ask myself three basic questions: 1) What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? 2) How do we know when it’s solved? 3) What should be the difference between the organization today and in six months’ time or a year.

Then I looked at these three questions as the basis of a project. For example, if we imagine that there is little or no new orders coming in, we could be fooled into thinking that the problem is that we need 1 million € revenue because we have costs of a 1 million €. But this is totally wrong. I mean what is the problem here? The product, the service, the market, the sales person, production, supply chain. And just because we have costs of one million, that’s just a given fact. Maybe we need 10 million € to be sustainable, or maybe the company is not worth saving because its business case makes no sense.

The project is defined as what is the problem we’re trying to solve? How do we know when it is solved? At that point solving the problem becomes the project. What do we need to do to achieve this? How much will it take? How will it cost? What are the risks? What are the challenges? What if we don’t do the project? What if we do the project?

Then I invented a very straightforward methodology of my own. I studied PRINCE2 and I looked at PMI but implementing these great guidelines and methodologies into companies from scratch takes a great deal of time and effort, and more often than not, (especially in broken companies) we just don’t have that. So I invented a very simplified version based around my key questions that could be explained in just a few hours and implemented almost immediately. I come in in the morning and together with the leadership team we could brain storm in a very unique way so that by the next day we could start structuring and even implementing a project. So that was really how I started working as a director/interim manager trying to fix their problems. And when the problem is fixed I could step out knowing that the root cause is solved and the business could run on its own again.

Fot. Harley Lovegrove's archive

What does good project management mean for you?

Ensuring that we solve the root cause and deliver a working, sustainable solution. And not to focus solely on the symptoms of a problem. Imagine that I have a bad cold and I am feeling very ill and cannot work. Taking a pill to relieve the symptoms is not much use. In fact I will just make everyone else sick. What I must do is go home, do nothing except sleep and drink water and fruit and the root problem will go away and the symptoms too.

A lot of time in real life we’re dealing with symptoms (the runny noses, the headaches etc.) and not with the real root causes. If the sales guy is not bringing enough sales, you kick out the sales guy, and bring an another. But more often than not, the sales guy is not the problem. The real problem could be (for example) that the quality of the product is not good or even if it is good and you increase sales – what if production can’t follow and your quality collapses?

Life is far more complex than we like to think. And it is constantly changing. What was OK as a fix five years ago maybe totally out dated today. And this is the basis of my first book Making a difference. If you gonna make a difference you’ve got to solve the root core problem. And you do that by working in a logical and efficient way, all the time motivating others around you to play their part.

All this doesn’t mean there is no room for PMI. If you’ve got Project Managers working in a company it’s really great if you have somebody who is really experienced Project Manager who knows lots of methodologies: STLS, Waterfall, Agile etc. They can choose what is correct for the situation. But if you go for an operation you don’t expect the surgeon to explain how exactly she’s going to do it, you just want to know that you will still be able to play the piano again afterwards. That’s kind of how I feel about project management. It’s OK for project managers to talk about project management methodologies etc. between each other but not with their clients. They are interested in what the project can and will do for their businesses.

Whatever needs to be done. If you need to make high level plan, you make high level plan. If you need to prepare risk analysis, you make one. You don’t need to go on and on to your client I need to make risk analysis. Just do it! And you say to the client: I’ve been considering the risks: what if it rains on our family fun day, we’ll need a tent? So please do not bore them by talking about methodology and how you are going to do something, talk about why you need to do it. If I have to say why we need project management I just say “because good project management allows us to solve complex problems and achieve things in much simpler and more efficient way” and that applies with everything.

You mentioned it’s not your first conference organized by Project Management Institute you’ve been involved. How did you get involved with PMI?

Quite simple. I wrote my first book and I wanted to promote it. I was given the chance to present Keynote Speech. Everybody loved it so I have been invited back nearly every year ever since. I gave my first speech on finding “Hidden Agenda”. Since then, I got to know people from PMI. Some of my employees are PMI people. I like interacting with them. I like meeting new people and showing them another way of working.

Fot. Harley Lovegrove's archive

I’ve been involved with PMI for three years. Based on my experience it gives you an opportunity to build your career, meet enthusiastic people, travel the world and more. It is sometimes a challenge to encourage more people and show them the value of getting involved with PMI. Unless you try it on your own.

OK, it’s absolutely right. If we make a parallel between PMI and the church.


Why not?! People who go to church go there for very various reasons. Imagine someone who has never been to church in his life before and his wife dies, he’s very unhappy. Someone comes and says: Why don’t you come to church? He goes to church because he’s very unhappy, he’s feeling lonely. Actually fundamentally he’s going to church to meet people. If he goes to church and in the first meeting after church, people start discussing the rules of religion and the mystery of faith, he may never come back again. But if you give him a cup of coffee and a hug maybe he’ll stay. PMI is exactly the same. It’s like a church. It’s a group of people worldwide facing similar problems, similar challenges in their lives, in their work or careers. PMI set out a kind of framework and if you follow that framework the chances of success are higher privately for you and also for your employer.

If I gave my people a language to communicate ideas and concepts just like religious people do in the Koran or the Bible. We refer to the PMBOK as the bible sometimes. The PMBOK needs to be rewritten. It doesn’t make sense any more. In 1960 and 1970 it made perfect sense but it doesn’t make much sense any more. There are elements which are really basic elements as Plan-Do-Check-Act. However it doesn’t really help a manager of a small company to develop their products quicker. That’s why we have all those other things like Six Sigma and other methodologies being built because PMI as a methodology is actually not working. At the same time starting as a group of people who come to discuss the problems they have in their own companies, it’s grown to worldwide organization. PMI is very, very useful. When I talk at PMI events I meet interesting people. I hopefully inspire them to find a new development and to help to actually improve the PMI.

So when you want to attract more people don’t talk about the what’s and the how’s but about the why’s. I joined PMI because it’s great bunch of people and we have a real laugh. It gives me a chance to travel the world and I’ve learned these new skills which I can find useful in my career. To talk about why project management is so much fun.

I love projects, especially when they are very complex and have a very tight timeframe. ‘Doing the seemingly impossible’ is what gives me and my teams a buzz. Somehow they tend to just land on my desk. But by learning how to tackle these things you realize you can do it and that it’s great fun! No matter if it is organizing a party in the open air in June, or developing a new product or type of car, or moving offices, or merging two radically different companies. What you soon learn, it’s the people bit that is the most important and the most challenging. That’s why I wrote The Change Manager’s Handbook. Because good change management lies behind all great projects. And when you have a good people experience then project management is the best job in the world.

During your Keynote Speech at New Trends in Project Management Conference 2016 you’ll be talking about change management. At which point in your life did you get interested in change management? What was the driving force?

Basically I’m a very good persuader. I think if I set my mind to it, I could persuade you to get on a plane, come over to Brussels and work with me for six months. People tell me I am a good persuader. Then I meet other people who are not good persuaders. They have a lot of problems trying to get people to behave and do things in a way that they do not want to do, at first, and we call that change management. With some people it comes more naturally than others. That’s why I wrote the book because you do not have to be like me, you just have to understand the principles and find your own way of utilizing them. I wrote the book like a cookery book so that everyone can understand and follow the principles of change management. What’s more I give them loads of templates and tools that they can download so they can get right on with it, right away.

At a certain point I had the company with 30 people working with me. Some of them were useless in getting people to do things, they were great analysts but not inspirers. So I started thinking about what it is that I’m doing that inspires people to adapt to change. By knowing this, I could begin to coach others to do the same. Not necessarily like I do but to learn the processes and do it in their own way. Because there are many quiet, gentle people who are brilliant at getting you to do things. Some good projects managers can make good change managers and others can’t. Whatever happens, you have to make sure that in your team you always have people who have the skills needed for the task ahead.

Fot. Harley Lovegrove's archive

So is it possible for a person who is specialized in particular field to become a project manager in completely different field?

Absolutely it is and it’s even a benefit. I even encourage our clients not take on a project manager with experience in the sector they are in because they don’t need experts as project managers. They probably have loads of them in their companies already. They need project managers who know the problem they’re trying to solve and how best to go about it.

In your opinion which qualities make a good change manager?

Excellent communication skills, creative thinking capability, good persuasion skills, two big ears to listen to others and understand where they are coming from. Extremely high EQ, the ability to work in the background, confidence to challenge things, willingness to coach and be coached, good planner, good strategist, good timer, good leader, good analyst.

You’ve highlighted all the strengths change manager should possess. What do you think the biggest challenge is in implementing change management nowadays?

The biggest challenge in implementing change management is normally to put into words the ‘why’ so that your client can sell the change to their people. The big challenge is not to see change management as some kind of arty and philosophical thing but something pragmatic that helps organizations to achieve the changes they want to achieve much quicker they did before.

Thank you so much for inspiring talk. I look forward to meeting you in person.