An interview with Ricardo Vargas, 11th International PMI PC Congress Keynote Speaker, by Justyna Jakubów

During the 11th International PMI Poland Chapter Congress you gave a speech titled “Leading Projects in Turbulent Times”. Why did you choose this topic? 

I decided to talk about leadership in this moment because I think this is one of the things that are missing most of the time when we are leading. We usually tend to see this turbulence as an external factor that we have no control over. But in reality we can make a very proactive approach when we are talking about leadership in this kind of projects, so you can change the way you plan, you can change the way you behave in order to address this turbulence. 

There are ways of how you lead and deliver in this turbulent times and this is very common that people attribute the figure of the projects in this kind of environment to the turbulence, and if we do that, then no project will be successful anywhere or anytime when there is a turbulence.

How often do you face volatility in projects? 

I think that the volatility is increasing dramatically over time. We are seeing things changing on the political landscape, on the social landscape, on the business landscape. 

Ricardo Vargas Speaking 1
Fot. David Kaliszkowski Photo

Which changes do you consider the most severe or risky for projects? 

For example, if you have international projects, so I’m talking about volatility in the way countries accept their international products, international goods and services, the movement around the working force, the changes in the workforce, so people are leaving the job, people feel much less committed. Sorry, I don’t want to use the word commitment, but for example if they find a better job, they just go for it. They don’t have this commitment “Oh, do I need to stay forever here because there is a problem“. So it is very easy to see this volatility. 

Are nowadays Project Managers able to face changes in their projects? 

I have my doubts. I think some yes, but the vast majority are still with the mindset of fixed environment. And this is not the fact that we are facing today. 

What skills should they develop to successfully face the increasing complexity and instability of projects? 

First, it’s the ability to recognize the change fast and take decisions. And not complain or not question why does this change exist. So it’s absorb the change and move on. A lot of people are still attached to the past. Instead of moving on the change process they stay and remain on the denial of the change. And then when they realize it, most of the time it is too late to recover the project. 

Fot. David Kaszlikowski Photo

What was the biggest challenge caused by volatility that you came across while managing projects? 

I cannot say one, but several projects that I did for the UN they were facing volatility. I’m talking about volatility coming from the war, coming from starvation, coming from violence, so we had to develop a very different and very quick process to absorb and change, because this challenge is permanent. I’m talking about the conflict in Syria and the way we supported Syria, the conflicts in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan, so all very, very complex environments in terms of security, in terms of logistics. For example when you say I need to find, to connect two water fountains, maybe in Poland or maybe in Brazil, or in Denmark it’s very easy, but when you are in very challenging places this means maybe to travel of 500-600-800 km in the middle of war conflict zones. So it’s very challenging environment. And this requires you to change your mindset.

What would you recommend to Project Managers who frequently face challenges in their projects?

First, to internalize that change is part of the business, that change is not something abnormal. Now, today, volatility, instability and turbulence is a part of the business. It is something like the 11th knowledge area of PMI: turbulence and change. So, don’t think that this is something abnormal, because this is now the reality. 

During your career, you have run projects in many countries and cultures around the world. Whether and how project multiculturalism affects project’s complexity and volatility?

First, multicultural environment affects complexity. I’m not saying that it increases complexity, but when you work in the multicultural environment you need to be prepared to understand what is right, what is wrong, and how to approach things. They are not mathematical answers, they are subjective answers, people understand problems in different ways. The biggest advice I can give when we are talking about multicultural environments is: first, you need to respect the diversity and second, respect does not mean to alienate yourself or annul yourself. It means: “I respect your opinion and I expect that you respect my opinion”. You know, in a situation when you cancel your feelings just because you want to be nice and politically right. No. You respect all the difference, but at the same time you affirm what your principles are. And this will help a lot.

If I can tell one of the most valuable experiences I had in my whole life with the UN, during the 4 years I was at the UN, was exactly this environment. This environment is priceless. Because you gain another dimension about life, about work and about teamwork. It’s very easy to work with everybody that you know, that work together. And it’s not so easy to work in an environment where people think different, they act different but in a very cordially respectful manner.