An interview with Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, an international speaker, trainer, consultant and PMI volunteer who holds of all of PMI credentials, by Łukasz Paluszkiewicz

Mohamed, you are probably the most certified person I know. Do you miss any of the PMI certification at all? 

From PMI, no I don’t miss any certification. I have all the PMI certification actually. This started a long time ago, I decided to collect them one by one and I have all of them now.

Do you feel that they bring any value for you? Why did you decided to get all of them?

The certifications give me very big value for sure. Especially, since I am working as a consultant, trainer and professional project manager. First of all, it builds you your personal brand and having the certification makes people to think “yes, this guy, he knows something about this topic. He don’t sell only theory”

Some of the certifications were indeed very useful for me, but also I am a person who need to have a target to study. And certification is a very good target. 

That’s a way I never thought about the certificates – the target for studying? 

Yes, when you need to make an achievement then you need to study and study hard to pass the exam and get the certificate. It’s not the only reason, it’s only one of the reasons, the main reason is to build your credibility and your brand. Being a knowledgeable guy. This is very important in my work as a consultant, trainer, speaker and project manager. 

We know each other from the 11th International PMI Poland Chapter Congress. It’s been a couple of years ago already. The speech you gave then was about using Agile in non-IT environments. I will ask you for some examples in a second, but I would like to understand first how do you understand Agile? 

Thank you very much for this question. For me, Agile is a mindset. This is what the PMI insists to say in their new standard. Agile as a mindset more than tools and techniques. For sure there are different methodologies coming from the same mindset. If you look at Lean for example, Lean is considered as Agile methodology. However Lean was created long time ago. It’s not from 2001 when the Manifesto was made and the Agile principles were created. Agile principles were in use before the software development. That’s why Agile is definitely more mindset than a technique. This is what I want to say first.

Second, if you have a project like disaster relief. There are some people in need and you will have to make a project to save them. How can you do it? Can you make a plan for 3 months, or 6 months, then you execute it and at the moment when you monitor it and then close it they will die. I am writing a book right now about disaster relief projects using Agile. 

We need to use a technique which will help us to create high level plan and start right away with execution. Then we need to rearrange the plan again, and monitor and control, and close and to go to another and another sprint. In such project scope will change every week if not every day. So how can you manage it using the normal PM methodology? It’s difficult, and Agile can help here. 

Is there anything in common for Agile project?

Every time you have a project without fixed scope. For example, you do a lot of events. I’m sure that your events have some Agile mindset. They are never exactly as planned, and the scope that you had at the beginning is not exactly the scope you deliver at the end. A lot of things may happen. A lot of speakers come, a lot of speakers leave. The place might be not ready… Many, many things can change in the scope during the event. 

I’m sure that if you utilize Agile it will maximize the value for the customer. This is the whole idea about Agile. What is Agile about? We need to maximize the value! We don’t need to stick with the fixed scope which is maybe not reflecting the need of the future. We need to have some sort of tool to do this.

Also for the entrepreneurship, do you think the real entrepreneurs are following the real traditional project management methodology? Most of them don’t because they do not know what they will do next. The scope is not clear. I am not talking about software projects, I am talking about entrepreneurship projects of anything. They can adjust, reevaluate the situation, they can make a pilot at the beginning. If entrepreneur wants to do a cupcake he will not make a plan for 6 months to make a cupcake. He starts making the cupcake. And he makes a pilot, and takes a test, collects feedback and adjusts. And this is Agile. He tries to maximize the benefit. Maybe at the beginning he wanted to have a big shop, but later on, after one or two or three sprints he decides – OK, we don’t have to have a big shop, we can start at the garage. We can change the scope so that we can provide our cupcakes to other bakeries or coffee shops instead of selling them ourselves. And this works because of trials. The trials that can be considered as sprints.

Even in manufacturing or construction. Most people consider a construction project as something that should be done as traditional project – yes, for sure it’s the best approach, but what about the 3D printed buildings? What if this becomes the leading technology now? What people can do with this? 

I need to make a disclaimer. I don’t want to say Agile is a silver bullet for all types of projects. Traditional project management is still very important for many projects. What I want to say is that Agile can do better in some projects where the scope is not clear.

Even in marketing. Nowadays you don’t do a campaign that you plan once and you don’t change the scope later on. We change the scope of the marketing campaign based on the feedback from the market. So marketers will make a few adds and later on they may want to change some things because of the feedback from the market. Nobody has a luxury of continuing the project when there’s a poor feedback. They adjust as they go. That’s why marketing people around the world use more Agile than waterfall. 

That’s very interesting topic. I have a feeling that in Poland Agile is still considered as IT thing. I want to destroy that myth a little bit. So could I can ask you for some examples of project in non-IT industries? Maybe a particular project that is as far from IT as possible?

I have some examples. Me myself, I used Agile in implementing project management office in Qatar. It was in ministry of education in IT department, but it was not an IT project. That was like a consultancy service and what I did at the beginning was assessment and gap analysis. To make long story short, after many workshops I got the gap analysis and I had my requirements. Fine, but what I did next. I organized the requirements as stories and I went to sponsor of the PMO project. I asked her which one is the most important thing to do. So that I did not build an out-of-the-box PMO. I could say “OK, those are the tools, this is the procedure, this is the training”. No, I’m used to maximize the value for my customers and value for my customer could be found in the stories. She could choose what was the most painful part of her work and I could focus on the most important part. I could create the tools and techniques, procedures and all for the most important part for the client. So she could feel there’s a value from PMO, as after one month I gave her something that she needs. After that we chose another topic from the gap analysis, and another one, and another one. But you see, the client starts to collect the benefits after just first iteration, after one month from project start. I did not planned for 6 months and then build a PMO, go to customer and say “hey, it’s your PMO, what do you think about it?”. Customer shared with me what they want and they had the ownership! I had a speech about it in PMI Bogota, Colombia. 

Any examples from manufacturing? 

There was a professor called Joe Justice and he made a car with, what they called, a Wikispeed team. The Wikispeed delivered a functional prototype of a car using Agile. 

This guy was a scrum master in the software industry then he heard about a competition in car building. He came with the prototype in just 3 months while for traditional manufacturing it’s usually a one year process. 

So Agile will get into more and more industries? 

It already is. In disaster relief there are many organizations using the Agile mindset. Maybe they do not call the tools XP, or Scrum, or whatever, but they plan, execute and deliver in almost the same time, in the same sprint. 

I used also Agile approach in education. When I conducted project management sessions for kids for the first time in the circus, here in Kuwait in 2012. We divided the project in 4 weeks, each week was one sprint and each sprint had a deliverable. At the time we didn’t know what to teach the kids about project management and how would they react as they were eight to twelve years old. It was a pilot project. The project was done in other chapters but we wanted to localize it in Kuwait, and we did not make the course in school or training room, it was a circus. So we started thinking on what we can deliver in the first week. We knew it would be an introduction like what is project management, how they can make something like a simple charter and so on. So we executed that, we collected the feedback and now every Saturday we do one activity. Each week we learn something, once it’s how to start, the other week we talk how to plan, how to execute or control. Later they learn how to close the project, take the lessons learnt and so on. And it was like an Agile because all the time we delivered something, we got the feedback, we got back, rearranged and tested again. Later on the project was copied, but not as a pilot, it was a normal production. 

What about some softer industries, like marketing?

If you go to marketing, I have a study with a survey, I will send you a link to the survey from 2014, it’s not even new.1 It says that marketers have no longer luxury to spend months crafting large projects. Now they use something as Agile to drive long term marketing strategies. Short term customer focused iterated projects improve responsiveness and relevance. It allows for faster, creative, more testing, smarter improvements and better results. Survey found that 63% of marketing leaders indicate agility as high priority but only 40% rate themselves as agile. In the same study you’ll find the comparison between waterfall versus Agile in the marketing. There’s a graph which shows that Agile can do much, much better. 

You can name an industry and Agile is there. 

Thanks for that, it was really interesting. I want to touch now another topic. You are volunteering for PMI worldwide, and this year in Poland we have the 15th anniversary of establishing PMI Poland Chapter. 

Oh, congratulations!

Thank you. One of the questions I’ve heard a lot over this year is why do you volunteer at all? What would you reply to this kind of question?

For sure it is out of the passion that we have. Some people have this passion to go and speak, and enjoy time with friends and to volunteer. For sure this consumes time and efforts and sometimes money, but at the end of the day we are a big network. What I take as a benefit is more than what I gave. 

The network itself is very important, sharing ideas with people that have the same passion is very important. Even attending lectures and sessions knowing how hard people work to make the sessions, because I do the same, makes it an unique experience. In order to make one session you need to spend many hours and I enjoy all of that during the session itself. This is the biggest enjoyment for me when I speak. Before doing the presentation I give many of my time collecting the information, building the presentation, rehearsing the speech, making the story boards. Once you did that, when you speak it is something you can really enjoy. As volunteer you do not have to do only the lectures, but also many other things. This is just something I am doing mostly right now. 

PMI Poland Chapter is very unique chapter. I like it! People there are very dedicated, very nice, very friendly. I love to go there and I would love to go there again to share the knowledge, but also to build the experience from very experienced people. Actually, they are very selective with the speakers. When I go there it’s always a good investment. The hospitality is great, I love them as friends and in the professional way! I love to go there, give speeches there, attend the events again and again. 

Thank you for the kind words. You mentioned that beside being speaker you also have different roles. What’s your current role in PMI and why do you think it is important?

I’m a member of Ethics Member Advisory Group. We do many different things. For example we try to spread the message about the ethics around the globe. I am responsible with my friends for a blog in called Ethics Bistro. We also use social media to spread our message. We create ethics tools. Many of those tools are useful for the chapter leaders and also for the professionals in the project management. We try also to do conferences where we talk about ethics and why it’s important. Name a role and you can find our group there, in all the PMI landscape. We try to give people the tools and solve people’s dilemmas. This is what I try to do with my friends in EMAG. 

I know you’ve been speaking and consulting in many countries across the globe. Do you find any cultural differences in project management in different places? 

Yes, discussion would make better sense if you ask if you have any similarities in the cultures between the countries. Project management as a tools and techniques are almost the same, or at least all of them are somehow close to each other. You may find same problems everywhere, almost same techniques… but what I noticed is that the culture diversity is the most important thing. 

From my point of view, and those are not even my words – PMI also mention this many times, success in project management depends on two things: people and communication. People can make the process work, but they can also make the process not work. The culture is very important, I made very many sessions about cultural diversity in project management around the world like London, US, or Korea. Why I decided to talk about culture diversity? Because people from Germany are different then people in India. People in India are different then people in Japan. People in Poland are different then people in UK. 

For example in Japan the meetings are not to discuss things. Meetings are just to approve to what was agreed before, to make it formal. That’s it. So if you bring any new topic for the meeting people will not say yes or no. In their culture they cannot say no, but not saying no doesn’t mean yes. In this type of culture, when you attend a meeting to generate a lot of ideas and nobody replies you may think they love it, but actually they don’t. They just don’t like to tell you that this way.

Any examples from EMEA? 

British language have another dictionary. When someone says on whatever you said that it’s very interesting, maybe it’s interesting, or maybe it’s stupid (laugh), so you need to learn how to read between the lines. 

In Arabian culture the time is very flexible. If we agree to meet at 10 and I get there at 10:15 or 10:30 it doesn’t mean I do not respect you. I still respect you, but it is part of culture that people have some flexibility on the time. Yes, in project management it’s not good, but it should not be considered as lack of respect. People in Japan, on the other hand, if they are late only couple of minutes it would be considered as not respectful, but in other cultures like Italian, Greek, or Arabic it has nothing to do with respect.

What would be your advice for project managers that lead multicultural teams?

They need to study cultures. I studied cultures diversity and I took a course from doctor Richard Lewis who invented a cross-cultural model of communication. He classifies cultural norms into Linear-Active, Multi-Active and Re-Active, or some combination. I used to attend such workshop to understand others. If you don’t understand others how could you deal with them? People in China and Japan are close to each other, but the cultures are different. Can you imagine? It’s very important to study how the people in Germany think, how the people in Africa think, how the people in Poland think. That’s how you will become more international project manager or speaker.

I’ve went to South Korea to talk about cultural diversity in a Korean company in Seoul. They wanted to make a bigger exposure around the World, but they did not know how to deal with cultures. They had problems with their projects because they didn’t understand what people mean by this or that. They were elite group of project managers in their organizations and still they had that problem. That’s why it’s so important. 

The last question for you is the one I like to ask a lot. Is there anything you would like to share with our community in Poland?

I would like to share that the world will have many innovative projects. It has already started, but next projects will require different skills set. We need to think what are the skills for the future and start to prepare for it. The technologies like block chains will change transactions around the world. Internet of things, artificial intelligence, and big data. All of those are not challenges, but more opportunities. People think that all those things will challenge us and maybe take over our works. It should not be a considered that way. Those are opportunities and we should be ready to deal with those changes in the work environment. 

For all those things we have to be ready, we have to look for the future, we have to see what are the new skills that we need to gain. I delivered a speech in Gdańsk about the skills from the future and said why it’s very important to gain them. You need them to deal with the new generation, new technologies, new methodologies and other. The environment is very dynamic, it’s nothing as it was before. For many years things were moving very steady. Now they are running, and running too fast. If we do not adjust ourselves to this we would get behind. 

Thank you for the interview!

Thank you very much. Send my greetings to all my friends in Poland. Tell them that I miss them a lot and I would be more than happy if there’s any opportunity to see them soon.


Zdjęcia: Tomasz Nowicki, Iwona Krause, David Kaszlikowski