Interview with Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute and former Chairman of the PMI, conducted by Agnieszka Krogulec
Antonio, thank you very much for accepting my invitation to the interview. You are the world’s leading champion in project management and strategy implementation. You do a lot in promoting the project management skills around the world, especially within senior management to show it’s crucial to manage projects in the right way. Could you highlight the key moments, key steps in your career which led you to your present position?
It’s a pleasure to be here with PMI Poland which I have very good memories of when I was there a few years ago. I love what you are doing, your team, the volunteers, so thank you for the opportunity to share a bit about my views. To answer your question, the highlights of my career – they were failures and maybe that’s what made me just fight harder to get what I wanted or the message that I wanted to share. I think that one big point or step in my career was when I was working for a very large consulting company and they did not appreciate project management. They thought everybody would do project management. It’s not strategic or something very important for a consulting firm to advise, so they fired me after 10 years. It made me wonder if project management was an area I could develop or focus on or just maybe go to a more traditional career in marketing, sales, finance. I think many of the listeners probably have that wondering – I should stay as a Project Manager or I should move into a more stable and defined career path. That happened in 2005 and I decided that I need to find a way to show senior executives that what they did to me was wrong. Why do they think that project management is tactical, engineering, is about IT but not strategic? I spent a lot of time researching, I went to the banking and it collapsed, so another big failure, but it was a great opportunity to learn about the risks in big projects. I think that was another step in my career and my goal has always been in line with my thinking of improving project management. It is in line with making people aware of the importance of projects and is about influencing senior leaders, academic and business. So, that’s a bit of my career, I worked in finance, banking, consulting, pharma and always around PMOs, portfolio management, project management. It is something that I really enjoy.
You talk a lot about project economy and it seems to have been a real buzzword of recent years. You have even spoken on this phenomenon as the new management paradigm and The Project Revolution. Could you please describe what it means for you and for us?
I have written about the project economy concept for the first time in 2017 and I thought that there was something big happening here that people weren’t talking about and I realized that we were shifting the way the work is being carried out in the companies.
I did the research for one of my books The Project Revolution and it was clearly showing that at least half of the workforce in organisations is working project-based and there may have a fixed role in the day-to-day but they are also doing part-time projects and this trend is just accelerating. So what I mean with the project economy is that the type of work that we are going to do in the future is mostly project-based because it’s more agile, more flexible, it’s about diversity. Now, with working at home, it’s even better because we work in projects.
The other part is that the day-to-day activities are going to be done by Artificial Intelligence and robotics. Of course, it happens now for example in banking, they are mostly IT companies, there is a lot of automation, fintech and blockchain, so there are not many people doing the day-to-day activities. Most of the people work in projects or agile teams, so I think that’s what I mean with the project economy. The other big important point is whenever there is a big crisis, you see a lot of projects coming into the recovery of businesses, organizations or societies. So we can expect a massive amount of projects which will need a massive amount of project leaders to get us through the crisis, so there are a macro and a micro view.
Ok, so projects are everywhere. Can we say that the Project Revolution will only bring benefits? Do you see any negative aspects or any threats for you and for us?
Despite these positive trends towards the projects world, if we don’t change, if we – the PM’s of today – don’t adapt, evolve and learn how to use technology, we are going to be considered as old-fashioned and soon be taken over by modern processes of Artificial Intelligence. We need to evolve fast into other areas, not the traditional project management. I am always a bit stressed because I don’t see that sense of urgency in the PMI or the PM world that we really need to adapt, we cannot fail. When you look at any statistics around project success, they’re very poor. It’s about 20-30% of the project cases succeed, this is unacceptable. It is not just the Project Managers fault, but I think that we can influence much more and do a better job in different stages of the project to make project success higher. We need to adapt fast if we want to be the key players in the new world. As an example of my vision, every company that I worked for or advised or researched, they had a Chief Operating Officer. He was like the number two or three in the company and that was a fundamental role because operations were the main part of the business 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago – we had to be very efficient. But now, in the project economy, that role does not exist anymore. We don’t need Chief Operating Officers, we need Chief Project Officers.
You mentioned Artificial Intelligence and about the connections with projects, what about the future of Project Managers? What will be the function, the role of Project Managers in the future and what skills he or she needs? And the most important is how can today’s leaders or the project leaders prepare for it?
guess most of the people reading the interview know that in project management we talk about the project life cycle. You start with the initiation, then you do the planning, execution and monitoring and then you have the handover, closure. That is what we have been focusing on in project management for the last 50 years. That project life cycle will be completely impacted. 80% of what we do today is going to disappear or be done by Artificial Intelligence, which is massive, but it makes sense when you think about what Artificial Intelligence does. It does repetitive, manual things and reporting on which we spend a lot of time – chasing for data to have accurate reports. That’s going to disappear. So where is the future of project management? What skills do we need to develop? What happened before a project? Innovation? Iteration? Why have we never thought about it? Why don’t we care about innovation? It is not covered and that’s for me something very upsetting. We have to focus on innovation, it is going to be a big field for us. We have to play a role in Design Thinking. One of the reasons why many projects fail is because they start too early. We take an idea and tomorrow we start the project. You can never make a project when the idea is too early, but we do that.
Yes, especially in the big corporations – we do not have time to think too much.
We don’t have time! One project that fascinates me is the first iPhone. The idea was shared by Steve Jobs in 2001. They said, let us not launch the project now, the idea is great, but let us do it in 2004. It took them three years of innovation, of prototyping, of Design Thinking, of narrowing down the number of prototypes and ideas, building the knowledge to give on to have a proper project. So I think the innovation is key. Second ly, what happens with the project we do not care about? Let us hand it over, whatever it is, but we do not care. We just deliver this machine, a bridge, an app, who cares, if it sells or not. That is wrong. We need to play a big role in what happens with the project. Again, it’s very frustrating for me – why in our methodologies we don’t care about what is going to happen after we do the project? There is nobody more knowledgeable about your project than you. And why do you need to drop it, when you start running it? We need to move in some cases to the next level.
And the last thing, benefits. Benefits are a line that comes when you handover in your project life cycle. We do not care about the benefits, we care about deliverables, time and cost, we manage the scope and that’s it. When we do a bit of benefits management – it’s the most important thing. If your project delivers benefit, time and cost maybe are not so important. Some of the best projects ever were late, over budget, but over time they delivered much more than what they cost. Today our plans show the deliverables, the milestones. I think the plans of the future should just tell you about benefits. When you are going to achieve that, don’t tell me about the deliverables – I am the customer or the stakeholder and I want the benefits, I do not care about the deliverables.
Just to summarize, you have just focused on three main areas: innovation, focus on the results of the projects, not only on the project itself and benefits. You are the author and you have outlined the guiding principles of the project economy in the document which is called Project Manifesto. What is the aim of this document? What is the correlation with the famous Agile Manifesto?
Well, it’s part of that goal to make everybody aware of the importance of projects. Going back to the previous question, one of the biggest mistakes that we have done in the project management is that we said – this methodology is applicable to all the projects and you need to have all these phases and templates for all the types of projects. That was very wrong. Then came Agile and that is waterfall or Agile. We did it wrong. It’s not one or the other. I think the Project Manager of the future will use Agile, will use the traditional project management, will use Six Sigma, sometimes will use programme management. There is a big mistake in our way of educating and talking about projects. There’s no one methodology for every project.
Backing to your question on the Project Manifesto, there have been projects forever, there are millions of projects but why don’t we have a Project Manifesto? PMI has 600,000 members, we have also northern associations, so in total, we have maybe 2-3 million people working in projects but we don’t have a Manifesto to share, not with us, but to share with the people, the leaders, the communities. Projects are important, this is how we built our prosperity and how we make a change. I copied the concept of this Manifesto, but what I proposed, it’s a bit higher level.
I think that was one of the reasons why Agile was so popular – because they built the Manifesto and we don’t have the Manifesto. I don’t intend to be the sole writer, it is going to be co-created with bigger communities of people. I would like to seek endorsement from relevant people and the PMI community somewhere next year.
You have spread the idea that the most significant disruption of the 21st century is how the organizations and countries will be managed – through projects. You rank this phenomenon as even higher than technology, artificial intelligence or big data. This is a huge revolution in thinking! But are those changes truly revolutionary or maybe they have more evolutionary character?
I’m trying to be very provocative because people need to be shocked, they need to think outside the box. Over the past 80 years, the world has been driven by efficiency, meaning that most of the management concepts were how can we do our work, how can we run our organization faster, cheaper, with fewer resources, with automation, Six Sigma and ERP.
So that is what I called the world driven by efficiency. That’s how the organizations organize themselves, by hierarchical structures. That’s why in universities you train people to become an expert in one thing – marketing, finance, that’s why strategies were lasting six to nine years because we were quite a stable world. It was all about efficiency, but it has been changed. The Covid-19 has just accelerated it, but I already started talking about the project economy two or three years ago. We are going toward the world which is driven by change. Nothing that you were using in the past works now. In the new world driven by change, we have self-managed agile teams, very flat project-based organizations. The PMO will be very different too, forget about the one we know today. The skills that we need are very different. I talked a lot about the generalists, which is great for us – PM’s – we can work with different teams, we need to evolve. Your strategy is no longer valid seven or nine years, no industry has such a strategy. From the human perspective, we are human beings, we need stability around tasks to deliver, to perform. We want to feel safe, it means not changing too much and not having too much distraction. This is how the brain works. But no one puts the humans in situations where there’s no stability. We don’t know what’s going to happen in one week. I think there is an evolution in humans and that we look at humans differently. Now humans have to work in change, it’s not what we were used to. To sum up, we are moving from the world driven by efficiency, stability, structure to a world driven by change, projects, adaptation and flexibility. And everything we believe in the past has to change.
In terms of the stability and what we have around this Covid-19 situation, will Covid change the way we plan and deliver projects? Did Covid affect your work apart from not being able to travel?
Covid has caused a massive move – people who were not used to working in projects so much have moved to project-based work, so that’s good. The second thing, there is more focus on communication. When we were doing projects in the past, we had weekly team meetings and even updates because there was a lot of informal communication throughout the days. We hadn’t much more dialogue about the project deliverables or the scope, or the benefits assuming that everybody knew. That’s not the case anymore and I think we’re doing that better today. We have much more communication so I think we’re moving slowly into more empathy, more soft skills, we’re focusing more on the softer side of projects, on intangibles of projects we cannot see and touch. It’s a good movement for project management, we just need to learn to adapt.
So I think there is an opportunity for us to move towards what we were talking about before. Thanks to the intangibles and then bigger benefits, we have better communication, more buy-in, less resistance for change. So I’m very positive around although this is not a nice situation around, we’re going through but it’s going to define new ways of working and a much project-based one.
I’m also thinking about the changes for PMI because we are both volunteers and we love this organization. And you are the former Chairman of the PMI, thus you know the organization inside out. Could you please tell us what the biggest challenges for PMI for the next decade are?
I think PMI has something special that you don’t see in many companies, which is the volunteers and the communities that we have, they are so solid, so strong. I think that’s something that has a magic formula for keeping the organization through difficult times. So for me, that’s kind of the backbone of the PMI, the volunteers that are working in passion, dedicating their time. But then, you become an organization like the others, you try to have structure and hierarchies. PMI has to evolve faster and need to become something a bit more modern in the way we see other companies adopting. You would be amazed by how difficult it is to change PMI. It’s about spreading the importance of change but actually, there’s quite a resistance with the PMI, not just with bosses, but also from the chapters and members. We need to learn to become more agile, as we talk. We need to explore and experiment and adapt our products and services and go for market towards the new reality. I think we have completely missed agile. We cannot afford that anymore, we need to be shaping the future of competencies in organizations and influencing senior leaders. There are so many bright people, actually, I don’t see any community with so many bright people, who are smart, who think, have work and experience. But somehow that’s not projected around or it’s not projected with the power it could be. PMI will survive for sure but we do want to make it like a leading place to be.
Do you have an idea for your next book or for the next concept for project management?
Well, I am not like a book writer, it’s just a very painful process. But the good news is that everyone can write a book. You don’t need to be a guru or professor, it’s enough if you have an idea or something to share. Nowadays, you don’t even need the publisher. It’s a painful process but it gives you the clarity about what you want to share and bring some concepts and examples because you need to do a bit of research.
Last year I published two books just because people came to me, so I had to work on the Project Revolution, which is about the project economy and simplification of project management. I think that’s one of my biggest areas. I need to make project management simple and I want to make project management not for the PM’s but for the 95% of people who are occasional Project Managers, for the sponsors.
Then Penguin, a well-known publisher whose things you can meet at the airport, came to me. They were launching a new business series and one of the main books was about project management. I couldn’t refuse, but after writing two books last year, I said “no more books in 5 years.” But then, Harvard Business Review (HBR) offered me cooperation. They wanted to renew their HBR project management handbook. It was published ten years ago, it’s very old-fashioned and again, I couldn’t say no. So I am writing the HBR project management handbook, it will be published next year and it’s again back on the simplification.
I am also working on the second edition of the project canvas – to simplify project management. So, more focus on simplification, more focus on the project economy, more focus on senior leaders. But I think Project Managers can learn, we have been trained to be very technical and use technical walls and focus on time, cost, deliverables, but we need to learn to talk about the benefits. We need to learn why we do a project, not because there’s a nice return on investment but because we’re changing the world and that’s nobody tells us to tell. That’s my big project, it’s not easy, but it needs to be done.
Thank you very much Antonio for your time today and a very interesting interview. Good luck with your plans, keep safe and healthy!
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is a leading expert in project management and strategy implementation, recognized by Thinkers50 with the prestigious award “Ideas into Practice”. He is the creator of concepts like The Project Economy and the Project Manifesto. Former Chairman of the PMI, co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute and the global movement Brightline. Antonio has held executive PMO positions at PwC, BNP Paribas and GSK. He is the author of Lead Successful Projects, The Project Revolution and The Focused Organization. He has been teaching project management for more than a decade to senior executives at Duke CE, Skolkovo, Solvay Business School, and Vlerick. He is an Economist, has an MBA from London Business School and Insead’s IDP. He is a member of Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches.
Ekspertka i pasjonatka zarządzania projektami oraz ludźmi. Doświadczony facylitator, trener biznesu, mentor, coach. Posiada 20 lat profesjonalnego doświadczenia w realizacji projektów dla biznesu i IT, w tym w firmie konsultingowej Deloitte oraz w zarządzaniu PMO. Obecnie Manager w Group PMO w DSV. Prezes Zarządu PMI Poland Chapter (2016-2018), wieloletni Członek Zarządu PMI PC i European Chapter Cooperation Liaison. Asesor i członek jury konkursów oceniających najlepsze projekty oraz PMO w Polsce i na świecie (USA, Chiny, RPA). Absolwentka PMI Leadership Institute Master Class. Entuzjastka społecznego przywództwa, zaangażowana w projekty tworzące nową jakość i zmieniające świat na lepszy.