Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez – A new approach to transformation and the future of work
In this episode of #TheSpeakerShow, Maria Franzoni interviews Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez
Antonio is the world’s leading champion of Project Management and Strategy Implementation. He is the author of the Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook, the featured HBR article The Project Economy Has Arrived, and four other books. He is the creator of concepts such as the Project Economy and the Project Manifesto. His research and global impact in modern management have been recognized by Thinkers50. Fellow and Former Chairman of the Project Management Institute, he is the founder of Projects&Co and co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute. He is a member of Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches.
In this fascinating episode, we discuss:
- Project Management
- Project Economy
- Project Success Rates
- Strategy Implementation
- Less is More
Episode audio & transcript
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00:00:10 – 00:00:59
Hello. And welcome back to The Speaker’s Show with me, Maria Franzoni. In today’s show, we will be talking about how to apply project management strategy to transformation and the future of work. The Speaker Show is brought to you by Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau for the world’s most successful organisations providing keynote speakers for events, conferences and summits. My guest is the world’s leading champion of project management and strategy implementation. He is the author of the Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook and featured HBR article, “The project economy has arrived” and four other books. He is the creator of concepts such as the Project Economy and the Project Manifesto.
00:00:59 – 00:01:25
His research and global impact in modern management have been recognised by Thinkers50 fellow and former chairman of the Project Management Institute. He is the founder of Projects and Co. and co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute. He’s a member of Marshall Goldsmith’s 100 coaches. Please welcome my guest, Antonio Nieto Rodriguez. Antonio, it is absolutely wonderful to see you today. How are you?
00:01:25 – 00:01:38
I’m so happy to be here with you, Maria. It’s just I love to listen to your podcasts or what you do. So, I’m so happy that we get together again. So, really looking forward for this talk.
00:01:38 – 00:02:09
Fantastic. So what people won’t know and I’m going to fill them in because it’s a lovely story. You were the very first guest I ever had, when I did a podcast that was back in two, March 2018 is when it went out. We actually recorded it earlier than that. I think we recorded it in, probably the December of 2017 when I had a terrible cold and a terrible bad voice. And you were wonderful. You were such a good kind guest. So thank you for launching me into this world. Appreciate it. You didn’t put me off by being my first.
00:02:09 – 00:02:33
And actually, that came as a result because I had seen you at a wonderful garden dinner where you received an award. But what, I’m going to ask you about the award in a moment. But the thing that shocked me and most of the audience was that you had cut your honeymoon short, to come and receive this Thinkers50 award. So, four years later, has your wife forgiven you.
00:02:33 – 00:03:02
Well, glad you remember that, Maria. Indeed, we had to. We were in Argentina, in Patagonia was not like an hour from London. So, it was like in the other side. And it was tough, but I had good chances to win this award from Thinkers50. So, she understood at that time. She still remembers once in a while that she did a big sacrifice. And I’ve taken her around a few other times to compensate. But, nice.
00:03:02 – 00:03:05
Fantastic. What was that award? Remind me, because you actually won it.
00:03:05 – 00:03:13
Yeah. It was ideas into practice from Thinkers50, one of these special awards. So really, really happy for that.
00:03:13 – 00:03:38
And thank goodness you won it because otherwise, I think you would never have heard the end of it. And what an understanding woman. Anyway, so let’s talk a little bit about projects because obviously, you are an expert in project management and in strategy. But for most organisations, I think almost everybody has a project that they’re working on. How did you first get, you know, interested in this area?
00:03:38 – 00:03:52
Well, Maria, very briefly to two big moments in my career. At the beginning, when I started working. I was just an order analyst processing orders for a technology company. And suddenly, someday once said, we’re launching this new project.
00:03:52 – 00:04:34
It’s about the share service centre. So you need to travel. You need to learn, you need to teach, and I say, Oh, I want to volunteer and I suddenly got into this project without knowing anything. And I love that. I really loved the work of opinion, a project because it was really different. Every day was different. I was meeting new people, as opposed to my day to day job. We were just processing data and sending facts at the time, you know, and on the other side, when I was busy with the project, I was great. I was learning. I was teaching. I started to teach, so that was the key moment. I really enjoyed the type of work in a project-based. So diverse, so changing, so challenging. The second big moment was when I was fired because senior leaders didn’t
00:04:34 – 00:05:04
appreciate the value Project management. They say, “What’s project management? We cannot invest in that, this is not the high end consulting service. This is cheap, anybody can do that. This is tactical, it’s boring, bureaucratic.” So therefore I said, “Well, I need to change that. I cannot accept that senior leaders don’t appreciate the value of projects and project management.” So, two big points there in my career, one more fun, the other one, is a bit less, but big influence, for me.
00:05:04 – 00:05:18
It’s interesting that comment you made. I mean, obviously, you talked about being fired and we’ve talked about it before. We won’t we won’t dwell on that, but I think it’s interesting how many people go on to, you know, find a new and very successful path after being fired. I think well done for
00:05:18 – 00:05:19
you. You’ve made
00:05:19 – 00:05:30
the statement project management and the view that people thought anybody can do that. Can anybody really, you know, manage a project? Would you say? What skills does it take?
00:05:30 – 00:05:43
Well, Maria. Yes, everybody is managing projects, but they’re not prepared. They’re not trained. So that’s the challenge, that’s what I’m trying to help organisations at every level. You know, their senior leaders who don’t know how to sponsor a project.
00:05:43 – 00:06:26
They do their best. Everybody does their best, but they don’t have the fundamentals. They don’t have the right tools to do that as well as managers and individuals. Entrepreneurs, nonprofit. So, my mission is to make sure that first, I simplify project management because one of the things that I found is trying to discover why senior leaders didn’t like Project management because it’s super complicated, right? If you want to learn project management, you need to read the book of 700 pages. Who’s going to read that, right? So, there’s no one simple framework that could be used in any type of project, any kind of environment. So that has been one of my mission in the last years, simplification so that everybody that is doing projects, which is everyone
00:06:26 – 00:06:40
can have an easy way to understand the fundamentals. And yes, once you have the basis, once you know how to drive the project, you can be much more successful. So it is possible everybody can learn these skills.
00:06:40 – 00:07:15
I love that you’re making it simpler because I think everything is so complex in our world. We’re overwhelmed, don’t we? So the fact that you simplify and you know when you think about the term project management you think about these huge technical things. But actually, any project where you actually have a time scale and a timeframe and a goal where you want to get somewhere, is actually, it’s a project, isn’t it? And you can apply what you teach to it. So, anybody who has a goal, of getting from A to B can apply your teachings. Is that right?
00:07:15 – 00:07:47
Absolutely, Maria. Exactly. If your individual you’re a student, you’re a start-up, is getting from a place to another one, is changing the things that you produce or yourself, is reorganising your business, any digital transformation, it’s a programme, it’s a project. So yes, I think one of the things that is very different now and it’s what I call the project economy Maria, is that in the past, changed around the world happened slowly. Yeah, it didn’t happen. But now it has accelerated so much that the product
00:07:47 – 00:08:16
life cycle, whatever you’re selling, the duration where you can sell it is much shorter than the competition will come with something similar cheaper. So that means that companies need to constantly launch more products, more services, much faster than 10, 20 years ago. That’s why, many companies today, this is a funny story, but not so funny. Many companies that I talked today Maria they have more projects than employees, and they still have to do their job.
00:08:16 – 00:08:33
Wow! And so every time you launch a product, it’s really a project. And every time you create a new, you have a digital transformation, it’s a project. So, I think we need to sort of think so. It’s interesting. We probably don’t think about projects in that way. That’s interesting. I like that. So what is this project economy then?
00:08:33 – 00:09:16
Well, I can make it very simple. I think on a macro level around the world, they’re all this investment that the public sector is doing governments to reenergise the economies and rebuild healthcare and rebuild economies. This is leading to a massive amount of public funding to recover the world recent. So these are all projects that we’re seeing. This is trillions of US dollars being spent in recovery. My focus is more on organisations and there’s a big change Maria that we’ve not seen in the last 50 years, which is the type of work that companies and individuals are doing in the companies is shifting from operation space where you have,
00:09:16 – 00:09:55
where you have a job description, right? Companies they have job description for people to tell them. This is what you need to do for the next three years. This is what you need to focus. This is shifting because artificial intelligence is taking over many of these operational tasks. So most of the people now are working in project based type of work. That means we work in this project for six months. We don’t know what’s going to happen later, to the point that companies are cancelling job descriptions. This is companies that might have 100 thousands of job descriptions because they see people are working on projects and projects last six months, nine months. So just to make it even more simple more clear,
00:09:55 – 00:10:35
Maria, when I have interviews with media or so they tell me. So, it looks like the gig economy, right where you have small projects, people working in projects, I say, exactly like the gig economy. The only difference is that in the gig economy it’s happening outside your company, right? It’s people working independent in the project. Once the project is over, they move on. What happens here is the gig company happens in their companies, right? So that means that people are working a gig economy within the organisation. They get into a project, they finish the project, they move to another project. So, that’s the project economy, like the gig economy within your company.
00:10:35 – 00:10:52
I like that. That’s really interesting, and I like the idea. I actually like the idea that you don’t have so, you know, really structured job description, but maybe your job description is that you know, to be a team player and to be a problem, to be good at problem solving or to be flexible or open minded, creative, as opposed to saying,
00:10:52 – 00:11:29
you know, these are the to do’s. So it’s more like who you are, I suppose, and what your skill. That’s fascinating. And I do like that the way you explained it, the gig economy inside your organisation. And I can see that because, you know, were my organisation is very small now, but we do have projects and we do sort of manage those projects. Probably, we’re not big enough to employ you, but if we understood the project management side, we’d probably be very much faster. Is that the big advantage to achieve results faster if you manage them properly? Or is it something else? What’s the big benefit of managing?
00:11:29 – 00:12:25
They are, it’s a great question, Maria. Again, you’re so good doing the podcast because your questions are really going to really deep. So there are different benefits. Of course, we want that projects are successful. Projects bring more value to the company, to the society, to the individuals, there is no doubt. One of the things that I’m really upset and I want to change and I’m fighting is success rate in projects is very poor, it’s appalling. It’s like three out of seven projects succeed. So 70% failure rate, which is unbelievable, right? When I talked to the project management community, this is unacceptable we need to change that. So doing projects better is key. But the other big thing that happens here, people don’t get overwhelmed when they had operational activities, they knew they had a job description. They knew that their work was that where they get overwhelmed. The
00:12:25 – 00:13:13
the great reset is because you’re adding project after project after project to the people and they get overwhelmed because they don’t know which project they need to work. Everything seems too urgent. So for me, the reason for this big resignation is because they have not managed to change in terms of from operation work to project based work. So I think one big benefit when you have priority clears when senior leaders do their job in prioritisation in selecting the right projects in allocating the resources to the most important project is that the people feel more happy, right? They’re engaged. They’re happy to go to work. I always say, Maria, when I talk to CEOs, what is the one project that make your people proud and make them come happy to your organisation?
00:13:13 – 00:13:43
And they said, well, this digital transformation. This doesn’t make people proud. So you have a problem, right? So, Projects is about really providing a purpose to people going to work. Purpose without the project is nothing, right? It just works. So you need purpose, absolutely. But you need the project that will get you to the purpose. And that’s where I think the other big benefit that I’d like to share and really, I think this works.
00:13:43 – 00:14:20
I like that because the purpose is so important. I mean, it’s important anyway, but at least we’re talking about it now, and everybody’s talking about it. But the purpose without a project, because how do you do that? And the fact, that people need to feel proud, I also, I like that statement to that is so important. I suppose some of this comes back to sort of the strategy work that you do, because surely until the strategy is set, every project will be a priority because we don’t know strategically where we’re going, right? So is that the starting point? You have to do the strategy thinking first before you even embark and decide what projects are needed.
00:14:20 – 00:14:47
Absolutely, Maria. I think that is where, where we’ve, I think we are in a rush like everything is so fast and one of the challenges with projects is funny about it. But one of the things that humans like is kick-off meetings, right? It’s by, we love to start things. So, I always say, how difficult it’s to start a project? Nothing it doesn’t cost. Just call a kick-off meeting and everybody will be there. And the people who you don’t invite to the kick-off they will be upset.
00:14:47 – 00:15:31
So, everybody wants to be there, right? But then who comes to the second meeting when you start to do the work, half of the people say, “I’m too busy.” “Sorry.” So, I think you can make a big difference when you connect strategy like you were saying, so okay, we want to enter that market, we want to transform our business like this way. Digital transformation is important for us because of this is that where we want to go. And that would be already a natural selection of which of the projects you should go, which one you should not go. And just to give you a number, I am almost sure that most of organisations you can cancel 50% of the projects. We’re talking about 400, 500 projects in one shot. Nothing will happen.
00:15:31 – 00:15:38
50% of the projects, you cancel them from today nothing will happen. The company will continue.
00:15:38 – 00:16:00
That’s interesting. I was going to ask you for numbers, actually, you read my mind. I don’t suppose there’s a guide and how many projects as an individual you can look after. I suppose it depends on each individual, what business you’re in and how big the projects are. I suppose so. I can’t ask you that question, but there must be again a maximum before you become overwhelmed, I suppose. Yes?
00:16:00 – 00:16:41
Yeah. Well, my recommendation is to have to maximum if it’s a strategic one. Just one, Maria. I’ve done research of thousands of projects. The most successful have 100% dedicated resources. So okay, this is our big bet, the iPhone. What happened with the COVID vaccine? It happened because some people work the best team got together and were just 100% on that. So, there is no doubt about the more dedication, the better the chances of success. The better the team that you put in the project, the more chances of success and one very important. That’s why I talk a lot to senior leaders and do
00:16:41 – 00:17:22
work with their companies and keynotes is senior leaders, they don’t know that and they don’t make the time to be in the project. If you ask people in the project when was the last time you saw the CEO of the company in your project? They’ll say never. Why? Because senior leaders have to be involved in the most important projects and not just one hour per month. I’m talking about a few hours per week and they’re not prepared. So, there’s a lot of work that I do with senior leaders to transform that culture, to help them to get better. And making that connection of strategy, project and allocation of resources is the most important part to be successful in projects.
00:17:22 – 00:17:56
Okay, so really important point that senior managers need to be involved and actually, that makes sense. And I like the statement that you know, to have one. if it’s an important project. It should be just that one and you put all your eggs in that basket and all your focus. And we’ve got the best case study ever, haven’t we? With the COVID vaccine, it’s an amazing case study. So I get that. And so, yeah, that makes total sense to me that everybody focuses and it is about focus, isn’t it? So, organisations could potentially cut a lot of their projects.
00:17:56 – 00:18:18
As part of this, though, do you think that when we’re looking at projects and when we’re managing them, and I think you’ve alluded to it, in project management itself, the project management can be overcomplicated. People who aren’t project managers but who are managing projects and transformations in an organisation. Do you think they overcomplicate things too? Do we have that natural tendency as humans to make things too complex?
00:18:18 – 00:19:01
I think so. I think simplicity creates kind of a bit of doubts. No, it is, it’s natural. Always put this example. Imagine you’re the boss of a company and you have somebody doing the project for you and you have two projects. One project manager comes with a report of 200 pages saying, okay, this is the status of the Project 200 pages. Another project manager comes with one page. Naturally, you would think, OK, the person with the 200 report will be more in control, right? This is wrong. But this is what we’ve been working and that’s why, I think we overcomplicate because we think well, it looks like we’re more in control. I feel more in control. I’m pushing to the other one. I think I just need one page on your project,
00:19:01 – 00:19:33
but I want to have a good discussion around it. I want to know what’s not working. I can teach Maria, anybody in half an hour, to look at the project and know whether it’s good or not. If it’s going to fail or not in half an hour, I can do that. I do that with many organisations. This is an eye-opener because it’s just straightforward and say, well, if you have more reds than greens, stop the project. Don’t continue. So it’s just scary to simplify things. But then I do believe that this is the way forward.
00:19:33 – 00:20:11
I also think the simplification isn’t easy, and I think somebody who’s written one page opposed to somebody has written 200 has pulled out the essence and the important aspects within those 200 pages. And it’s actually, probably takes longer to write that one page, than it has to take to write the 200 that hasn’t. So, I completely get that, and I know that when speakers offer when they’re asked to speak for 15 minutes, and they used to doing a longer speech. It’s so much harder for them to drill down to get that essence that the client needs to hear, totally get that. So, is this what you talk about when you talk about your less is more approach?
00:20:11 – 00:20:55
Absolutely, less and more in projects. We need less projects, but better, really makes a big difference. Cut 80% of the project with the pandemic. Maria, you were referring to that. Companies cut 90% of the projects in a week. Did something happen? No. And we started to work remotely, and everybody focused on one or two projects to keep the company alive and come back. And so we did that. So I’m saying the same. Less is more in terms of projects, less is more in terms of methodologies and approaches. One of the things that I provide new, Maria also in my speeches, in my work, is that there has been a huge debate between agile methods, right? It’s agile, it’s simple it’s
00:20:55 – 00:21:33
it’s lithe, there’s not agreeing with the more traditional project management, which tends to have a lot of documentation say well, we actually need both. You cannot disregard agile. You cannot disregard the other type of project management. So, I’m proposing and promoting a different way of looking at projects using all these methods, because we need them all, not just the agile and project management, but continuous improvement change management product development. So, I really embraced them all in a simplified way, because that’s what I think it makes companies successful. That’s the competencies of the future.
00:21:33 – 00:22:18
That statement that you can in half an hour tell people whether a project is going to fail or succeed. I think it’s worth bringing you into an organisation just to do that, to go through all the projects. I think you’ll be fully booked just on that statement. I like that, quite a lot. So, we’ve run out of time. So, my final question to you, you mentioned that you have spoken to a lot of senior executives. You who are responsible, you know, for the projects. And you’ve said that perhaps they don’t spend as much time as they should. Is there anything else that those who really do succeed? You know, do right that might make or break, you know, make the project as opposed to break the project, I should say. What are the guys that do it right do?
00:22:18 – 00:23:03
Well, one thing is understanding the fundamentals. The sponsors understand the fundamentals. Second is prioritisation, the connection with the strategy and then clearly one or two projects coming from that. The other very important, we touch on that, Maria was a bit of resources. So, companies are very much into these structures and cultures, and so, the best project sponsors or leaders. What they do is, they extract the team who is going to work on a digital transformation, and they put them aside. So, we cannot change an organisation with all the complexities in a week or in a month to make our projects better. So, I’ve seen extracting the best people in the project, putting them into the project to work on it full time. So
00:23:03 – 00:23:41
they have the courage to say, Hey, listen, you’re the best in what you’re doing. I know you have an operational job, but I need you. So, join me for two years to develop this project, and the person says, but who’s going to do my job? I have a team of 200 people here marketing. Don’t worry, that’s the easy part. Anybody can do your job in operations, right. But we need you and your talent to work in this crazy team to develop the future of our organisation. And that’s what I miss. I don’t see senior leaders taking the courage of extracting their resources and creating a high performing team with the best people for the most important project.
00:23:41 – 00:23:55
Okay, so you’ve got to create the high performing team with the best people, which makes absolute sense. Absolute sense. Antonio, it’s been a pleasure to catch up with you and give my best to your lovely lady wife, and I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself.
00:23:55 – 00:24:06
Always, always, Maria. I could go on forever talking to you. Thank you for what you’ve, thank you for your podcast. It’s great. I think it’s the best by far in there in this space. So thank you.
00:24:06 – 00:24:48
Thank you so much. So thank you everybody for listening to The Speaker Show. And if you enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating on Apple Podcast. You can keep up with future episodes on the Speakers Associates website, which is (speakersassociates.com), or your favourite podcast app. Make sure you grab a copy of the Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook because it’s full of amazing, amazing advice there. We touched on very little there in 20 minutes. And if you would like to invite Antonio to come and speak with you at your next conference, please contact Speakers Associates in plenty of time to book him so that you’re not disappointed. I will see you all next week. Bye-bye for now. Thank you.
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Maria Franzoni is an established and recognised speaking industry expert and one of the most experienced speaker bookers in Europe.
As well as working with speakers, Maria also hosts live shows and podcasts. She currently hosts The Speaker Show podcast for Speakers Associates.