(This post contains affiliate links. Read my full disclosure.)
In this video I talk to Todd Williams about how to implement your strategy through the successful delivery of projects.
We discuss how to stay connected to your corporate strategy, politics, leadership and why project managers are just a bubble in a bubble bath.
There’s a transcript below if you prefer to read.
Elizabeth: Hello, everyone. It’s Elizabeth here and welcome to today’s Facebook Live session. Hopefully you can see and hear me okay. I am just going to bring up my questions because today we have a special guest who’s coming to join us on the broadcast. We have Todd Williams who is the author of this book: Filling Execution Gaps. This copy is still in its plastic because it is for a giveaway and I will tell you a little bit more about that later.
I’m just going to ping Todd a note to say that we’re live, so that he knows to look out so that he can join us. The Facebook Live works on this basis where when somebody is watching the video then we can invite them be part of it and we’ll end up having Todd and I both live here on the screen and I’ll be asking him some questions about what strategy execution gaps really are and how all that works.
Let me get my questions ready. He and I were chatting earlier on today just to make sure that we had everything lined up for this evening. You might be wondering why I’m doing my Facebook Live session tonight on a Wednesday instead of on Friday afternoon, which is when you normally see me here live in the group and that is because this Friday I am speaking at a conference.
Todd wants to be in my video. I’m going to approve that and I’m going to add him. This Friday I’m speaking at a conference and it means that I’m not exactly sure what the internet is going to be like from there, so I wanted to make sure that we still had time today to catch up with Todd. And there he is. Hello, Todd, we can see you.
Todd: I’m just fine. It took a while for the phone to sync up and all that, but eventually we got there and I’m here, I’m live. We’re on the same side of the meridian, so it’s afternoon here, evening there, so we don’t have to worry about too much. I could say good afternoon and I’d be correct
Elizabeth: We’re eight o’clock, so it’s pretty much the end of my working day. You’ve got bright sunshine ’cause it’s midday for you, isn’t it?
Todd: Yes, it’s midday, it this afternoon.
Elizabeth: Brilliant. Right, well thank you very much for joining us today. I know we spoke a bit earlier, but I haven’t given you much of a clue about what I wanted to talk about, so I’ll just put you on the spot. Now, I know one of the things that you’ve been doing in the group this week is going in and answering some questions ’cause we’ve had those prompt questions up about strategy execution and what people understand about their strategy.
There was one story in particular that you shared from your book that really spoke to me about how an executive didn’t get what they wanted from a meeting because the project manager was presenting the wrong information. Tell us a bit more about that.
Todd: Well actually, that’s the first part of three different perspectives because what we have to think about as project managers is we have our perspective on how things are, the executive has their perspective, and the customer and user, whatever you have for your project, has another perspective and they’re really significantly different. I just push the concept of what I felt many of your people have already seen, and felt, and maybe had a little bit of pain and suffering around and that was you walk into that meeting, it’s the same only dry people. I mean, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve done it. I know they’re not listening and then you provide all the information and you really think you did good and you answered the wrong question. It’s not just formulating the message to the audience, it’s trying to figure out what is their current biggest issue that they have going on because they’re trying to run a business. You have this little itty bitty part of it that’s kind of a business inside that bigger business and now you need to match that up. Well, if today’s big topic with the CEO, or the board of directors, or whoever, happens to be return on investment, or it happens to be the quarterly reports that go out to the stock market here in the United States, I’m sure you have a similar type thing.
Elizabeth: We have the same.
Todd: Reporting. Then that may be the questions you have to answer. It’s not just how my projects fits into that entire organizational goals and strategies, but it’s also looking at, “Hmm, it’s April,” or “It’s the end of March”. I wonder if they’re going to want to know something about how this is going to hit the bottom line of the organization, because they may be thinking about something very different. Maybe there was just a challenge with a vendor or a customer that made the news, or made the news at least in the sphere of that business, you better know that because that’s the type of stuff that’s all of sudden going to come back and hit you.
Elizabeth: How do you find that out?
Todd: How do you find that out? Well, part of it is just paying attention to what your company is doing.
Todd: If your company is [inaudible], so in the U.S., we use U.S. terms, if they’re on the stock exchange, just go take a look at their quarterly reports. Find out when that news is released. It’s noon, it’s hard for me to talk. I was on a project once, gosh it was probably in the early 2000s, and I actually did open up the annual report, take a look at that, and my project was second on the list of major risks for the company and that really changed–
Elizabeth: Wow, you didn’t know that before?
Todd: No, I did not know that before. I knew it was a risky project, I knew it was in trouble, I mean it’s kind of what I deal in, right, so I knew that it was in trouble, but I had no idea that it was actually in the annual report. I looked at that and seeing what they saw as the risk factors, then as I gave my reports to the executives, then I threw in those words.
It calmed down some of the executives and some of the stuff didn’t calm them down because it wasn’t going very well. I was able to get attention, get it focused so that I got the support that I needed, so you can find it out from there. Just listening to your bosses, sometimes reading the paper, which hopefully it doesn’t get in the paper, but just kind of seeing what’s happening with your organization.
If your company is building a new building and hiring a bunch of employees, that’s in the paper, it’s not bad news, but that could distract your executive sponsors and distract people that are in the room. They’re worried about how your project may fit in with this other big project that they’re concerned about. So keep your ear to the wall and just listen. As project managers, we tend now and then to think about our own little bubble and we’re just an itty bitty bubble in a big tub of bubble bath. There’s a lot of other bubbles, so we’ve got to stand back now and then and take a look at that.
Elizabeth: Okay. So staying connected, listening out, being part of the political infrastructure, I suppose, and applying all that business acumen that helps you do more than just deliver the project.
Todd: Well yeah, I mean politics isn’t bad, politics is politics, that’s what we have to deal with. If you think politics is bad, then don’t go into business, which would limit your ability to be a project manager pretty quickly. Politics isn’t bad, you just need to understand it. That phrase you used, “business acumen,” is really significant, is really important. You need to sit down and study how businesses work and what CEOs, CFOs, et cetera are really focused on.
Elizabeth: You’ve just had a little comment from Rebecca who’s watching: “Just a bubble in a bubble bath, “I think people are going to remember that.”
Todd: At least the ladies will. Some of the guys probably don’t get into the bubble bath thing, but you know, I got kids so we’re doing that all the time.
Elizabeth: Do you think that’s the biggest challenge, facing people who are trying to get strategy done? Or are there other things that you think that are big challenges?
Todd: Well, I just wrote a book on it, so I think there’s really six things that are, what I’ll call, the gaps. That was the easiest one to see. It’s really obvious when you walk into a meeting and you’re talking about apples, they’re talking about oranges, it really slaps you in the face.
But, there’s another gap that I think every project manager who’s listening out there will go “uh, yeah,” and that’s executive sponsors and how engaged executive sponsors are.
Read next: How to Engage Your Project Sponsor
Todd: That’s a huge gap. I did some surveys for the book, I did about 350 interviews, surveys, et cetera and one of the things I found was that executives in general thought that the executive sponsor role was well defined, worked well– And their problem, yet if I talk to anybody in project management, even in the same company, they were saying just the opposite. I had probably 99% of the people, I’ve got the stats around somewhere, 99% of the project managers said executive sponsorship is a problem.
They’re not engaged, they don’t know what’s going on, so there’s another gap that we see all the time. Things that might be a little less obvious are things like
Todd: That’s a big topic. If we’re running projects and a project build to change and we don’t have change management in our project, sounds like a gap to me. It sounds like there’s a hole there.
Elizabeth: And I see that every day. When I’m talking to people about implementation and delivery and what I’m hearing back is, “Well, we’ve done our work, we’ve delivered the project.” But it’s not enough because if you don’t take the time to integrate that change and to make it stick, then you’re going to end up with people just going back to their old ways and that investment in that change is not getting you closer to your strategy because it hasn’t had any real long-term effect.
Todd: Right. What’s that old phrase from the ’60s in the United States, “What if we gave a war and nobody came?” But that’s kind of the same thing. We’ve done this great thing and nobody used it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that. Another area that’s huge is governance and I rely a lot on some of the publications over here in the U.S. that PMI puts out on PMOs and things like that. PMOs, there’s a lot of question about how effective they are. That was part of my post today was if you have a PMO in your organization, whether it’s project, portfolio, whatever the P stands for, ’cause there’s a million different P’s. There’s 10 Yeah, there’s 10.
Elizabeth: Perfect, how you put it.
Todd: 10, a million, they’re close to one another, right? 10 is just the same as a million. Are they really just filling gaps? Some of the gaps I just talked about. Are they really trying to fill a hole that’s in the organization whenever it really is somebody else’s job to do that?
Todd: Trying to project aligned to the corporate goals and strategies, that’s another huge gap. Most people, when I talk to a project manager about: What goals does your project address? Most of them can’t say it. There was a guy by the name of Sull, Donald Sull, he’s a professor at MIT, he did a study and he found out that when he talked to middle managers that 45% of middle managers, only 45%, could name one of the top five business strategies or business goals.
Elizabeth: For their company?
Todd: For the company. As a middle manager, you’re probably reporting to a middle manager, and if that person doesn’t know the goals of the company, how is your project ever going to align?
Elizabeth: No, it doesn’t.
Todd: Right, so it’s another gap. That’s another one. The last one, the big one, is leadership. There’s a quote by Peter Singh, which I can’t recite off the top of my head, but basically he says the problem with the word leadership is it’s been totally abused in the organization. We talk about the organization’s leadership, what we’re really talking about is the senior executives and it starts to taint how people think about leadership in that, “I’m just a project manager, I’m not leadership,” which is totally false, it just poisons the organization.
What we need to have is understand what the leadership structure is from the CEO all the way down to the individual contributor. I make a point in the book a number of times that the best, strongest, most exciting, impressive leader is the architect or the business analyst who’s actually leading the customer away from what they say they want to what they really need because they have absolute authority. They’re at the bottom of the rungs, so to speak, they’re an individual contributor and if they can lead the customer to the solution that they actually need, that is leadership at its finest. That’s the type of leadership I’m talking about throughout the entire stack of the organization.
Elizabeth: Okay. Michael has just left a comment, so perhaps we could pick up that. He says, “Change may or may not be an agreed deliverable “and that needs to be agreed from the start. “The project may just produce a deliverable “that may or may not be accepted.” I suppose that’s an interesting point, from what we were talking about from
Todd: Michael, what I would say to that is the reason we run a project is to change something. If we’re not changing something, making it better, making it bluer, making it pinker, faster, more efficient, if our project isn’t changing something, then there’s no reason to run a project. In fact, the word “project” comes from the word “to project,” like in “projectile,” to throw something forward and that’s really what a project is trying to do, is to try and move something forward in some way, shape, or form.
I may have a project that creates a new product, an NPD, New Product Development project, and so I’m creating a new widget, maybe it’s a new pen here that we’re going to put out on the market. Yes, my job in the project is just to create this, but if this pen isn’t accepted by end users, which generally belongs in the marketing department, they’re the ones who do that. If it isn’t accepted, the project was a waste of time, you lost massive amounts of money for the company. I would say that every project has a change component, regardless of how you look at it. I’d love to have that conversation if you want to take it offline. Hit me up on Facebook and we can just have that conversation for the rest of the day, but I think every project has a component of change in it and we need to be cognizant of that.
Elizabeth: And then you might document it, document it in the charter to say that actually it’s something that is required for the project. Okay, so I think we probably can go back to that. Like you say, we can pick it up in the comments later. You’ve talked a lot about the challenges, but what are things that project managers can actually do to help? Because we can’t necessary influence company policy or change the way portfolio management works in our business. Can we do anything?
Todd: Well, okay so this takes creativity, ’cause yes, some of these things are bigger than us and we can’t say, “How do we all of a sudden put together a strategy?” I had someone, I think it was in your thread, ask about strategy: “How do we get strategy?” We’re just down here at the bottom level of the company, “how do we get it?” Well, one trick that I do, and I do it all the time, is I go into an organization and I find out they don’t have a strategy, or they don’t map it out, or it’s not well known, and I just ask a bunch of questions and I put it together and I say, “Oh, here’s what I think it is.” I’ll maybe put a strategy map together, if you know what a strategy map is, it’s looking at the financial customer internal in growth and business items that need to be achieved to get to the goals. I’ll put that together and I’ll sit it in front of somebody and I say, “Here, take a look at this. Is this what we’re trying to do?” They say, “No, that’s not what we’re doing, I don’t know where you came up with that.”
There’s one around here somewhere I think. I hand them one of these, let me grab one, it’s my trusty red pen, we’re into the pens today, and I say, “Oh, would you please change it for me?” Allow them to actually grab that document, start changing it to make it make more sense. What I just did is I got the requirements that I needed I redo it and I promote that to somebody else and somebody else and I start getting the pieces all together. Quite often I’ll either get the actually strategy that needs to be done, or the strategy map, or balance scorecard type concept that I need, or what I end up with is a discrepancy where one group thinks we’re doing A and another group thinks we’re doing B and now I’ve found a real problem I can go address and solve and get things squared away.
Elizabeth: But you’re a consultant. It does, it makes perfect sense, but I think as a consultant coming into a business, you have an ability to do that, to get in front of the right people, to ask the questions, to be challenged. You’re paid for that kind of support. But as a normal, inadvertent air quotes project manager, makes me look like a rabbit there, I didn’t mean to Rabbit ears project manager. But you know as a normal employee, and my chain of command is not such that I can go in and sit down with the marketing director and say, “Well, what do you think our marketing strategy is?” I mean I can ask my own chain of command those questions and my project sponsor to get a strategy outlined or a vision for my project, but I don’t really see how I could take it further than that.
Todd: I think you can. I’ve actually given that advice to a few hundred people and none of them have gotten fired yet, okay, so who knows, maybe this could be a first. As a consultant, I can do that really quickly. Walk in, draw this out, and say, “Hey, I think we have a problem here.” As an employee, you’re doing it very differently. I think I said it in that response and I believe it was in your thread. It was to Mohammed and I said to him: tell them “Hey, this is a growth experience for me, “I’d like to put this together to see how it is.”
You have to find your allies. We should all have mentors, so maybe it’s one of those mentors that you have, and you’re sitting down with that mentor and saying, “This is what I’ve put together, this is what I think,” and that person turns around and corrects it. But yes, you have to create a safe environment. I come in with, I wouldn’t call it a safe environment, but I come in, in kind of a honeymoon period where I can say a lot of things are wrong at the very, very beginning. It’s not safe because of course if I do the wrong thing, I’m expendable, very expendable, and so you do have to create a safe environment and then move things forward to there. It’s not something you’re going to do nearly as fast as a consultant would do it, this may take you three, six months, maybe even longer, but I think it’s very doable and I know a number of people who have done it.
Elizabeth: I think it’s very doable and I’m thinking on my feet, but as a PMO manager, I think you’ve got perfect remit to be having these conversations.
Todd: As a PMO manager, depending on the type of PMO, but as a PMO manager, yes. If you’re a PMO manager that’s just preaching methodology, no. If you’re a PMO manager that’s trying to drive projects and keep them aligned, yeah this is well within your balance of scope.
Elizabeth: Okay. You put quite a lot of thought and effort, you talked about 360 interviews and everything and your book is very comprehensive, lots of pages. What was the funniest thing or the strangest thing that you came across when you were putting it together?
Todd: The funniest one, the one that left me somewhat speechless, was I was talking about executive sponsorship. I was talking to a person that I had worked with in the past at another company and she knew me quite well and I said to her, “Who is accountable for the project results?” She said, “The project manager is accountable.” I said, “Well, wait a minute. The project manager doesn’t make decisions, how can the project manager be accountable? Shouldn’t it be an executive sponsor?” Her response to me was, “Executive sponsors are far too high up in the organization to be accountable.”
Elizabeth: Really? What are they for then? They’re just decorations.
Todd: I said to her, “Would you repeat that “because I think I wrote it down wrong.” She repeated it and I said, “Do you understand what you’re saying?” She goes, “Yeah, but you’ve been here, “you know what it’s like, “they’re not going to be accountable.” That was one of the funniest and biggest revelations. The other was in the same line whenever I was talking about executive sponsorship and I was interviewing people. I started the interview process looking at just healthcare and I came up with a few interesting things in healthcare that I wasn’t aware of, so I decided I would hop over into a general world of business, so I did a bunch of other interviews in general business. One thing came out that was really, really exciting to me and that is that in healthcare if you have an executive sponsor or you’re in the process of picking an executive sponsor, for the most part do not pick a clinician. If you pick a clinician, if you pick a doctor, or a nurse, you’re project is going to fail, it has like a 90% chance of failing.
Elizabeth: No comment
Todd: With the exception of oncology. If you pick an oncologist as a project sponsor, then oncology works. This took a little bit for me to figure out exactly why this was the case. You need your sponsor to be able to come to you and say, “Elizabeth, Michael, or Mohammed, “do you realize you’ve got some risk here? You need to address this risk, I see this coming.” Or maybe just say, “Hey, let’s go out for a cup of coffee and let’s sit down and talk about your project, see what’s going on.”
You need a sponsor who is going to do that. When was the last time your doctor called up and said, “Let’s go out for a cup of coffee.” “Let’s do anything.” Where your doctor was reaching out proactively. It’s very, very rare. They’re waiting for you to come in, they’re very episodic, you come in, they fix the problem, and you’re out.
If you know you have a problem, you can go to your executive sponsor who’s a clinician and they might fix it. The odds are though, it’s usually too late by the time you’ve figured it out and you needed their help a lot sooner than that. If they don’t see emergency room, blood, death, dying eminent, they’re not going to be as reactive as other sponsors. In oncology, the interaction between the patient and the doctor is years long.
Elizabeth: That’s so interesting.
Todd: Yesterday I was talking to a doctor and he said, “Well, in a good case it’s years long. If you do things right, the oncology visit takes years.” I said the thing is that these oncologists then do have to call you up, or if they don’t call you up, one of their medical assistants call you up and say, “How are you feeling? How did that chemo work? How did that radiation work?” There’s a whole bunch of interaction that goes on and they’re mapping out a very long project with an oncology patient.
They’re used to that concept, so oncology clinicians worked much better as sponsors than non. I’m sure that would work for infectious disease and any other long interacted condition between physician and patient, but those clinicians would make better sponsors.
Elizabeth: How interesting.
Todd: That was the most interesting one, that was the one that was the real eye-opener for me. I thought it was pretty cool.
Elizabeth: Yes. No, I would never of. I can see the more people that you talk to, the more projects in healthcare that you investigate, the more you would have uncovered things like that. That’s a really interesting tidbit about people working in healthcare. Anyway, I feel like I’ve taken up a lot of your time this evening, so I just wanted to say thank you very much really for coming in and being with us in the group. I know that you’re around for a couple of days as well for any more questions that we might have.
Todd: I’m going to try and stay on social media a little bit more, so I might be in your group even long beyond this–
Elizabeth: Thank you.
Todd: Helping out, and posting, and comments. I’m trying to, at least.
Elizabeth: Well, we’d love to have you. For anybody who would like to get this lovely, still in its plastic. I have a copy of my own that I’ve read that is not in plastic, but this one is fresh from the publisher ready to be a giveaway prize for somebody, so look out on my blog on the 26th of February. Go to girlsguidetopm.com on the 26th of February, there will be all the information about how to get your hands on a copy of Filling Execution Gaps by the wonderful Todd. [Please note that this giveaway has now closed.]
Thank you very much Rebecca, Michael for joining us live and good morning in Australia as well and goodnight to everybody else. Thank you, good afternoon to you, Todd.
Todd: Good morning, Rebecca. Goodbye and we’ll catch you all here.
Elizabeth: Brilliant. Thank you very much. See you in the next video.