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The Project Revolution: How to Succeed in a Project Driven World

The Project Revolution, the latest book from Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, makes and supports the claim that not only has the operating environment become one in which project working has become increasingly important but that the rate of this may be described as a ‘project revolution’. The emergence of projects as the economic engine of our times may have been silent, but it is incredibly disruptive and powerful.

The Project RevolutionMr Nieto-Rodriguez has been recognised as the world’s leading champion of project management and founder of a global movement that has transformed the tactical topic of project management into one of the central issues in the CEO’s 2020 agenda. Not only has he been recognised as such by Thinkers50 with its ‘Ideas into Practice Award’ in 2017, but he has shown that his ideas translate to practice – he has a distinguished project career and is currently Director of the Project Management Office at GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines.

In The Project Revolution, revolution means ‘popular and often forceful revolt against a government or social order’, here the traditional ‘silo-based’ nature of most organisations, and the absence of a ‘CPO’ that is, Chief Project, Program and Portfolio Officer, amongst the more commonly found C-Suite officers (I have just realised that this new officer should really be called C3PO, but no joke was intended!)

This book achieves many things:

  • it evidences the rise and needs for the revolution;
  • it provides a ‘project canvas’ – an alternative framework for the application of project management;
  • it demonstrates that successful projects are not just about estimates and critical paths, but crucially about engagement, benefits and strategic alignment;
  • and demonstrates that different personal and organisational skills and leadership are necessary.
  • Above all, however, as a whole book (and summarised for us in the last chapter) it provides a manifesto for action.

Before we look at the manifesto, however, let’s take a look at the book itself.

Planet Project

In ‘Planet Project’ (Chapter 1), Mr Nieto-Rodriguez uses examples to show that projects are all around us, ranging from the personal to the mega-level. And whilst the use of the word ‘project’ has only substantially been with us since the start of the last century, its occurrence in media now far exceeds that of the words ‘strategy’, ‘operations’ and ‘marketing’, terms more familiar to us in the course of ‘business-as-usual’ operations. Further, he shows that the ‘project-thinking’ evident in the construction of the pyramids, Rwanda’s Reconstruction and Reconcilement program and the rescue of the miners in Chile, allows civilisation to make major strides, achieving beyond scientific and cultural limits.

Ngrams – the incidence of the word ‘project’ in media was determined by use of Google ngram analysis, analysing the total incidence of the word in a vast body of media indexed by Google. Whilst verifying the figures, I accidentally typed in the range 1500 CE to 2018 CE, and discovered that the word ‘project’, whilst showing a general and accelerating upwards trend over 500 years, showed a major peak in 1620, equivalent to its use in 1975 (yes, really!). The year that the Mayflower set sail! It would be tempting to conclude that the Pilgrim Fathers must have been the first project managers. 😊

That project working is on the march is evidenced further by the vast increase in people working in project-based roles, by the enshrinement of quality standards into US federal law (Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act 2016), by the achievement of chartered status within the UK (Association for Project Management) and the growing movement towards projectisation shown within leading companies such as IBM and Nike.

My Project Life

In ‘My Project Life’ (Chapter 2), Mr Nieto-Rodriguez explains his experience and journey leading to the instigation of the Brightline Initiative, under the auspices of the PMI (of which he was Chairman), the global coalition closing the gap in project management awareness. Critical in this is the communication to senior leaders that project management is not just technical and tactical, but a strategic competence.

But What is a Project?

In ‘But What is a Project?’ (Chapter 3) the author points out that ‘project management’ is not for free, and that companies should be careful about deciding what is and what is not a project. Labelling something like a ‘project’, (when it may in fact be an initiative of low value or low complexity) may even have negative consequences in terms of additional governance and control costs that may not be necessary, as well as creating prioritisation problems.

Instead, Mr Nieto-Rodriguez offers a far less technical, but more strategic definition encompassing the idea of bringing an idea to reality, with intensive communication requirements (and indeed, the author points out that studies have shown that project managers with a high degree of communication skills are far more likely to deliver successful projects).

That businesses need to equip their resources with the skills to manage projects, and that the organisation itself needs to be re-calibrated so that appropriate resources are allocated to projects is illustrated by a set of well-referenced examples of project failure. Of course, such mega-failures are more interesting that minor-failures, but most experienced project managers might find an echo within their own projects of examples such as that of SNCF who ordered 2000 new trains in 2014, only to find that they did not fit all the stations.

A key theme is that ‘Projects’ change the business, whilst ‘Operations’ run the business, the point being that, as business-as-usual becomes optimised and automated, the most significant activity will be that of project management. Of course for many companies, the way they deliver their business is as a set of projects (for example design and deliver a manufacturing system within a client facility), however, although these ‘initiatives’ may be labelled as such, and utilise many project management tools, The Project Revolution would have it that these initiatives may not be truly ‘projects’ in the modern sense, the various tools used (such as determination of costs, and calculation of a schedule using Critical Path Analysis), being better described as estimating tools, and better suited to the ‘predictive’ environment rather than the increasingly common ‘emergent’ project environment.

The Project Canvas

Indeed ‘The Project Canvas’ (Chapter 5) underlines that documents such as the PMBOK (Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (6th edition 2017) are complex,  having their origins in engineering, and may mean little to most people other than advanced project managers. This in contrast to readily accessible principles in such disciplines as sales, marketing and strategy. As an alternative, the author offers a new ‘Project Canvas’ consisting of 14 ‘dimensions’ classified under the four domains of Why, Who, What How & When, and Where.

I like this approach. Critics may say that there is nothing new here in comparison with the PMBOK, however, whereas in the PMBOK, the technicalities (the knowledge areas) are separated from considerations (OK, ‘Enterprise Environment Factors’ etc – you see?) such as the organisation, the constraints, the governance, the rationale and purpose of the project, within the Project Canvas these are treated as one inseparable whole. Sure, the half page dedicated to the dimension of ‘time’ (scheduling) is not sufficient to actually plan a schedule, but it’s also true to say that no project ever failed because someone didn’t know how to set up the calendar in Microsoft Project. Whereas plenty of projects fail because of a misunderstanding of ‘purpose’, ‘passion’ and ‘dedication’ (together ‘engagement’) and ‘value’, ‘impact’ and ‘risks’ (together ‘benefits’), the new triple constraints of the Project Revolution.

Not content simply with theory, Chapters 6 shows how existing projects may be viewed through the lens of the ‘Project Canvas’, before Chapter 7 considers the critical aspect of project governance. And remember that the Project Revolution is not simply asking that governance is done properly, but more significantly suggests that it is the case that organisations ‘adapt or die’ in terms of their attitude to projects.

Rethinking Projects

Some organisations already do this very effectively, and in ‘Rethinking Projects’ (Chapter 8) Mr Nieto-Rodriguez again cites excellent and comprehensively referenced examples.

The Manifesto

So to the manifesto. Over 12 points the beliefs and demands of the revolution are expounded in detail.

Projects are the lingua franca of business, essential in the face of increasing disruption, the most human-centric way of working, the most effective way of breaking down established patterns, for example, silo working, in the achievement of an agile approach. Not least to create more value for both individuals and organisations, and benefitting society at large.

We demand project-based education and recognition that project implementation skills are required for all leadership positions.

Viva la revolution!

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About Rick Graham

Rick Graham
Rick Graham, an instructor with Strategy Execution, has been an active project manager for over 20 years. Areas of expertise and experience include strategic alignment, risk management, and optimisation of business value. Recent examples of projects with which Dr Graham has been involved include support in aligning project portfolio management systems with corporate strategic vision (telecommunications), development support in roll out of a global project risk management system, and support in project contracting strategy development and execution (oil & gas). He is a frequent speaker, and has been a keynote speaker at regional PMI conferences.

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