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Episode 348: A Project Success System (Premium)

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Ron Black
Ron Black

If you have listened to our previous interview with Ron Black (, then you know that all of us are superheroes and that we need a plan. And of course - in the comic books - superheroes always win. But they can only win if they succeed. For us this means of course that we must focus on achieving project success.

Ron Black says that successful project management depends on us project leaders doing things right and knowing our project success factors.

And one of the chapters in his book Leadership - The Everyday Superhero's Action Guide to Plan and Deliver High-Stakes Projects talks about a success system for us project leaders. So in this interview we look at why high-visibility projects get more attention and discuss many project success criteria.

We do this once again by reviewing the "Super Power Points" that he offers at the end of each chapter to summarize the message.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to episode number 348. This is the Project Management Podcast at and I'm Cornelius Fichtner. You are listening to one of our premium episodes recorded especially for you, our paying subscribers. Thank you for your financial support of the podcast. If you have listened to our previous interview with Ron Black, then you know that all of us are superheroes. And even though we're superheroes, we still need a plan. Of course, in the comic books, superheroes always win, they always succeed. For us project leaders, of course, this means that we must focus on achieving project success.  Ron Black says that successful project management depends on us project leaders doing things right and knowing our project success factors. And one of the chapters in his book, Leadership: The Everyday Superhero's Action Guide to Plan and Deliver High Stakes Projects, talks about a success system for project leaders.  So in this interview, we look at why high visibility projects get more attention and discuss many of those project success criteria. And now, do you still have that CAPE? Enjoy the interview.

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner:  Hello, Ron and welcome back to the Project Management Podcast.

Ron Black:   Hello, Cornelius. Good to chat with you again, sir.

Cornelius Fichtner:  Yeah. So when we discussed what we're going to talk about in our interview, you told me that you operate on the premise that we rarely know how to do things right. Wouldn't that basically mean that every project has to fail because we don't know?

Ron Black:   That would be the fear, wouldn't it? And of course, that wouldn't get any of us very far. Our careers would suffer, our organizations would suffer, and we probably lose a lot of friends in the process.  But no, I don't. And you know what, I laugh about this once in a while and I'm playful with this notion. But I want your listeners to know I'm deadly serious about our professional success, our professional reputations, and our organization's success.  So I'm deadly serious about it. But I do believe that we don't know what we're doing. Now, I don't admit that to my clients, who would? I don't want you to admit that your boss, listeners.  But I do want us to acknowledge it to ourselves because when we acknowledge the fact that we don't know what there is to know about a project, then it allows us to ask questions. And once we start asking questions, my goodness, it encourages other people to ask questions too. And before long, you got a whole team that is challenging what we think we know about something and I believe it helps us explore what is possible in a project.

Cornelius Fichtner:  All right. In our first interview, we looked at chapter one and two from your book, The Superpower Points, and we are going to continue. So we will open up your book Leadership: The Everyday Superhero's Action Guide to Plan and Deliver High Stakes Project. We'll look at chapter three and four in order to learn how to do our projects right. So Chapter Three, Leading High Stakes Adventures, and you have five superpower points here. And the first one is, Even Superheroes Need A Team.

Ron Black:   Perhaps, especially superheroes need a team. You know, when I think of a team, I think of sidekicks and I'd like to be a good sidekick for my teammates as well.  So, you know, it's that interactive involvement, engagement where we hold ourselves mutually accountable and each and one another mutually accountable in a really healthy, good communication team environment. So I think even superheroes need a team. It doesn't matter how good we are in what we do, projects are well-known to throw us interesting, exciting, and sometimes dangerous challenges. Projects generally are not easy. Hence, you know, it's easier to solve problems when there's several of us pulling together.

Cornelius Fichtner:  The second superpower point is high visibility projects get more attention and resources making them more likely to succeed.  This seems like an obvious one. Why did you include that as a superpower point?

Ron Black:   Well, I did it because I want people to not let their guard down. I like to describe projects like rattlesnakes.  Pardon me, but you know, I grew up in the Rocky Mountains, on the boondock. So you know, my grandmother always used to say, you know, watch out for the snakes, well, you know, grannies will do that. But honestly, you got to watch out for projects. You got to have your 360-degree radar turned up on high gain at all times. And if you take a small project, and a large project, this is a rookie mistake. Rookies will often say, man, I don't want to do that big project because there so much exposure. I would be so exposed. So many things can go wrong. And you look at the small project and you say, well, I can handle that, not too much can go wrong. But I believe that small projects and big projects are just like rattlesnakes. Now you take a big rattlesnake and everybody knows about it. It's in the middle of a trail and it's wiggling its tail and everybody stays away from it. Easy to spot, easy to respect. You take a little rattlesnake, you know, you can sit down next to one and eat your lunch, and not even know it. But rattlesnake, you know, it can ruin your whole day. So I want everyone to respect small projects.  A small project can ruin your reputation, I believe, faster than a big project. Now think about that for just a second. On a small project, you're it. Who they're going to blame? On a big project, you're not only it, there's lots of finger pointing going on. You're just one of the team member that failed. So not only are you able to share the blame in a large project, when the dark force arrives. In a small project, if you beg for help, need resources, find an insurmountable issue that nobody thought of before you got start on this thing and you scream for help, who’s likely to get the resources - the big project everybody knows about or the little one nobody cares about? So I believe little projects are actually more dangerous to us as project professionals than large projects are.

Cornelius Fichtner:  I have an example for you here and little and big are pretty relative. I used to work for a paper mill in Switzerland back in my very early days. And the paper industry in Europe at that time was influx. Everything was changing.  So the paper mill, they really invested heavily. And we're talking millions and millions and millions were invested into reinventing the company and making it fit for the new reality of paper production in Europe. And one of their small projects - actually, I believe it was the smallest project in the whole portfolio there, it was still CHF30 million in size, and in today's money, it's about probably around USD18 million, USD19 million if you compare it. And that project was mismanaged completely. It was construction of a simple storage facility that the hall where all the papers would be put into. And it was so mismanaged, the quality was so bad that once the building was up, it was instantly condemned as unsafe and nobody was allowed to go in. It was really so badly done. So even though it's a huge project in, you know, my personal view, because I never let anything that big, it was still the smallest project from this whole thing.  All the really big projects at that time got the attention. This small side project, just building the storage facility, unimportant, we're not looking at it. So while, you know, small and big are relative, it still means, you know, every project requires the appropriate attention that it deserves. And this was actually such a bad thing to happen. The paper mill was, about a year after, that particular project was called a failure, had to be sold because they just, the money that was spent and wasted on that project, it broke the company.

Ron Black:   You see this once in a while and it's a sad thing. Let me flip that around as well, and add to your thoughts here if I might, Cornelius. Because I, when I left my, one of my businesses and went to work for a large corporate environment, I mostly a small business guy, but I did go to work for a large Fortune 500 defense electronics company. And I was in over my head. I just had closed this business and I was desperate need to move on in my career. And I add them a fluke, literally, a fluke. I got hired into an industry I had no experience in. I mean I'd fix a few radios in the marine corps, but I really knew nothing about defense electronics other than being a radio tech. And I had a sales and marketing degree, but my goodness, I had a construction company in Wyoming. So this Boston company hired me to run their, to help run their field sales force. And I was in over my head and I was desperate to climb up the corporate ladder to get to a livable wage and, you know, feed my family. And I just did what I always did. I did what my parents taught me to do when I was running a small business, you know, act like you own the place, stand up on top of your desk, and try to make as good a decision as you can. And so since I was in over my head, I had no other means of operation. So what I chose to do in that was to find a couple of small projects that I could make a genuine difference on. And because I just kind of wanted to get my feet wet and feel the organization out and see how things went, so I did. And I had one little project in Santa Barbara, California, in a field office there that needed to be done and nobody had really gotten it done, it kind have been ignored. So I got it done and it was really small. I mean it's amazing how little it was, but it got done. And it got done when nobody else had been able to do it. Only because they hadn't paid attention to it. So it, I did not notice at the time, but it gave me a reputation that kind of started sprinkling out through the organization. And then I got a little bit higher level visibility project that was also a very small project. And I executed on it, made myself a little plan and executed on it and saw some results. And this is a crazy story about my checkered past. But literally, seven weeks to the date after I've been hired as a Western Regional Administrative Manager, my boss' boss called me up on the phone, and he said, “Black”, and I said, “Yes, sir.”  And you know, I thought he's going to fire me for doing this project or something, I didn't know how these big companies did things. And he says “Black” and I said, “Yes, sir”, and he says, “I want you to get back here to Boston.” And I said, “Sir?” I literally thought he's going to call me back to dismiss me. And he said, “I want you to come back and do for the rest of the world what you've been doing for the West Coast.” And I said “Sir?” And so I found myself seven weeks after literally closing a construction company in Wyoming, moving to Phoenix, got this job by answering a one ad, just serendipitous, just flat luck, in over my heads, two little tiny projects, got noticed, and got yanked out of Arizona, moved back to Boston and in the next three years, I had a ball. You know, I just, you know, I established a reputation that I made things happen. And it served me very well - well, for two years and eight months, it served me very well. So, you know, there's a flip side of that coin. The small project will build your reputation. You own it, you win, your reputation is gold. So big snakes, little snakes, I'm with you on this one.  

Cornelius Fichtner:  All right. Superpower point number three. Given the understanding of the stakeholders, you can predict and avoid many common problems.

Ron Black:   It always amazes me how people just fail to see problems coming. So if you'll take your stakeholders, if you know who your stakeholders are, each stakeholder group has, you know, it has some chemistry. So for example, you know, most of our project teams are pretty much extended teams anymore.  We've got somebody out of this department and one person from that department. You know, we got people spread from heck to breakfast coming together to make a project, to help a project get done. So whenever you have extended team members, there's some very obvious things you need to be careful of and it is all communication-based.  Because when you've got an extended team member, you've got a person who’s only putting part of their time into your project.  That means to me is they've got a boss they've got to keep happy, they’ve got issues and things that are high in their priority list. And guess what, if it comes down to making you happy on this project that they're only a part of, or their boss happy, you know who they're going to make happy.  So extended team members, you can pretty much count on, they probably will be more difficult to fully engage than the people who are in that project, as for example, one of your core team members. If the project wins, they win, if the project loses, they lose. So they're fully invested in this project, whereas in an extended team member may not be that fully invested. So that's an obvious result. So think of your project teams in terms of groups, extended teams, the one I always look for, core teams. And you know, I speak like core teams are the best things since sliced bread.  But honestly, you know, there's problems in a core team too. I mean when you think about it, usually core teams are a team of experts who are pretty darn good on what they do and see the world through their lens rightfully so. And so when you bring these various lenses together, you're going to have some potential for a disagreement on how to do things. So I'm always alert that a key core team issue is how do we establish the appropriate approach, the best approach for this project, not your way, not my way, not her way, but our way. So how do we find the strategic approach to the project from a, you know, an expert standpoint. So you can expect to have those conversations and a leader will expect to have to facilitate that conversation. One other one that's easy to spot right off the top is sponsors, you know, especially in large corporate environments. You know, the VPs, the directors, the folks way up on the list, they have a different view of the world than we have when we're buried in the bows in the building, making things happen and rightfully so. But in the process, while they're looking at mission and vision and horizon, then we're looking at reality here at our feet, there's very different viewpoints that are being considered. So when a higher up says here's a project that needs to be done and they throw it out to the project teams to make it happen, they don't want to have to think about it anymore. They want to think that it's going to go out there and get done regardless of the staffing, regardless of the resource loading, regardless of how many projects you got going on, you know, they don't get it. And here's the fundamental rule that I live by: The farther you get away from the work, the easier it looks. And sponsors are typically a long ways away from your work. So our jobs as leaders, I think of project teams is to make sure that we make those remote team members, whether they’re sponsors or extended team members, right, bring them in to the fold, keep them fully communicated to bring them, to help them see what we're actually dealing with. So that's a huge communication issue challenge that you can expect anytime you got a sponsor that's less than fully engaged with your project team.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Yeah, and that takes us right to our next superpower point - high performance teamwork can be built only on a foundation of mutual trust, genuine respect and authenticate participation.                                                                            

Ron Black:    I think all of us can relate to a project where the risk level or the comfort level amongst team members wasn't there. And if we don't have a good comfort level, you know, a good give and take with our colleagues, we're very reticent to say anything that might offend, anything that might show that we don't have perfect view of the world, anything that might, you know, put us at risk in terms of you know, is this guy really know what he's doing. So without that trust and respect, we can't really communicate very effectively. So I often throw this out to my team members. What's more important, knowing everything about a project so that you'll know who's right and who's wrong - that seems almost like an impossibility to me - or the corollary to it is knowing who you can trust in your project. And literally from my background, I'm always in over my head, doing startups and turnarounds and projects I know nothing about, the science or technology of and trying to lead them. I find myself constantly going back to that notion, I don't have to know everything about this project if I know who I can trust.

Cornelius Fichtner:  The fifth and final superpower point in Chapter Three, Leading High Stakes Adventures, is this here.  The superhero project leader improves team communications by bringing people together, increasing interaction and facilitating collaboration. This seems like the things that we really should be doing.

Ron Black:   Yeah. And it's, you know, it's how do we engage one another in conversation, how do we ask, listen, and learn from another. And you know, obviously, you can't do that forever, nothing gets done. At some point in time, you have to make some decisions, make some choices and move forward with your proto hand. But my goodness, I have found so much value from asking people their points of view. It amazes me how people will go the extra mile when they know that their colleague is listening to their point of view. It just amazes me what they offer. So you know, it kind of like when you ask, you naturally respect. You send this level of respect when you ask.  When you listen, you reinforce that respect. And when you repeat it in your own words, when you learn from it and fire it back, and you got that collegial interaction going, you know that's as good as it gets. You know, it just builds a really strong natural environment for effective communications. I didn't say they're easy, you know, I didn't say it's unemotional. But it is effective if we can get to that level of facilitative interaction.

Cornelius Fichtner:  Which means we're moving now to Chapter Four, The Superpower Points All About the Superhero's Success System. We have four of them. And the first one is project success or failure is determined in the beginning, not at project completion and close out. I think that kind of goes back to the superpower points we discussed in our first interview. Start slow, have a plan, right? 

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

PDUs: Power Skills, Project Success

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Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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