Our Guest This Episode: David Barrett
All the way from Canada, David Barrett, co-author of "The 7 Elements of Strategy Execution", joins the cast of Manage This to discuss the process to successfully carry out a Strategic Plan.
"We're being asked to step it up and be more than just the tick-box project manager." David Barrett describes the evolution of the role of project manager - to be more involved in the organization, to add more value, and to execute those strategic plans. David is co-author of the new book "The 7 Elements of Strategy Execution" and walks through those salient points with the Manage This team. Successful execution of strategy starts with answering the question of "Why".
David is a Speaker, Event MC, Educator, Trainer, Consultant, Author, Blogger, and Podcast Host. He specializes in helping people and organizations to get stuff done: strategies, goals, objectives, plans and project work. David is a National Program Director at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business, York University in Toronto, an author of 5 books, a weekly blogger and the author of ‘The Weekly One Minute Video Series”.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"Empowerment. Empowerment works. Empowerment does so much for our people. And good leaders get this. Great leaders get empowerment. They get that whole business of getting people feeling great about themselves."
"The project manager wins by a really good communication system that continually answers the question and addresses the question “why”; continually offers clarity onto the “what.”"
"Excellent communication skills requires us to or asks us to put ourselves in the seat of our audience. And so when we think about a major change, when we think about a major initiative, we want to sit down beside our employees or beside our customers, beside our stakeholders, and ask the question, well, how are we going to feel about this, and how is it going to affect us, and what will I need to know going through? So all of these questions, all of this comes to that one key element which is clarity."
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every couple of weeks we meet to discuss what matters to you in the wide and diverse field of project management. It’s our chance to reflect on our purpose; to take stock in how we’re doing; and, when needed, challenge ourselves to step it up. We talk with project managers about real-life situations. We pick their brains to discover their ideas and motivations and find out what has worked for them.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the two main brains of the outfit, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And today, Andy, we’re talking with the guy who literally wrote the book on measuring strategic gold.
ANDY CROWE: Nick, I have been looking forward to this all week, just to get into the topic of strategy, to look at it; and to also look at it from a project management standpoint.
NICK WALKER: Well, let’s get right to it. Joining us via Skype is David Barrett, a professional speaker, a regular blogger, a podcast host, an education advisor, and author of five books. His career includes the creation and directing of a conference business; a training company; a software development firm; a speakers bureau; and, most recently, a TED-style event series for project professionals across North America. He specializes in helping people and organizations manage the uncertainty by creating healthy projects and strategies. David Barrett, thanks so much for joining us today here on Manage This.
DAVID BARRETT: I’m thrilled to be here, gentlemen. Great to join you.
NICK WALKER: You’ve recently coauthored a new book, coming out just in a few days, titled “Seven Elements of Strategy Execution.” David, what prompted this book? How did it come about?
DAVID BARRETT: Well, 25, almost 30 years later into this business, and things have changed a lot. It’s no longer build it on time, on scope, on budget for all of us project managers. The day is now here where we’re being asked to step it up, to be more involved in the organization, to add value, and to be more than just the tickbox project manager that many of us grew up to know. So this whole piece of strategy is, in my mind, a natural evolution on many different fronts. I think it’s now to everyone’s benefit, to everyone’s favor to start understanding why we’re doing the work we’re doing.
And this portfolio of work that we’re managing and working on is huge. It’s mission critical. It’s driving the business. And so the day has come that we’re being asked, and we should be asking, why are we doing this? How does it fit into the strategic plan? So this is the connection of the work of all of us, of this wonderful community of project managers worldwide, to the “why.” In my opinion, just to that one word. Why are we doing this? How does this fit into the bigger picture? And that’s a strategic plan.
ANDY CROWE: I’ve heard it said before, David, that a man with a “why” can defeat a man with a “what” any day.
DAVID BARRETT: Absolutely. The “what” is important. The “what” is important to know, to see that vision down at the end of the road. But just to drive us down to some object is not going to work. It never has. It never will. But to give us purpose to build, which gives us passion for what we are doing, it’s so important today. You know, we’re no longer staying with these organizations for many days, for our lives. We have options. So on both fronts it’s important that we’re connected.
BILL YATES: That’s true. David, I’ve seen this with PMI, as well. They’ve really, as they look at the performance that leads to exceptional project managers, those who are able to recognize the why, to see that context and understand how strategy influences their day-to-day decisions, they bring more value to their organization. I think even of the Talent Triangle when PMI rolled that out. Strategy is really, you know, it’s named a little bit differently. But strategy is one of those key tenets that they point to now as a key to success. So it is, like you say, it’s like an evolution. We’ve been asked as project managers to think more strategically. So how does that play out in day-to-day life? How do you see that in the life of the PM?
DAVID BARRETT: Well, absolutely. And I tell audiences, one of my keynotes I focus on the project manager’s career. What doors are in front of me? Where are my options? And I like to point, as you all have pointed out as well, the fact that the PMI is, well, they’re pointing out – they’re being told by their major stakeholders, “Give us more. Give us people that understand this strategic space. Give us more than,” as I said earlier, “that tickbox project manager.” But I think, as well, I read it as PMI is now almost giving us permission to look beyond the role of the project manager. So there’s two fronts here going on. One is align the work. Be passionate about the work you’re doing and align it to that strategic direction of the organization.
But the other one I love to hit on every once in a while is, you know, you can leave this space and probably have a – I think project managers make great leaders. But project managers that understand strategy also have a really wonderful role, potential role to play in our organizations in that management of our strategic plans. These are not going well. The stats are not good on successful strategy. And we need to manage them better. And I think people are waking up and saying, you know, maybe these are projects. Maybe this is a large portfolio of work that we have to manage like we’re managing the rest of our project work.
ANDY CROWE: And you know what, David, one of the reasons I believe that’s true, that contributes to projects’ difficulty achieving strategy, is if the project managers are kept in the dark, if they’re not aware of the strategic goals of the organization, why they’re doing these projects, then they can’t make the fine-tuned adjustments to make sure that they’re actually hitting the true strategic goals. They’re just marching onward, going on, and trusting that somebody else is going to do that. But when the project manager at least has an understanding of that context, it helps.
DAVID BARRETT: Absolutely. So we drive from our community up towards, if you want to say out towards that strategic plan through the efforts of the PMI, the Talent Triangle requirement of now the PDUs in the strategic area. But we also drive from the top down. The book that we’ve published or that is about to be released, “The Seven Elements of Strategy Execution,” two of those chapters absolutely key in on the role of the project manager, one being synergy and one being the clarity. So if we’re not clear about where we’re going, and if we don’t bring everyone into the plan, into the vision, and make them a part of this march, then our strategic plan, our strategy is – it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough to be successful. The alignment and the synergy within our organization, to get our project team involved, to get everyone involved into the why – we go back to that key word, the why – is critical on strategy execution success.
ANDY CROWE: You said a key word that’s one of the words that we use a lot at Velociteach which is the word “alignment.” Say more about that. What are you looking at when you talk about the word “alignment”?
DAVID BARRETT: You know, when I think about alignment, I think about the whole organization. I think about how one vision, whether it be the acquisition of another organization, a growth of 50 percent, moving to a new marketplace, a new product line, I think that everything needs to be aligned if we’re going to be successful. And alignment goes right from all and every employee of this organization to senior management, to our vendors, our suppliers, and everybody else. It’s critical that we are all rowing in the same direction with a commitment, with the passion, with the knowledge, with knowing what we all have to do. So this alignment piece goes straight throughout everything we do, everybody and everything we do, and it’s critical to success in our organizations today.
NICK WALKER: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the elements that you list. You’ve got clarity, commitment, the team, accountability, synergy, the plan, leadership. Is this a specific order that you need to be thinking of these in? Or is this just sort of a whole that we need to be talking about and thinking?
DAVID BARRETT: This is a whole that we need to be talking about. There is no methodology here. This is not a new project execution, strategy execution methodology. If you want to look at the PMBOK or the BABOK or any of these other knowledge areas, this could be considered another one, as well. These are the seven areas, the elements that we believe that leaders, that organizations, that owners and operators need to consider if they want to execute successfully. And we can pick any one of them. They’re all absolutely critical.
Just the term “leadership” and you of kind of go, well, yeah, really, and defining your leadership, and making sure your leaders are aligned, and everyone is onboard. I’ve been involved in a project recently where there was a major acquisition. And the Board of Directors of this organization sat down and said, “We’re going to do this. This is the plan. We’re going to acquire that company.” And there were, call it 15 senior leaders in this organization. That Board of Directors knew full well that they would lose seven to eight of those people within one year.
I was interviewing one of the board members, and he said, “You know what, it was almost 365 days to the day later when the seventh person walked out the door and said, ‘I quit.’” It was part of the deal. We knew that this leadership team was not the right group. Just as an example of one of those seven elements, if it’s not the right group, move on. Put the right team together. Sometimes our plan and our strategy today is – most often it’s going to be very different than it was five years ago, and maybe that leadership team isn’t the right group. So just as an example of one of those seven elements, it’s nothing new. It’s not cloud parting, but it’s critical to strategy execution.
BILL YATES: David, one of the elements, the very first one that you mentioned I think is huge in its clarity. Speak to me about the success that you’ve seen for project managers who have embraced that and figured out really effective ways of communicating with clarity to their teams so that they all get on the same page; and they’re pushing, they’re rowing the same direction. So tell me, what are some keys to success or some ways that you’ve seen some leaders fail on that element?
DAVID BARRETT: Well, you know, this idea of clarity is absolutely critical. I was working with a group of about 180 project managers yesterday for the day on a workshop. And we talk about the key elements of leadership and being able to communicate well, being able to know why and what you’re communicating. Communicating well is critical. And when you think about clarity, you think about that clear message, the clear understanding from everyone from top to bottom; alignment of vision and values and strategy and bringing this all together. And it’s that ability, I think, any time within the lifecycle of this work that we are doing, of this body of work that we’re doing, to be able to have anyone and everyone answer the questions why, and how long will it take, and all these pieces, just getting us all onboard.
This book is focused on one key word, and that is “culture.” And we’ve always talked about organizational culture. But we’ve now, my friend Mona and I have taken this culture, and we’re kind of trying to sell the idea that you can build a culture around a strategic plan on a whole new set of objectives. And so, when you build a culture, when you try to create a culture, when you take your current culture and you try to make a change or realign that, that clarity is absolutely critical. When things change, people need to know why. When we’re heading down a new direction, people need to know why and what, clearly, we are doing, what will it look like. Everyone in that organization, when we say we are going to change anything, acquire, build, add, the keyword so often goes to me personally, which is, “Well, what’s in it for me? Or “How is this going to affect me in my life?”
So clarity goes, to me, critically to the individual. And clear communication, I mean, excellent communication skills requires us to or asks us to put ourselves in the seat of our audience. And so when we think about a major change, when we think about a major initiative, we want to sit down beside our employees or beside our customers, beside our stakeholders, and ask the question, well, how are we going to feel about this, and how is it going to affect us, and what will I need to know going through? So all of these questions, all of this comes to that one key element which is clarity. Right from the top to the bottom.
ANDY CROWE: This is fascinating to me, David, as I think through. So there’s a book on my nightstand that’s been there for a few days now, “The Mind of the Strategist” by Kenichi Ohmae. And I’m a Japanese management fanatic, which kind of makes me a little bit of an anachronism today. I think that was popular back in the ‘80s, but I never let go of that. And so my natural style, when I’m thinking about strategy, I’m very analytical. I like a lot of numbers, I like a lot of data, and I like to crunch them and think about them.
But “The Mind of the Strategist” really says, look, in order to be able to give clarity to others, in order to be able to think about strategy properly, you have to be in the right mind space. You have to look at the world a particular way, look at the organization a particular way. And I think that’s true. I think it’s true for people, whether they’re defining the strategy for an enterprise or whether they’re just aligning their own department to the organization’s strategy. It takes a certain mindset, and clarity comes out of that.
DAVID BARRETT: Absolutely. And I think when we do have to face change, if we are a department, if we’re a working organization – I was working with an organization recently where this clarity was completely absent. And there was a plan. There was a five-year plan. And the CEO sat me down and clearly, clearly outlined it, but refused to share it with anyone in the organization. And it was kind of funny. I was working with one of their employees in a separate – it was in a program that I run for project managers, a training program that was 18 days long. I was seeing him on a regular basis, and he was heading out the door. He was missing this piece. He was frustrated. And so this clarity business really drives our business. It drives our employees. It drives our success. And it’s absolutely essential that we can tell the story.
BILL YATES: David, just at the beginning of your book, you make it very clear, you talk about the culprit being organizational culture, so I’m really glad you hit on that. And your problem statement, the problem that the book is addressing, I think you make it very clear, just like you’ve pointed out, the problem is not that we’re not creating strategic plans, we’re just not executing them; right? We’re not carrying them out, so they’re sitting on the shelf and gathering dust. So I like that problem statement that, hey, in this book you’re not going to tell me here’s how to write your plan. This is not writing the strategic plan. This is carrying it out. These are practical steps to execute and hit on these topics. So I’m assuming that there are probably some points of frustration that you and your coauthor had in life where you said, you know what, we need to write a book about this. Did you see too many plans that were catching dust, that were not being used?
DAVID BARRETT: Absolutely. I’ve been involved in them. I’ve been working with organizations. Okay, I’ve got a lot of years behind me. I’ve even been involved with a couple myself that I even wrote that, you know, you look back, and you go, “What happened?” And truthfully, you look inside and say, “You blew it. You had a great plan. You put the pieces together. You communicated well to anybody else that needed to know. But you had so many other things going on you just dropped the ball, and you thought it would just happen. You get passionate about something for a period of time depending on your bandwidth in life. And it could be you, it could be your department, your organization, or whatever the unit we’re talking about. And the passion, it drives a wonderful plan, a wonderful dream.
And in fact I know of someone I was talking to recently that admitted, I can take that dream, and I can draw up the plan. I can create the binder. I can show you the competitive analysis. I can show you the SWOT plan, the SWOT analysis. I can show you the future state, the current state, the plan to get there. But I’m an entrepreneur. I go on to other things. If I don’t have a team to execute it, I’m dead. And this person admits many wonderful ideas have gone into the pit because no one was there to execute it. So, yes, strategic plans typically fail. The number, and I have a hard time quoting it, the numbers I read are 60 percent, 50 to 60 percent of our strategic plans are typically not even getting off the shelf. And after that, those that do pop off the shelf are not doing very well, for all the reasons we would review in that book.
BILL YATES: I would say that a number of listeners are completely in agreement with that, David, and have had the same experience, either as the one who looked in the mirror and said, “Yeah, I dropped the ball. I did not see this to the completion. I didn’t pass the goal line with it.” Or I’ve seen other leaders in my organization who have not. They’ve dropped the ball. So this book really goes right at that. Why does execution stall, and how can we avoid that? So kudos to you guys for taking that on.
DAVID BARRETT: Absolutely. Yeah, there’s been so much work and wonderful work and great writings about strategic plans – how to build, how to create a strategic plan, the SWOT analysis, the current state, the future state, all the wonderful parts of the puzzle. But it kind of stops there. It started in the 1950s and the ‘60s when the world decided, gee, maybe it’s not just a military thing. Maybe we should have a strategic plan. And organizations started to kick in, and it’s created a wonderful world for consultants, for businesses, for organizations. And it’s critical.
ANDY CROWE: David, one of the elements in your framework is accountability. We talk a lot here about having one head to pat and one butt to kick, which I guess brings clarity in some way. But when you think about accountability within the strategy context, what are you talking about?
DAVID BARRETT: Well, I think when you think about – when you ask the question, what’s going on? Why does strategy fail? When I asked an audience yesterday of 180 people why does strategy fail, the answers that are coming are pretty typical. But I could tell you that lack of leadership, lack of accountability is typically within the first five seconds of the answers from the crowd. If you do not have someone, as you say, someone to kick, someone to – where the buck stops, don’t even bother continuing on. Ram Charan, one of the authors of “In This Space,” is quoted as saying, in a number of different formats, most business leaders feel that it’s beneath them, the execution part of strategy. And they’re dead wrong. It’s their most critical role in the organization.
ANDY CROWE: That reminds of Bill Murray’s role in “Space Jam” when he’s playing basketball, and they look at him, and at one point he says, “No, no, whoa, I don’t play defense. I just come up with the ideas. I hook ‘em; you fry ‘em.”
DAVID BARRETT: And the more entrepreneurial the leader is in a small organization or a startup, you’ll have leaders that are the dreamers like my friend earlier I mentioned. They’ll start it, they’ll create the plan, and they just don’t want to be part of the execution. That’s not their gig. To a senior corporate leader or to a large corporate leader, it’s the same story, whether they’re entrepreneurial or not. Some of them, they just don’t feel that’s their job. That’s why we have 500, 5,000 employees. They go, “Here. The bright ones figured it out. Go for it.” Which of course is your first indication that something’s wrong. But without someone accountable, it’s not going to happen.
BILL YATES: And the accountability, to me, it’s even within the team. It’s not just the leader. It’s this sense of we’re committed to each other as team members. And that hits everything in terms of productivity, to communicating properly. And our words, the things that we commit to, we do. We carry through.
DAVID BARRETT: Yeah, one of the things, one of the other [indiscernible] we talk about synergy and that whole piece that carries from top to bottom, from side to side, from the beginning to end, that whole concept. And this brings into the word “culture.” Creating an environment, building a village, creating a village with a culture around it that says, “This is where we’re headed. Let’s all go.”
And when we build that, when we have someone at the top that is incredibly passionate about this idea, this plan, this vision, and then can communicate it back down through the ranks, and then as you well said, creating that accountability piece within the departments, within divisions, right straight throughout, then you’re building a strong execution culture that, if I am five to six, seven levels down below the CEO that is passionate and wonderful and crazy about this, but there’s no accountability within my department, it’s not going to happen.
Great strategy execution requires trust. Accountability develops trust. It helps us create a trusting environment within all of us. And so my team needs to be accountable to each other because we’re passionate about the goals and the objectives that we have had that have been passed down through six or seven layers.
ANDY CROWE: David, I may throw you a curveball with this question. So if I’m a senior executive, and I’m responsible for creating strategy and maybe ultimately for implementing the strategy, I’m going to think about it one way. How would that differ from the way that a project manager who is boots-on-the-ground tactical going to think about that strategy? Same strategy, but I’ve got a very different perspective on it, perhaps. Or do I?
DAVID BARRETT: Well, I think that it’s the same goal. Here’s where we’re headed. The project manager wins by a really good communication system that continually answers the question and addresses the question “why”; continually offers clarity onto the “what.” It drives the way I run my business as a project manager. If our project management team, if our project management organization, if our project management community is better aligned to the goals of this organization, they are going to be more productive. They’re going to be happier at what they do, which means we are going to retain them, and that retention rate of our employees goes up. It all helps the cause.
So, yes, a project manager is more in that tactical day-to-day, let’s get the job done, let’s complete this cycle of our project. But this alignment and this commitment and this accountability piece, the whole culture starts to drive that success of that one piece that feeds the much larger piece that feeds the overall strategy. We need to connect our project managers much better today, and our project management team to the why and to the overall strategy of the work we’re doing.
BILL YATES: David, one of the things that you point out is, because of the shift in how we do our work and the cultures that are effective or those that are not, you say the old structure, the command-and-control approach just doesn’t work anymore. There are some people that are probably very comfortable in that space. So what do you say to that? Why does it not work? What’s up with that?
DAVID BARRETT: Well, in the command-and-control structure, the people that are comfortable with it are the people in the command-and-control seat.
BILL YATES: That’s right, yeah.
DAVID BARRETT: There aren’t many people that are as comfortable with that or accepting of that these days, and the numbers are dwindling by the year. Our employees are getting younger. Our audience is getting younger. It is a completely different mindset. I’m a baby boomer. And if we are running the business like we ran our businesses 30 years ago, or the businesses that I was in 30 years ago were run like that, we wouldn’t be as successful today.
The great organizations are stepping up and understanding that this is a new day, and we can’t run it like we used to. Our employees, our people need to be more involved. They need to be more attached to the strategy, to the work we’re doing. They need to feel the passion. Or guess what? They’re walking out the door, and they’re going to the competitor. And in the days when I was born and raised in these organizations, we were here for life. When I joined the bank out of the university, I was going to be the CEO of that bank within X years. I won’t tell you what the X was.
BILL YATES: You had a path.
DAVID BARRETT: It was a bit aggressive. I was gone in eight years. The entrepreneur in me was gone in eight years. But my 35, 33, 25 and 23 year olds, they don’t think like that at all. One of them is with a huge worldwide organization. But you know what, it’s a pit stop, and you can see it. It might be 10, 15 years, but it’s a pit stop.
ANDY CROWE: Right. And that generation now thinks about things in terms of what can I learn. And when they’re done acquiring skills or learning, they move on. It’s a very different…
DAVID BARRETT: What are you doing for me?
ANDY CROWE: Yeah.
DAVID BARRETT: What can you do for me?
ANDY CROWE: The first time I encountered the concept that you’re talking about here about non-command-and-control was in Peters and Waterman’s book, “In Search of Excellence.” And they started with this idea back in the ‘80s, a long time ago. They started with this idea that, look, your front office receptionist, the person who answers your phone, these are the most important people in your organization. And rather than tell them what to do, let them tell you. Let them start driving some of the execution. Listen to them. And it really inverted that whole command-and-control model, where before that everybody’s working for the smartest guy in the room. And that person was obviously the senior executive in the room.
DAVID BARRETT: Absolutely. Empowerment. Empowerment works. Empowerment does so much for our people. And good leaders get this. Great leaders get empowerment. They get that whole business of getting people feeling great about themselves. My father-in-law, since passed away, said, “My role in life is to make everyone else a star.”
ANDY CROWE: Wow.
DAVID BARRETT: You know, I remember those words so well. And he loved to empower people and to say, “Let me help you go to the next level.” The great leaders will write that letter to the employee that quit and went to a more senior position within the industry to a competitor and say, “Good on you. Congratulations, and I wish you the best of luck.” We empower our people. Boy, remember the day when, gee, why would I do that? You’ll just leave. Why would I invest in this? You’ll just leave. Well, you know what, you do it because you don’t want them to leave, and you want to invest. And if you don’t invest in me, I’m going to leave. Empowerment.
NICK WALKER: David, the book is “Seven Elements of Strategy Execution.” How can we get this brand new book?
DAVID BARRETT: The book is on its way. It’ll be available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle format, or eBook. Let’s call it by May the 10th or so, in a couple of weeks. So really looking forward to the release.
BILL YATES: All right. And we’re looking forward to it, as well.
ANDY CROWE: I’ll get you to autograph my Kindle, David.
DAVID BARRETT: Thank you.
NICK WALKER: Hey, before you go, how could folks get in touch with you if they want any more information about your books? About your speaking engagements?
DAVID BARRETT: Awesome, thank you for asking. I am at DavidBarrett.ca. That’s B-A-R-R-E-T-T dot C-A. Everything about me is there. I’m available on LinkedIn, as well. If you just say David Barrett Project Management, you’ll find me. And you’ll find anything and everything, including my 120 YouTube videos and my books and my speeches and my workshops, all on my site.
NICK WALKER: 120?
DAVID BARRETT: Oh, yeah. I got into a phase of my – I call it the “One-Minute Video Series.” So I got crazy for a while, and they’re all still there.
NICK WALKER: All right, collect them all. Thanks so much. Hey, David, thanks again for joining us here on Manage This. What a pleasure to talk with you today.
DAVID BARRETT: Awesome, guys. Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
NICK WALKER: We want to remind our listeners that we are here for you in a number of ways. One of those is providing free PDUs — Professional Development Units — toward your recertifications. And guess what, you’ve already earned them just by listening to this podcast. To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs and just click through the steps.
That’s it for us here on Manage This. We hope you’ll tune back in on May 15th for our next podcast. In the meantime, you can always visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us. And tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications. We are here for you.
That’s all for this episode. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.