Episode 112 – The Role of the Successful Project Manager in Innovation

Episode #112
Original Air Date: 09.01.2020

45Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: John Carter

Our guest John Carter is an inventor of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones and shares the original patent with Dr. Amar Bose. John tells the story of working with Dr. Bose, and the surprising discovery they made by talking to customers and discovering what features were important to them. Topics include the differences between a program manager and a project manager, career progression for a PM, managing project risk, and small “a” Agile,

John also suggests how to assess talent and identify strong characteristics of a successful project manager, and how establishing boundary conditions with your stakeholders helps set projects up for success.

John Carter is also the designer of Apple’s New Product Process. As Founder of TCGen Inc., he has consulted for many companies, including: Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, and 3M. He is the author of “Innovate Products Faster," featuring more than 40 ideas for accelerating product development speed and innovation. John has an MS in Electrical Engineering from MIT.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"But I have a belief in the confidence of my ability to get back on my two feet, and that humans are extraordinarily adaptive to their situation, and that the only path you can ever influence is the path forward from where you are today."

- John Carter

"...there is this expression I love. It’s called “prisoner of hope.” We are a prisoner of hope because we believe that if we just keep working harder, this risk will go away."

- John Carter

"...the key to courage is transparency. The fact is that managers are going to hear about this one way or the other. It’s going to get out. It ought to come out from you."

- John Carter

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Hear about the role of the project manager in successful innovation from John Carter, an inventor of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones who shares the original patent with Dr. Amar Bose. John shares the surprising discovery they made by talking to customers about critical features. Topics include the differences between a program manager and a project manager, career progression for a PM, how to assess PM talent, managing project risk, establishing boundary conditions, small “a” Agile, and the characteristics of a successful PM.

Table of Contents

00:32 … Meet John
03:43 … The Bose Headphone Project
06:14 … Listening to the Customer
10:00 … Taking Risks in Innovation Projects
13:45 … Courage to Bring Bad News
15:30 … Effect of COVID-19 on Innovation and Work
19:46 … Program Management vs. Project Management
22:21 … Career Progression from PM to Program Management
26:19 … Characteristics of a Successful PM
28:11 … Why is it Difficult to Hire a Successful PM?
30:38 … Small “a” Agile
35:55 … Establishing Boundary Conditions
40:48 … John’s Success Tips
43:31 … Get in Touch with John
44:14 … Closing

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.   A word to our listeners.  If you have an interesting COVID-19 story, how your project has been impacted by the pandemic, we’d love to hear from you.  You can email me at manage_this@velociteach.com. I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me is project manager Bill Yates.

BILL YATES:  Hi, Wendy.

WENDY GROUNDS: We’re going to talk to someone today who is a true innovation veteran.

Meet John

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Wendy, I’m so excited to have John Carter join us.  He is very respected in the area of innovation and product development.  He is actually the co-inventor of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones . We’ll certainly jump into this Bose topic with him.  That’ll be a lot of fun to discuss.

WENDY GROUNDS:  John is also the founder of TCGen, and he’s also been advisor to companies like Apple and Amazon with their  product development and innovation processes.  So I think he comes with a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge that he’ll be able to impart to us.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  John has been a project manager.  He’s been a product manager, he’s been a manager of managers, he’s led his own company, and so I cannot wait for the advice he’s going to share with us.

WENDY GROUNDS:  John, welcome to Manage This.  We’re so grateful to you for being with us today and being our guest.

JOHN CARTER:  Well, thanks for having me.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Well, we want to start off by asking you about your career path, and particularly to do with the Bose headphones.  I think most people are really going to be interested in hearing about that.  So tell me a little bit about yourself.

JOHN CARTER:  Well, thanks for asking.  And it’s really part of my passion.  It was true since I was a kid.  I’ve always been kind of a boy scientist and had a chemistry set and microscope,  telescope, I mean, whatever I could get my hands on.  I really, really enjoyed technology.  As I grew up, though, I found the importance of sound.  I really thought that that was something I wanted to know about.  It’s invisible.  It conveys meaning and emotion.  And as I learned more, it has incredible range as far as what it can be used for.  Obviously speech versus music is something that’s happening today.  With mobile phones and speech recognition it’s just the Wild West.  So I’ve always been interested in sound.  In college I designed a music synthesizer from scratch before its time.

BILL YATES:  Of course you did.

JOHN CARTER:  Yeah, right.  It kind of worked.  And when I was looking at graduate school, I looked at places that had audio programs.  And one of them was Stanford; the other was MIT.  And I knew that Dr. Bose taught at MIT, and I decided to go there.  I didn’t have a scholarship at the time.  I just packed up my car and drove across the country.  It was half filled with record albums and my stereo and a few textbooks.  And I arrived in Cambridge without support.  But I was determined to get it.

And I had amazing luck because I was taking Dr. Bose’s course in acoustics, and he had just lost his teaching assistant.  And so he asked the class if anyone would like to do it, and I raised my hand.  And it was incredible.  It was a 20-minute interview.  And he said, “Okay.  Let’s give it a go here.”  And it just so turned out what I studied as an undergraduate was what’s called “signals and systems.”  But it’s kind of the big pieces of how the parts work together to get a better system.  And that was Dr. Bose’s approach and actually went into the headphones.

The Bose Headphones Project

BILL YATES:  John, to me the Bose noise cancelling headphones are iconic.  They were, like, revolutionary when they came out.  How in the world did you get to work on that project?

JOHN CARTER:  So when I graduated, I was in the research department, and Dr. Bose was a mentor for me.  And this was amazing.  We talk about luck and fate in what happens here.  He invests a lot of time in his former students who join the company.  And so he and I had two ideas we were working on when I first started.  One idea was how to improve a loudspeaker, and the other idea was this new concept around headphones.  And so I started working on them both.

What I realized, and I went to Dr. Bose two months later, and I said, “You know, we’re making a lot of progress on these headphones and not so much on this other project.”  He said, “Let’s just drop the other one.”  And I think there’s a lot of innovation that comes about being lucky and making the right choice.  I think we made the right choice.  So it really came as a natural outcome of collaboration, working on two research ideas.

And I could tell you when I first popped the prototype it was all metal parts and everything on my head.  It was like you were transported into another universe.  And you can turn the switch on and off, and the change was mind-blowing.  I knew we were onto something.  And what was really interesting is that we thought as inventors we’d know exactly why customers would really clamor for this.  And we thought it was improved bass response.  This headphone would give you better bass.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

JOHN CARTER:  And it does.  Well, we started offering this, trying it out, getting feedback from various customers.  Turned out military was the biggest interest.  And we went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, as well as Army Proving Ground in Aberdeen.  And the feedback we got was not bass or the performance.  This is noise reduction.

BILL YATES:  Okay.

JOHN CARTER:  The benefit was noise reduction.  Now, we knew about noise reduction, but we didn’t think that consumers would really find that the most appealing.  That discovery, an innovation that I think is really important, which is you have no idea, really, even the inventor has no idea about what consumers will ultimately value your invention for.  And you would think you would know that, and you’re completely wrong.

Listening to Stakeholder Recommendations

BILL YATES:  That is huge.  And for project managers it is so good to hear that from you.  Just to the listeners, so John and Dr. Bose have the co-patents on these Bose noise cancelling headphones that we’re talking about.  So this was the guy that was right there from the start.  And John, as you’ve said, at first you guys thought you were building it for X, when it turns out the customer said, no, Y is much more important.

And from a standpoint of someone who’s charging ahead as a project, I’m a project manager, and I’ve got goals, and I’ve been told by the sponsor this is what we have to accomplish.  And then you start to get feedback from customers, and you’re thinking, you know what, this sponsor may be slightly off.  There could be greater value in this other area.  This is a challenge to us, I think, to be bold and go to those sponsors, share the information that we’re getting from customers and the ultimate users to say, okay, maybe we need to slightly change our path.

JOHN CARTER:  Yeah.  This, I think, is a real challenge for project managers.  And I think there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a sudden right turn on a project.  And I think the right way is to say these are the stakeholders.  This is what they’re telling us.  We think it’s important and a direction that we ought to consider.

What a good project manager will do, in my estimation, is they describe the benefit, and they also describe the tradeoffs, and then they indicate a recommendation.  Because when there’s a sudden change, I think project managers tend to be little myopic.  And they don’t step back and say, all right, someone’s moved our cheese.  Here are the new boundaries.  So if we can renegotiate this contract and come clean on it, then we’re going to go in the right direction, and you’re not going to be surprised in a couple months from now when you forgot that we made this decision, Mr. Executive.

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  You agreed to it, but somehow you remembered the old schedule or whatever.

BILL YATES:  Yes, the old budget.

JOHN CARTER:  Exactly.  And so I think renegotiation of the project boundaries is really important as a project manager.  And also flexibility.  So there’s one other risk that I’m sure you’ve seen in your work with project managers is they’re given direction, and come hell or high waters, they go after it.  And sometimes when there’s a real indication from stakeholders that there’s a need to change, their heads are down, and they’re not going to make that change.  And that’s another quality of, I think, advanced program managers and project managers, to step back and say, wait a minute, you know, it doesn’t matter how quickly we climb that mountain if it’s the wrong mountain.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  That is so true, I can relate to that in my career, managing projects and what were oftentimes complex financial data that we were dealing with for utilities. And, man, it took a level of maturity.  So early on, the first few years that I was working in that area, I just simply did not know enough.  I didn’t know when it was appropriate to say to the sponsor, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, we’ve got an opportunity.  We’re hearing from this department or from this other department some key information.  If we make these slight adjustments, I think we’re going to have a big win-win, but I didn’t know enough to step into it that way.

But then later, through experience and seeing after you’ve fallen, you’ve skinned your knees a few times, or you see the missed opportunities, then you start to get that confidence where you do know the appropriate time to step up and go, whoa, let’s look at this holistically.  Let’s step back and see if there’s a greater good that we can achieve.  It has to do with risk, and so I want to talk with you about that dirty four-letter word, “risk.”

Taking Risks in Innovation Projects

JOHN CARTER:  Right, right.

BILL YATES:  Because to be involved in making bold decisions and coming up with innovative solutions, you’ve got to be a risk taker.  You know, you like to talk about that.  You’ve certainly  modeled that out and seen it. So what are your thoughts on taking risks as it relates to these types of projects?

JOHN CARTER:  Well, it’s a really great question.  And so if you talk about the work that we did, which is a little bit like research, or if you talk about development of artificial intelligence applications and machine learning, it’s also in the same category, where there are lots of surprises. 

BILL YATES:  Yes.

JOHN CARTER:  The schedule is not as predictable as under a normal kind of program management scenario, and therefore you have to kind of base your risk tolerance based on the inherent qualities of the program.  But I think for most program and project managers, the challenge is a couple things, one is making sure that you have some assessment of the possibilities of risk.  And so I like using a mind map and using project histories as a way of reminding us of risks because the thing you want to avoid is repeating the same mistake. 

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  So you want to build that knowledge base and mind map about some things that did not occur and should not occur.  But the most important thing I’ve actually found is in doing project plans, that one should really look at what are the potential risks, prioritize them, and then put in trigger points.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

JOHN CARTER:  And remediation plans, and so this is before you start the project.  And the problem is, is that when you’re in the heat of battle in the middle of a project, and you’ve triggered, and the risk now has turned from just a possibility to an issue, that there is this expression I love.  It’s called “prisoner of hope.”  We are a prisoner of hope because we believe that if we just keep working harder, this risk will go away.  But the problem is, as you know, Bill, the schedule just keeps marching on.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.

JOHN CARTER:  And so by having a trigger point that says we’ve slipped more than two weeks due to this risk factor, we’re going to declare we’re out of bounds.  We’re going to have this conversation about how we’re going to have to change what we’re doing and accept the fact that this risk turned into an issue, and so having these clear trigger points really helps us be a little bit more objective.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

JOHN CARTER:  So there’s another thing that I think is really important here and I learned as a manager, and that is to welcome bad news.

BILL YATES:  Ah, okay.

JOHN CARTER:  Really embrace bad news, and thank and compliment people for bringing you the bad news.

BILL YATES:  For having the courage to do it, yeah.

JOHN CARTER:  Yes.  What will kill you is not having that courage to come forward.

WENDY GROUNDS:  John, I’m picking up you’re quite a risk taker.  How much have you been prepared to lose when it comes to taking risks?

JOHN CARTER:  That’s a great question, Wendy. So in my personal life, believe it or not, I’m willing to lose everything.  I mean, no wife or family or health or anything like that, but I have a belief in the confidence of my ability to get back on my two feet, and that humans are extraordinarily adaptive to their situation, and that the only path you can ever influence is the path forward from where you are today.  And so, Wendy, there are so many situations of companies that I advise, and it’s a classic deer in the headlights. Their business is going away, and they just watch it shrink and shrink and shrink, but because they’re so risk-averse, they just fly the plane right into the ground. And so there is a need, I think, with executives to take more risk.

Courage to Bring the Bad News

BILL YATES:  So I want to go back to a word that you used, the word “courage.”  For those project leaders that are out there, what advice do you have for them when it comes to creating an environment where it’s safe to have the courage to bring risk, to bring bad news to management?

JOHN CARTER:  Boy, I think it’s transparency, so I think that’s the key to courage is transparency. The fact is that managers are going to hear about this one way or the other, it’s going to get out, but it ought to come out from you. And so you ought to be transparent about really what’s happening underneath the skin here and inside the tent.  Another thing, Bill, I think, I think is really important and goes hand in hand with that courage is to have a plan. It’s the worst thing you can do as a project manager is present a problem without a solution, because executives, they hate solving problems.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

JOHN CARTER:  They’re in that position because they’ve avoided solving problems.

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  They don’t like that monkey.

BILL YATES:  Right, right, right.  I don’t want it on my back.

JOHN CARTER:  Exactly, exactly.  So I think what really helps courage is if you can come with a solution in hand or an idea of how to move forward.  That would really help because executives, they’re looking for honesty, and they’re looking for a win.  So the worst thing you could do is woe is me, talk about something that’s a real mess, or blame other people. And so that’s another thing I think is really important that’s kind of related to courage, which is to admit you made a mistake.  You know, as a program manager, project manager, accept the fact that, you know, the buck stops with you, and you’re also going to get us out of this mess.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

Effect of COVID-19 on Innovation and Work

WENDY GROUNDS:  Just continuing talking about risk, we’re talking a lot, too, I guess, about COVID-19.  So what are your current thoughts on its impact with regards to innovation, with regards to working remotely.  What advice can you give to our audience?

JOHN CARTER:  Well, I’ve got, first of all, a really interesting story.  So I’m on the board of this semiconductor company, it’s doing very well.  It’s called Cirrus Logic.  They make audio chips, so there’s an audio theme you can kind of see in my career, and the executive, which I admire tremendously, who’s the leader of the company, always has espoused the fact that teams to deliver have to be in the same room. They have to breathe the same air, and so this was a fundamental part of his belief system.

Now, as a person that works with a number of different companies, I know that many operate successfully remotely, and a really interesting thing happened because this company was forced to work remotely, and they were still as productive.  This completely changed their viewpoint.  And it was not like – he’d still rather have everybody together, but he realizes now that in fact you can have a productive environment with people who aren’t all in the same room.

So, Wendy, I think it’s really accelerated a recognition that in fact collaboration and teamwork and project leadership can occur at a distance. But I think this is going to produce a renaissance and a great innovation period in collaboration software and program management software that I think will really move us forward as a society and as our businesses.  And so I think with regard to what it does in relationship to innovation is very interesting.  My theory, which is always not very popular, which is innovation is not a team sport, I know I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s something I profoundly believe in.

And so I’m talking about game-changing innovation.  I’m not talking about innovation kind of that would improve incrementally because I think that comes from great team activity.  But where you really are going to innovate, it’s a small team, an individual, or like Dr. Bose and myself, it’s just two people.  Therefore I think that the innovation is not going to really change that much.  I think you’re going to find the same degree of innovation, maybe driving you in new directions, but I don’t see innovation as at risk here at all.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  It’s interesting, John, that you said that, so I was just having a conversation recently with someone, and we were talking about just that working isolated as we are now, physically isolated – again, we’re connected, and thank heavens we have all the collaboration tools and communication tools that we have available today.  But there is a power of focus that is unlike anything you get in a typical office setting.

And entertainment and movie production is down, obviously, you can’t have a lot of people on a set. There are problems with that, but I would think this would be an incredibly prolific time to be a writer. So if you’re a writer, and you need your space and your alone time, your ability to focus and research, this would be an ideal time for that.

So I get what you’re saying about really game-changing innovation.  It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of this period, but I bet there are some ideas that are being birthed, too.

JOHN CARTER:  Oh, absolutely, and so I think there’s a couple things that we haven’t solved yet.  One is video conferencing software.  As you I’m sure would admit, although we haven’t talked about it, being on video conference the whole day, Zoom, at the end of the day you’re just exhausted.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

JOHN CARTER:  And there’s something different and more taxing with a Zoom-type format, not to blame the company, but rather just a commonly used piece of software. So it’s not focused on the content of the meeting, it’s focused on people’s faces and interaction. And I think there’s a lot of benefit from that, but the eye contact is very unusual.  And so I think that we’re going to discover how to make collaboration more effective in our tools, make it less exhausting.

Program Management vs. Project Management

BILL YATES:  I’m going to switch gears with you, John, so I want to ask you to talk a little bit about the differences in program manager versus project manager.  When you talked about risk becoming an issue, and triggers, man, those are words that just resonate with me.  I’m right there with you, philosophically and practically.  Bingo.  You and I have talked also about program manager versus project manager. But just elaborate a bit on what you think the differences are in terms of that progression.

JOHN CARTER:  That’s a great question.  And I’m really opinionated.  Maybe you are on this, too.

BILL YATES:  That’s why you’re on the podcast.

JOHN CARTER:  Right, right.  And it’s so funny, I often discuss with clients about the importance of words and what they mean.  So if you look at a project manager versus a program manager, I think about two differences, and I can illustrate the most dramatic by a sense of scale and meaning here. But a project manager, in my definition, is typically charged with a single focus with a smaller team and a smaller set of problems and objectives.  And so goal is to get you from point A to point B most effectively to reach the goals for your stakeholder by using minimum resources, and the program manager does that, too.

But a program manager does other things, and I think there are two primary dimensions.  One is either scope and scale or the other is complexity.  And so program managers in my book either manage larger programs with many subprograms and moving parts, or they manage very, very complex programs with a number of interactive development.  Often those are related, i.e., large programs often have many subprograms.  So it’s a matter of scale.

Best way, though, I can describe it is by example.  And I’ve worked with some program managers in the medical electronics field and also in consumer electronics. So these program managers manage programs that let’s say would be on the order of 100 million or $200 million of investment.  These people are more like general managers than they are like program managers, frankly, because they understand the business.  So another difference I think between a project manager and program manager is a program manager can kind of see above the trees and understand the business implications of how this program fits that enables a company to achieve its overall operating objectives.  But that’s my view, how do you see things?

Career Progression from PM to Program Management

BILL YATES:  No, I’m right there with you, I want to pivot that into advice for those who are maybe earlier in their career. Yeah, I think about my own progression, and I think yours was similar, yours was a little more science-oriented than mine.  For me it was software development and then implementing software from a technical standpoint with utilities, working with accountants and IT professionals.  Talk a bit about your progression and how you see practitioners develop from maybe scientists or tech-savvy people, and then maybe through the project management chain up into program management and maybe even beyond that. So what are some keys to success, or how do you get from A to D, if you will?

JOHN CARTER:  You know, I’m glad you asked me this because I think there’s actually two dimensions to how I’d recommend people or how I in fact did it.  The first, believe it or not, is quite mechanical, and that is learning accounting and finance.  So accounting is the language of business.  But if you don’t understand the P&L and the balance sheet, cash statements, you don’t understand frankly the elements that really cause a business to move forward.  How can you properly justify an ROI if fundamentally you don’t know the difference between a capital investment and an ongoing expense?  You can’t.  So one thing that I really recommend, I did this through night school.  Now there are Coursera or online MOOCs or whatever you can do to gain this kind of basic fluency in the language of business.

And then the second thing is, and the fluency helps you understand this, why is the business in business?  What does it produce?  Is it after margin?  Is it after revenue?  So what are the business goals, and what are the strategic goals? And I know when I really transitioned and went from a project manager to a program manager, in fact one evening I was reading a trade magazine.

So I was just thumbing through this, a 200-page magazine, a monthly, and about 80 percent were ads, and I’m thinking, boy, only about 10 percent was technical content, and 80 percent is ads.  There’s got to be more than just engineering going on to make companies successful.  And then that dawned on me, oh, yeah, there’s customers.  You know?  We’ve got to communicate to customers and solve their problems.  So I think program managers understand the need to satisfy customers.

BILL YATES:  I’m so glad that John, our guest, is bringing the heavy news to our listeners that, hey, you’re going to have to study finance and accounting.  But man, you’re right on the money, and here’s the deal.  It’s like the further you advance in your career, the more important it is that you can relate to those decision-makers that you look up to and say, hey, maybe I want to be in her role one day, or maybe I want to be in his role one day.  So you have to see what kind of decisions they’re  having to make.  You can come to the meetings with proper recommendations, where I’m not walking in naively and saying, “I think you should do this.”  “Well, how much is that going to cost, Bill?”  “Well, I don’t know.  That’s your problem.”  No.  No, it’s not.

JOHN CARTER:  Right.

BILL YATES:  So I really appreciate that advice.

JOHN CARTER:  There’s another piece that I think plays into what you do for companies.  And that is another element for me in going from a project manager to a program manager is understanding the basic competencies of program management.  So how do you understand who your stakeholders are?  How do you communicate to those executives that want to be assured of its progress?  Do you know the difference between a Gantt chart and a PERT chart, and know when network diagrams are better than let’s say a tabular schedule?  In other words, I really think that program management is built on a firm competency platform in program management., and you can’t skip the foundations, I really believe that.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.  Right.

Characteristics of a Successful Project Manager

WENDY GROUNDS:  So if someone’s doing some self-assessment and saying, what characteristics do I need to be a successful project manager, what would you identify as strong characteristics for a successful project manager?

JOHN CARTER:   So I’m going to answer this two ways, for a successful project manager and a successful program manager because I think the answers are different.  So with regard to competency assessment in project management, I think there are several good assessments.  The PMI Book of Knowledge, if you just look at the chapter headings and then how do you rate in the 13 or so areas of basic project management maturity, I think that’s a good gut check.  Obviously a 360 or getting some feedback from your peers would be very helpful, and really ensuring that you can have some knowledge about the business.  So I kind of compare myself to let’s just say the dozen or so fundamental project management competencies, some basic understanding of business, and then some of the various tools.

Now, program management, though, is different, and we haven’t talked about this.  But the biggest difference to me on the difference in basically one versus another besides scope or scale is program management, they understand people and the soft side.  So what isn’t taught in a lot of courses is all this vast field of knowledge around emotional intelligence, how to really relate to your stakeholders, how to communicate to stakeholders, how to sense what’s going on in the room and read the audience.  Program managers are good in that respect.  And so I think if you’re looking at, well, how do you achieve the next level, I think emphasizing the soft skills, starting with emotional intelligence, would be where I would conduct an assessment.

Why is it Difficult to Hire Successful Project Managers?

BILL YATES:  So John, in preparing for our conversation today we had a good laugh at how easy it is for us to hire good project managers or good program managers.

JOHN CARTER:  I don’t know where this is headed, Bill.

BILL YATES:  It’s tricky; right?

JOHN CARTER:  I don’t think I’m part of this conversation.

BILL YATES:  It’s tough.  It’s like, I mean, so what you just described, those are great ways to start assessing talent.  Again, thinking about hiring, I like to look at the role of project manager, for instance, from two sides, both how could I be better as a project manager, and then the other side of somebody who’s going to hire me as a project manager.  Then what are they going to assess me on?  Why is it so difficult to hire really successful project managers?

JOHN CARTER:  I don’t know.  I’ve got to guess.  I’m terrible at it.  I’m usually pretty good at most hiring, but not with project managers.  I think the first challenge is that project managers lead without any boost by positional hierarchy or knowledge skills.  They’re coming new into the company.  So one of the things that’s really hard to gauge is how will this person comport themselves, fit with the culture, and influence people that don’t report to them, and that’s really hard to guess.

BILL YATES:  That’s true.

JOHN CARTER:  With good program managers or project managers, they walk in day one, and so they kind of command the group without overstepping.  And then they get people to work together and perform at the very highest level they possibly can through skills that I don’t know how to measure, Bill, frankly.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Yeah, I think you hit on it, too.  I think, you know, when you talked about emotional intelligence really separating the project manager from the program manager, So I think even for a project manager to be successful in a situation like you describe, that’s usually the difference to me is they somehow, they have a high enough EQ and self-awareness that they’re able to figure out how do I navigate this environment which is completely new to me.  So, yeah, I think you’re right.  And then typically those make the best program managers because they’re just able to step into that higher role of responsibility.

JOHN CARTER:  Yeah.  And so where I’ve seen that fail is a couple of modes.  One is “I’m the smartest person in the room.”

BILL YATES:  Yes.

JOHN CARTER:  That doesn’t work very well.  The other is “You’re going to do this because I’m going to tell you to do it.”

BILL YATES:  Yes.

JOHN CARTER:  That doesn’t work very well.

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  So now you’re left with Plan C, and Plan C is really the skills you’re talking about.

Small “a” Agile

BILL YATES:  John, your organization talks about small “a” agile.  What does that mean?

JOHN CARTER:  It’s a really great question, and frankly it’s one I’ve wrestled with, and a number of companies I’ve worked with wrestle with it, as well.  And that is, if you look at the origin of Agile and the Scrum methodology, it came out of a meeting of a little over a dozen software engineers who were on a retreat.  And so they formulated the Manifesto, which are 12 guidelines for how software should be developed.  Bill, you’re an expert in software, and I’m sure you know the Manifesto as well as anyone does.  If you look at those, though, and you think about it, and I’ve done the analysis, about nine out of the 12 are just good business practices.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

JOHN CARTER:  They’re fundamentally just good business practices.  So what’s small “a” agile? It has two things.  One is what are the business principles and practices that really make sense?  And then the second is what of those really are important to your business?  Rather than saying we’re going to do Scrum, our sprints are two weeks, we’re going to develop a backlog. So we’re going to estimate story points.  We’re going to track our burn-down rate over time.  We’re going to do process retrospectives at the end of two weeks as well as project retrospectives at the end of the two weeks.

The problem often with big “A” Agile is its super heavy weight, and it’s kind of, you know, there’s a little four-letter word, R-I-S-K, so that’s a dirty word.  Well, the notion of process heaviness in Agile is really something that’s not talked about, but should be.  So a lot of companies, when they actually are doing Agile, they’re not doing all 12 principles and all the rituals and all the ceremonies and all the roles.  And so small “a” agile is frankly just a recognition that, A, companies who are doing Agile really are only doing a subset of the Scrum methodology; and that, B, that’s all that really matters is to find out those things that are important to you and then applying those.

I fundamentally believe – I’m interested in your take on this, but I believe that Agile is simply a way to empower teams.  If you strip everything else away, it’s about how do you empower teams and trust them, and you trust them through the transparency of burn-down charts, making the backlog visible and so forth.  So it really achieves a business goal which is transparency.

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  Small “a” agile is what is the essence of Agile that really will help your business be transparent and your projects be effective.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying.  I really do. So I love the idea of what can we take from a methodology? We’ll take Scrum, for instance, what can we take from that to improve the process that we have today?  Let’s say we’re not going full-in, putting all our chips on Scrum, but we’re looking at it going, there’s some great practices from this. So let’s see how we can improve our current process given some of these tenets that they believe in or that they follow.

And then some of this is just, like you said, it’s nine of the 12 are just good, commonsense things that you want to do, if you’re running a business.  You want to deliver value early and often.  You want to demonstrate it. Then you want to put it in front of the customer as quickly as possible to see, you know, just like going back to the headphone example.  What do you guys think of the product so far?  And in your mind, you and the team have something in your head as to, man, they’re going to love this feature.  And then they come back, and feature number eight on your list is their number one priority. So you’re like, whoa, okay.  Let’s change how we’re headed with the technology because we can do this and really maximize that key benefit for you.

So there are so many advantages to delivering value early and often, demonstrating it with the client, letting that customer give you that feedback.  Right at the beginning of our conversation we saw the great value of feedback to you, and so I’m sure, you know, you were probably 20-something at the time.  So that had to have such an impression on you as a young professional, seeing the value of the customer feedback.

JOHN CARTER:  Absolutely, Bill.  We spent months in the laboratory optimizing a certain parameter, only when we showed it to customers, they don’t care about that parameter.  So why did we do that for two months? And the two things that you cited I think are the core of small “a” agile.  The first is having relatively short interval scheduling, in other words, let’s try this piece of work and measure it after a short time.  Second thing you said is share it with the stakeholder or customer. So I think if you do those two things, you’ll see a real improvement in your delivery.

BILL YATES:  This rings true.  The small “a” agile rings true with what you said earlier about reporting bad news as soon as it happens, you know, immediately and again, it goes back to that trust and integrity of the team.  So if a team member stumbles across something that’s bad news, we have a risk or we had a product failure or whatever, something didn’t happen the way we thought it would, they don’t have any shame in that.  They immediately bring it to the team and let the team swarm around that problem and come up with a solution.

JOHN CARTER:  Exactly, exactly.

Establishing Boundary Conditions

WENDY GROUNDS:  John, another thing you talk about is establishing boundary conditions.  What do you mean by that?

JOHN CARTER:  I actually discovered this work at Apple when I was helping them with their New Product Process, the ANPP.  And that is that, if you look at a project, especially a program, as a program manager would see it, there are typical dimensions of that program that are really important to stakeholders. And they vary by programs, but one might be, let’s say, the program cost. So the other might be the program schedule.  Another might be key attributes that you’re trying to satisfy, so-called “success factors.”

Let’s just take those – program cost, program schedule, and some key critical success factors. So those, if you think about at the beginning of a program, and you really step back from the dollars and cents and purchase requisitions and details of a Gantt chart or anything, the executives see those things.  They have so much money to spend.  They need the result by this time, and in fact want you to achieve these critical success factors.

Those essentially are three boundaries of a triangle:  cost, schedule, and features or performance.  Well, so if at the beginning of a program you have a discussion with your stakeholders around these boundaries, and what each one of these boundaries actually is in numerical terms – nine-month schedule, $7.6 million max budget, and let’s say double the speed over your prior generation, to take three very simple ones – if you agree on these boundaries, and you agree on if the team perceives they’re going to cross those boundaries you will let management know, and you adhere by that agreement, then there’s no need for management’s micromanaging you.

And the sense anytime a program manager or for this matter anyone on the team senses we’re going to trip a boundary condition, you actually worked out with the executive stakeholders a process, which is immediately you send an email, and you say here’s the boundary break we’re going to have, so these are the consequences, and here’s what we’re going to do to remediate it. And you either suggest an agreement by email or an in-person meeting in hours, if not days, and then, depending on the severity and complexity, the managers may just say fine, go ahead, or they may say no, we want a meeting to discuss this.

But if you get this all worked out – so boundary conditions, numerical boundaries or trigger points, and then finally process for reaching renegotiation of the boundary conditions if something changes. So if you have all that worked out, you don’t need weekly status reports.

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  So you don’t need constantly updated Gantt charts, you don’t need to sit in endless Monday reviews going over each and every aspect of the program. And this is what I believe are the true benefits of having boundary conditions.  And we go back to bad news?  Well, breaking a boundary is bad news, but you’ve got a process you’ve agreed upon to solve that and notify people.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Yeah, John, I like that.  I’ve never heard it called “boundary conditions,” but I completely relate to what you’ve described.  And I know just as a practitioner I loved it when we had – it’s almost like rules of engagement. You know, so early on in the project we’ve got our sponsor, our key whatever senior management we’re reporting to, and we agree to the scope, the schedule, and the cost.

To your point, then our team has freedom, it’s like we’re in our sandbox, and we know how big our sandbox is.  We know where the fence lines are, and we have freedom to explore different options, different alternatives, as long as we have those big three, we’re in good shape.  And to me that creates an environment where the team can really flourish because of that expectation upfront.  We’ve communicated it, and we’ve got our, as you say, your boundary conditions.

JOHN CARTER:  Yeah, exactly.  And so I would say the one snag in this, and where your organization may really help project managers, is the lack of trust.  So if the executives don’t trust you to come forward if you think you’re going to cross a boundary, or don’t trust you to come back with a good solution, then in fact that’s an area where maybe you need training wheels on this.

BILL YATES:  Right.

JOHN CARTER:  So you have some monitoring, maybe you need some training from your organization to upskill the group.  But this is where you want to get to, you want to have trust with your program managers, clear boundaries, and a process for managing exceptions.

John’s Success Tips

WENDY GROUNDS:  So John, what has pushed your growth as a leader, as an innovator?  What has helped you to be successful in what you’ve endeavored?

JOHN CARTER:  I so think the way that was really important and I achieved enlightenment was really to realize that businesses have a culture. They have a strategy, and your role as a member of that corporation is to help them achieve that strategy, and so you internalize what’s important for that culture and the leadership in order to fulfill these strategic goals.  I think, if you do that, you’re going to be well on your way towards a great career.

BILL YATES:  John, along those lines, what final advice do you have for those who are earlier in their career and would love to know, okay, what steps should I take in order to have a fulfilling career?

JOHN CARTER:  I think the first part is the hardest, which is to know what you like to do, believe it or not, and I think once you do that you’ll be in really great stead.  So in fact my wife, who works in HR, Human Resources, and basically the future of work, she really nails that so brilliantly. She says it’s all about passion.  You know, so if you can really find what you’re passionate about, you will unlock the energy inside yourself and your team that will prepare you for new heights.  So I think this notion of find out what work really you love to do and then really leaning into your passion is the advice that I would give to anyone starting out on their career.  Work is fun.

BILL YATES:  It is, yes.  Yeah, and I love hearing that from you because in the background we’re looking at each other’s offices as we speak, and there’s a piano, a keyboard behind you.  And you talked about early in your career your passion for science, and then for music, and for sound specifically. And you’ve had a wonderful career where those touchpoints have continued to come up, and so that’s wonderful advice, and we’re going to give your wife credit for that one.  So find your point of passion and pursue it.

JOHN CARTER:  Exactly.  That’s it in a nutshell, Bill.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, well, John, thank you so much for your time and this conversation, you have such rich experience, and I knew that our listeners would benefit from the many diverse experiences you’ve had.  You’ve been the tech guy, you’ve been then put in charge of projects and programs.  And then you’ve run companies, and you’ve been on boards.  So you’ve had quite the illustrious career, we just appreciate your perspective that you’ve shared with us today.

JOHN CARTER:  Well, thank you for inviting me.  I love projects and project management, and so I’m happy and willing and enthused to share with you my passion for that, Bill and Wendy.  Thank you.

Get in Touch with John

WENDY GROUNDS:  Which leads me to one last question, if we have audience members who would like to reach out to you, who have questions or just want to pick your brain a little more, how can they reach out to you?

JOHN CARTER:  Two ways.  Read a book that I’ve written called “Innovate Products Faster,” which is on Amazon in Kindle or paper version, and also check out our website, TCGen.com.  And so there you’ll find lots of downloadable assets that can really help you in your program management journey.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I’m going to send you a Manage This coffee mug to say thank you so much.  We’ve really enjoyed having you.

JOHN CARTER:  Oh, I’d love that.  Only one thing I have with logos, I don’t wear shirts or anything, but coffee mugs I’ve always found delightful.

Closing

WENDY GROUNDS: So listeners, you have just earned some Professional Development Units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, then click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  We’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com to subscribe to this podcast; see a transcript of the show; or, if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications in general, we’re here for you.

That’s all for this episode.  Thank you for joining us, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

4 responses to “Episode 112 – The Role of the Successful Project Manager in Innovation”

  1. Avatar David Weber says:

    Need to be careful to pay attention throughout. There is so much excellent content that i found myself pausing the podcast so I could read back through the transcript. Fast paced, comprehensive delivery without a bunch of buzz words and acronyms to deal with. Delivery by people who have actually experienced the content they discuss. Best straight-talk podcast i have listened to in quite some time.

    • Avatar Wendy Grounds says:

      Thanks for your comment David. John Carter has a wealth of experience and we are glad he spent some time talking with us.

  2. Avatar Trevor says:

    Inspiring individual with so many profound insights, definitely worth the time and the free PDUs!

  3. Avatar Luis Leon Rivero says:

    I particularly liked the mention to “fate and luck”. Something else to think about: how final consumers ( and not necessarily project sponsors or project owners) may end up being the drivers and the key for innovation. Will certainly have a second thought about it.

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