Episode 142 – Looking Forward to Perfect Projects

Episode #142
Original Air Date: 12.06.2021

34 minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Eddie Obeng

Perfect Projects

“Until now we’ve managed projects by looking out through the rearview mirror.” These are the words of our guest Professor Eddie Obeng. Eddie challenges us to approach complex modern projects by spending less time discussing the past and more time focused on the future. In Eddie’s words, we should “take the learning back to the work place” by briefly analyzing our past performance, and rapidly applying what we’ve learned.

Tune in to hear about recognizing the project environment and choosing the best leadership approach based on four types of projects, which Eddie describes as: (1) Paint by Numbers, (2) Quest for the Holy Grail, (3) the “Movie” project, and (4) the “Fog” project. He highlights some ways that we intentionally and unintentionally mess up projects and gives practical advice about facing your fears, organizational culture, and dealing with the challenges of change management.

We ask Eddie about Qube, the virtual environment he created, where participants actively take part in learning and transformation while joining colleagues around the world. We’re excited to share QUBE’s unique features. Eddie is a world-class educator and has a passion for helping project managers. He is the first author to popularize Project Management through the Financial Times Best-seller All Change, as well as the author of 9 other books including Perfect Projects and New Rules for the New World. He is a World Class Educator and Speaker at TED Global, Google Zeitgeist, PopTech, Octo Communitech; the founder of QUBE and Pentacle the Virtual Business School; Director Ashridge Business School; Professor Henley Business School; Shell Research and patent generation; and Consulting European prize for energy efficient manufacturing plant design.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"I’m asking you to look forward through the windscreen as opposed to the habit of let’s make a guess of what’s through the windscreen, and drive and manage, coordinate through the rearview mirror.  Completely different mindset."

- Eddie Obeng

"...we were doing stuff we knew what to do and how to do it.  So if it had worked roughly well last time, chances were this one was also going to work roughly well.  But then the world kept accelerating, and for most organizations in the past 30 years, their local environment now changes faster than they can learn.  And that really messes them up because you go from a world, you always know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, to a world where sometimes you know what you’re going to do,  you have no idea how you’re going to do it."

- Eddie Obeng

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The Podcast by project managers for project managers. Hear how to approach complex modern projects by spending less time discussing the past and more time focused on the future. Eddie Obeng says we should: “take the learning back to the work place” by analyzing our past performance, and rapidly applying what we’ve learned to deliver perfect projects. Listen in for practical advice about facing your fears, organizational culture, and dealing with the challenges of change management. 

Table of Contents

01:25 … Meet Eddie
02:00 … QUBE – Learning and Transformation
04:30 … QUBE for the Project Manager
07:05 … Qubots
08:00 … Delivering Projects by Looking Ahead
11:06 … How do We Intentionally Mess up Projects?
13:39 … Choosing the Right Project leader
15:18 … Four Things We Mess up
18:09 … Organization’s Culture Affecting a Project
21:36 … Subconsciously Sabotaging Our Projects
23:08 … Sabotaging Projects by Remaining Silent
24:28 … Reporting Your Doubts and Fears
27:58 … Change Management
32:31 … Get in Touch with Eddie
33:42 … Closing

EDDIE OBENG: I’m asking you to look forward through the windscreen as opposed to the habit of let’s make a guess of what’s through the windscreen, and drive and manage, coordinate through the rearview mirror.  Completely different mindset.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m your host, Wendy Grounds, and joining me is Bill Yates.  Just a quick note.  If you’re looking to acquire PDUs, Professional Development Units, towards your recertifications, you can still claim those PDUs for all our podcast episodes.  Just listen up at the end of the show for information on how you can do that.

So today we have a really interesting guest.  This is Professor Eddie Obeng.  Professor Obeng was born in Ghana but has lived most of his life in the U.K.  He’s a world-class educator and has a passion for helping project managers.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  I’m going to give a quick preview of some of my favorite pieces of the conversation we’re going to have.  Eddie talks about recognizing the project environment and then choosing the best leadership approach based on one of four types of projects.  I think people are going to find that very useful and helpful.  Another thing, very practical advice that Eddie gives is facing your fear.  We talk about that, pretty straightforward.  And the teaser there is it’s okay if we don’t have all the answers in the moment.  I think that’ll be quite helpful to those listeners who are like me.

Meet Eddie

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Eddie.  Welcome.  We’re looking forward to talking with you today.

EDDIE OBENG:  Hello.  Delighted to be here.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I want to know who is Eddie Obeng.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

EDDIE OBENG:  Just to give you some background, I teach.  I’m an educator.  I teach businesses, I help them transform, I do this based on material that I research myself.  And I built a virtual business school with a different way to teach people to deal with the complexity of the world.  And I’m also an entrepreneur because I took that business school, and I’ve made it digital, and I’ve got lots of people in the team and so on.  So that’s probably me.  I’ve written books, couple of bestsellers and stuff.

QUBE – Learning and Transformation

BILL YATES:  So tell us more about QUBE.  It’s Q-U-B-E.  Now, tell us more about this other environment.

EDDIE OBENG:  Yeah, so QUBE is my shortcut to learning and transformation.  From the point of view of the person who is experiencing QUBE, literally everything you need to be able to do, which you’re struggling to do right now.  So for example we are on Skype, but you’re scribbling your different bits of paper.  Maybe if we’re in the same room we could write on a whiteboard.  And it would stay there, and you could come back later, and if we had lots of room, people could have offices to move around in.  And when I’m teaching you.  I could write on a whiteboard.  I could say “Off you go and have a break.  I’ll come back in five minutes.”

So all the things which we want to do together, but we actually have to do when we’re dispersed, QUBE does all of those.  But the real secret sauce is because nobody knows how to behave on QUBE, you can use it both for learning and for transformation.  For example, corporations, which are very traditional, doing innovation.  They don’t know any better.  You say, now we need new ideas.  And then they all come up with new ideas.  They don’t argue with you.  So it’s like a little magic trick I have for getting people to learn and transform.

BILL YATES:  What motivated you to create this environment?

EDDIE OBENG:  Bit of background.  So I used to work at a proper business school, a place called Ashridge.  And we used to do in the old days, basically the companies would send these people to us as a sort of punishment or whether it was a prize.  We would inter them in that room for five days and talk at them.


EDDIE OBENG:  And then after five days they would emerge, and then we’d see them the next promotion step.  And then the world started accelerating.  So they went, we can’t come for five days.  We want three-day modules.  So they’d come, and we’d lock them up for three days instead.  But what never happened was we never took the learning back to the workplace with them.  So they’d leave, and you had no idea whether anything you taught them was any use, or what they’d done with it.  And I was quite determined that as the world was accelerating, it was important that we not only learned, but we put it into practice and transformed our organizations.  Question:  How do you do that without flying people backwards and forwards all the time?

So I left Ashridge, and I started Pentacle.  And the idea behind Pentacle is really simple:  learn and do.  Then the question was how on earth do you do that with grownups?  And so that’s where QUBE came from.  It’s basically so we can keep people learning, trying out, building their confidence, dealing with their tutors, talking to the other colleagues, and then bringing them together to do some more learning as they transform their organizations.  It basically is a solution to the headache which everyone’s got, which is how on earth do you make change happen?


QUBE for the Project Manager

WENDY GROUNDS:  We like to tell our project managers about tools that they could use.  So how would you suggest that a project manager uses this within their organization?

EDDIE OBENG:  Yeah.  So the best way to understand QUBE is I sometimes talk about it like a pyramid.  Because QUBE uses computers, everyone goes, oh, it’s a software tool.  A software tool would be something like a PowerPoint or a Miro, a Miro board or something like Office 365.  QUBE contains tools.  So if we’d been doing this on QUBE, the first thing we’d have done when we got together is we’d have chatted, like we did. 

And then I would say, “Great, guys, within this podcast what are your greatest hopes?”  And we’d have gone to a whiteboard, and we’d have stuck up stickies of all the things you want from this.  Then I’d have said, “What are your greatest fears?”  And you’d have stuck up all of those.  And then we would have spent about a minute making sure none of the fears are going to come through before we started on the hopes.

That’s what we call a “tool” on QUBE.  It’s a performance enhancement, people engagement tool called Hopes and Fears.  So the tools help people to think together and make their projects more aligned.  So that’s how we use tools.  Does that make sense? 

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So it’s like a platform that you bring familiar tools into, but it’s the environment of the platform they’re using.

EDDIE OBENG:  Oh, I like you so much.  I can’t tell you how much I like you.  Because not only are there tools, but the way we would work together, if you were on QUBE as avatars, we call them Qubots, would be a room.  And we’d call the rooms – believe it – Qubicles with a Q.

BILL YATES:  Of course.

EDDIE OBENG:  Okay?  In the room there will be a whiteboard.  There will be a TV screen or computer screen where we can look at whatever we need to, or watch videos.  There’s probably somewhere else like a desk where we can leave sticky notes for each other.  Might be somewhere we can gather in a circle, a nice seating area with a sound bubble so we can have multiple conversations.  And so that’s what we call a platform.  But other people think of a platform as Slack or Teams or whatever else.  So you get platforms into our Qubicle.  The tools which are these performance tools easily get people working together and thinking together and delivering stuff straight away.

But the whole game of course is learning and transformation.  So QUBE, the focus is on the learning and transformation, and the platform and tools are just to enable it.  So a project leader who just wanted to get some work done and was already scaled up would just pick up the right tool.  Working with other people, they probably invite them into the Qubicle.  But if they needed to learn something new, aha, now it gets interesting because now we have to diagnose what they want.  We have to understand where it fits in the context of their organization.  Then we have to understand what platform, what Qubicle, and what tools can they use instantly to start moving forward.


WENDY GROUNDS:  It was really cool.  I loved watching that.  We saw the little avatars, and we took a look at it.  So very cool.

EDDIE OBENG:  The avatars are really funny because we started with human-shaped avatars, and we discovered everyone spends all their time building their avatars.  And then we discovered there’s this really quite interesting bit of psychology here.  We discovered that introverts hate building avatars because they don’t want to be seen anyway, and now you’re making them recreate themselves.  And then we had a really strange one where there was somebody who was worried about their weight.  And so they text me, “Do I make the avatar how I am, or how I would like to be?”


EDDIE OBENG:  “Because having it like I am, then I don’t like that.  If I make it how I’d like to be, then everybody would be pointing at me saying, ‘Hah, no, you’re not like that.’”

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.  That’s funny.

EDDIE OBENG:  So we went for these really simple, very blocky Minecraft-type avatars.

BILL YATES:  Yes, yeah, Minecraft is exactly the analogy I was thinking of.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, yeah.

EDDIE OBENG:  Some people call it Minecraft for Managers.

Delivering Projects by Looking Ahead

WENDY GROUNDS:  I like that.  Eddie, we want to move on to the topic that we want to talk with you about, delivering perfect projects.  And I saw a quote that you had given:  “Until now we’ve managed projects by looking out through the rearview mirror.”  How do we deliver projects by looking ahead?  What’s your advice to that?

EDDIE OBENG:  Can I answer that in lots of bits?  Because when you read it, you go, what?  When I’ve explained it, it will be obvious, but there’s a journey.  So traditionally roll right back to a world which changed more slowly than people could learn where things were local.  Most of the projects would be quite well defined either outside the organization because you’re building a dam or inside the organization because you’ve got a new product. 

You define how you’re going to do it.  And then you go into personal planning.  Usually the plan you came up with looked like exactly the plan for the previous time you did exactly the same thing, you just changed the name.  Okay?  And then you’d start to move forward.  Okay.  And as you took one step or one month or the next quarter, every quarter you’d get together, and you’d say, “How are we doing?” 

And for the project world, most meetings you sit around going, well, what happened?  It’s not just project meetings.  Sales meetings, planning, any meetings.  What happened last month?  And then somebody says how it happened.  They say, “How did that come about?”  And there’s a lot of discussion.  So one of them’s like a history lesson, and the other one is like a fairy tale because that’s obviously not what happened.  So most people’s meetings, even till today, if you took a clock, and you said how much time did they spend discussing the past, it’s 90% is what happened and how did it come about.  And so that’s how we run projects.  It’s gone off track.  So what should we do differently and then make a little tweak.

So it was always looking backwards to what happened.  That was fine because we were doing stuff we knew what to do and how to do it.  So if it had worked roughly well last time, chances were this one was also going to work roughly well.  But then the world kept accelerating, and for most organizations in the past 30 years, their local environment now changes faster than they can learn.  And that really messes them up because you go from a world, you always know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, to a world where sometimes you know what you’re going to do,  you have no idea how you’re going to do it, like early day lockdown.  For example, we’re going to run podcasts in this lockdown.  How are you going to do it?  I don’t know.

BILL YATES:  You were there.  You heard us.

EDDIE OBENG:  I was there.  Yes! Then sometimes you know how you’re going to do it.  So somebody will go, I’ve built a platform for doing podcasts.  Who can I sell it to?  And the platform they built wasn’t what you wanted.  They knew how to do it, but it didn’t match what you wanted.  That’s a different type of change.  And then my favorite would be when you suddenly went, oh, our current business model is blown up because we can’t get anyone together.  Basically you don’t know what to do or how to do it, but you know something must be done yesterday.  Now, when you hit those types of change, suddenly you don’t have the template plan.  But what we continued doing was putting together the plan we could come up with, and then we continued managing it by looking at what had happened each month.

BILL YATES:  That is such a hard paradigm to switch from; right?  It’s hard to break that.  It’s hard to break that mold.  There’s comfort in it.  It’s the way we’ve always done it.

EDDIE OBENG:  Correct.

BILL YATES:  You know, it’s the way the guy taught me how to do it kind of thing.


How do We Intentionally Mess up Projects?

BILL YATES:  One of the questions we wanted to ask you, Eddie, is I think it ties right in with this, is what are some ways that we intentionally mess up projects?  Because this feels like one of them right here.

EDDIE OBENG:  I give the project types names.  I call them painting by numbers, like when you were a kid, and you had those books with the colors in, and it’s usually okay.  Then I call the ones where you’re aiming for something, but you’re not sure how, I make them the master, the quest for the Holy Grail.  You know, basically King Arthur wanted to get the Holy Grail, didn’t know where it was, oh my goodness, how are we going to find it?  Couldn’t figure it out.  Sent all his knights all over the place, randomly searching.  Forgot to tell them to come back on time for Christmas.  One of them looked for a hundred years, which I always describe this as project overrun.  And there, the rest is legend.

So that’s another type.  And there’s what I call movie projects, when you film somebody on your phone, you get your TikTok, you upload it, no hits.  Why?  Because there was no story.  The what was missing, but the method was in place.  And then the last one I call fog, which is you’re basically stumbling through the fog, unclear what to do.

So the first mistake we make is we don’t recognize that projects come in these different types. So we keep trying to deal with them all the same way.

Even if we start to change how it works, like for example if a project had no goal and no method, like it’s foggy, you’ll find that things like taking one step at a time and reviewing to make sure you are on the right track and, you know, like you’re shaking hands, good communication between everyone, really important.  So that sort of has underpinned this whole groundswell of Agile.

But if you look at how you walk through a fog, you make a guess, take a step, you’re holding hands with everyone, communicate, where should we go next, et cetera.  And that’s what Agile is supposed to do.  But when you watch people using Agile, they’re still back at the old one.  They go, we’ll do our epic.  Now we’ve got our story.  Now we’ll do a long “retrospectacle”, and we’ll look and look and look at the path and see what happens.  Then we’ll work out our next sprint.  So they’re trying so hard to move to being fluid and flexible in the fog, but their culture hasn’t transformed, is the same old culture.  And then they complain, well, we’re doing our job.  It’s not very agile.  Of course it’s not because you haven’t transformed anything.  You haven’t learned anything.

So that’s one huge mistake, not recognizing there are different types.  Obviously on the quest you want to do as many things in parallel as possible, a bit like King Arthur.  But each thing must have a limit to it.  Obviously in a movie type project you want to get stakeholders involved in helping you with the script as early as possible and checking what you’re doing.  So they’re very, very different things.  And if you think about it, I don’t know about you, but I’m not good at paint by numbers.  I get bored.


Choosing the Right Project leader

EDDIE OBENG:  Some people are brilliant at paint by numbers.  They get scared in the fog.  So we choose the project leader.  Well, I think, I don’t know, I think Bill is a really experienced person.  Good paint by numbers guy.  What’s his project?  Oh, we don’t know.  It’s foggy.  They don’t think about it.  Well, if it looks like a tough one, but Bill’s got lots of experience.  So they drop Bill into their foggy project.  Now, Bill loves doing what he knows how to do.  So what does he do?  He finds the bits he understands, does those bits, ignores all the other bits.  Meanwhile, Eddie, dropped into the paint by numbers project, going “This is boring, this is boring,” ignores everything which the stakeholders are asking for and comes up with something completely useless.  So another way you can happily trip yourself up.

BILL YATES:  This is a splash of cold water in the face of those who are choosing the leaders for projects as they’re coming up.  It’s a reminder of we need to match the project.  We need to know the project type.  To your point, there are four different types of projects.  That’s a great analogy.  We need to understand the project.  Is it a paint by numbers?  Where is it on that scale of uncertainty?  And then look at the people that we’re about to assign to the project and the team leader and make sure that they’re wired the right way.  Absolutely.  That’s a great reminder.

EDDIE OBENG:  Correct.  Exactly.  If you think about, if you’re on a quest, you want knights.  So a knight is somebody who has a specific expertise, but you choose the one for your team who is really determined, good at solving stuff and getting it done.  That’s a knight.  If you put somebody like that in a fog, they’ll solve what’s not been asked for.  What you want is somebody who actually is very human, can listen and can learn.  So yes, but you don’t choose the go-getter one for the fog.  So you can mess up the team.  You can mess up as I described the process in a quest parallel activity, but you wouldn’t want that if you paint by numbers.  That would be crazy.

Four Things We Mess up

What I sometimes do is I explain that once you understand the type of change, the question is what if it goes wrong over and over again?  And there seem to be like four things which we mess up.  One is, I’ll call it the people-y bit.  Human beings.  You’re doing a podcast with, say, Eddie.  And Eddie’s a bit of a crazy mad person, and you’ve sent him your brief, and he hasn’t read it and so on.  Okay?  So we are in the fog.  Now you’ve got to manage the stakeholder back on track.  If it’s foggy, probably they’re going to do more people-y stakeholder-y stuff, and you probably need to deal with that before you get down to the nuggets of actually doing the stuff.

BILL YATES:  That’s true, yup.

EDDIE OBENG:  I’ll do the opposite.  If it’s paint by numbers, chances are they know the stuff, and you don’t have to do so much about the people-y bits.  So you can mess up there.  You can mess up on the team, your leadership style, putting the right person in.  We’ve covered that.  You can mess up on, I’ll call it “planning, coordination, and prelimination,” but I’ll come back to that in a second.  In that we describe the waterfall type versus how do you plan in the fog.  The way you plan in the fog is I have a tool, bottom level, not platform, tool called Sticky Steps, very simple.  It works like this.  I want you to imagine this podcast as being incredibly successful.  Best podcast ever in the world.  How are you feeling?  You go…

BILL YATES:  Fantastic.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Very good.

BILL YATES:  This is excellent.

EDDIE OBENG:  Fantastic, yes.  And then I say, so we’ve done it.  It’s three months from now.  You’ve basically broken all the records.  All the mainstream media are all bankrupt because everyone’s watching your podcast.  What did you do to get here?  What must you have done to get to the successful outcome?

BILL YATES:  We invited a brilliant guest.

EDDIE OBENG:  There you go.  So we talk about things you must have done.  And in that brainstorming you’re working from the future backwards, and that gives you the steps you might need to take.  And on that basis you can plan your entire foggy project, price it, cost it, look at the resources, but remember it’s the fog, so every single time you go through a step, you’re going to review and see whether you’re still on track.  You don’t plan it the old way.  So that’s another place to trip up.

BILL YATES:  You’re right.  Many times we have to communicate to management or to our sponsors the nature of our project.  To your point, hey, this is a foggy project.  There’s a lot of uncertainty, especially upfront.  We have three choices, let’s say, with our technology.  We have three big decisions that we have to make.  There’s not a WBS.  There’s not a paint by numbers.  Right.  So time out.  We can’t give you that yet. 

EDDIE OBENG:  Every competent project manager should be able to give me…

BILL YATES:  Right.  Yup.  So being able to communicate that to management, to sponsors, to set proper expectations for them so they recognize what we’re dealing with.

EDDIE OBENG:  Exactly.  And then the last one of course is learning and review, which is where we started.  And I’m going to our prelimination later, so that’s about flipping the meeting to look into the future rather than the past.  So those are the ways inside the project. 

Organization’s Culture Affecting a Project

But there are some even more powerful reasons why we get tripped up which are not inside the project.  They’re to do with the organization’s culture. So let’s go back to the old world, in an organization which is quite traditional.  And you’re thinking to yourself, right, let me look at the people who report to me and decide which project manager should be raised to senior project manager or project director.  Okay?  So you’re looking at people who work for you.  And who do you choose to promote?  Do you choose to promote the one whose projects always go totally smoothly, or the one who sort of had projects, the projects were really difficult, and this person somehow manages, through hard work and perseverance, to pull them off.  Which of these two do you choose to promote?

BILL YATES:  Wow.  Yeah.  I think the tendency can be towards the hero sometimes.


BILL YATES:  It’s like who’s the person…

EDDIE OBENG:  Because the other guy obviously had easy projects.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And it can create this expectation of, if I want to do well in this company, I need to be the hero.  I need to work the overtime.  I need to have the silver bullet and all that.

EDDIE OBENG:  Because the good people don’t do this, but the naughty people like me, they do.  You’re running the project.  A problem happens.  Okay?  Good people, they just fix the problem.  So they never get to talk to the boss.  No hero.  No notice, basically.  They’re just in the background.  Where the naughty people go, right, there’s a problem.  Okay.  Well, I could fix it.  Or I could bring it to somebody’s attention.  So they bring it to your attention.  They go, “Oh, well, we’ve got this thing, and the microphone doesn’t quite work.”  And then you say, “What are you doing about it?”  “Oh, I’m talking to three or four suppliers.”  And then I come back to you and say, “I’ve managed to sort it out.  Here is the microphone.  I’ve managed to fix it.  It works.”  And you go, “Well done.”

So you seriously want to be promoted.  You’ve got to be nuts to run a perfect project.  You’ll never get promoted.  You’ll just moan every weekend in the bar about how you’re looked over and so on, so forth.  So the organization’s culture gets in the way.  And also because the organization is so focused on looking backwards, they never set you proper performance indicators for going forward.  So one of the things I do in my method called Zero is do you remember the guy who landed the plane on the Hudson?

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah.


BILL YATES:  Scully?  Yeah.


EDDIE OBENG:  Scully.  So that was a plane which suddenly had no engines and had to glide.  We discovered what glide path was, where you could land in the river.  So let’s take the project, let’s remove the project lead, and let’s watch the project glide.  Over the life of the project, what’s going to go wrong without a project leader there?  Well, there won’t be any alignments with stakeholders.  And we could list, I mean, when you say to most people what do you think’s going to go wrong in this project, they can tell you, can’t they.

Imagine we could list the glide path of a project without the project leader.  Okay?  We wrote that down in advance.  And then we appointed the project leader, and the first thing goes wrong.  And we go, actually, that’s a thing which goes wrong when there’s no project leader there.  So you’re not getting any brownie points for that.  In fact, we’re going to give you a negative because you should have known.  So the metrics for project execution, if you’re going to build them, have to be built on the back of a glide path, not on the back of no project having happened.  But everyone builds them all as if there’s no project.

It’s as if, you know, every action is good.  No, no, no.  Some actions, we know they’re going to go wrong.  And in fact we can deal with them before they go wrong.  So they need never go wrong.  But again, I’m asking you to look forward through the windscreen as opposed to the habit of let’s make a guess of what’s through the windscreen, and drive and manage, coordinate through the rearview mirror.  Completely different mindset.

Subconsciously Sabotaging Our Projects

WENDY GROUNDS:  Sometimes we subconsciously sabotage our projects.  How are some of the ways that we’re doing that?

EDDIE OBENG:  I mentioned earlier about I hate my paint by numbers.  I will just happily do the bits I like, so we do that.  And then also for most human beings we’re all roughly the same.  You know, if you’re frightened of something, it’s very difficult to confront it.  You’re always hoping you’ll have the confidence before you have to deal with it.  But the confidence and courage always come afterwards.  So especially on the more open projects – the quest, the fog, and the movie – people don’t move at the pace they should.  And so they end up sabotaging themselves.

Sometimes the sponsor sabotages them because like we were saying earlier with your three sponsors, instead of them just allowing you to explore those three areas, they insist on what’s impossible, which is you have to tell them the answer before you’ve learned what the problem is.  So that’s another way in which they’re trying to get certainty.  And in their quest to get certainty, they actually undermine themselves.  There are so many ways in which we quite happily do that.

And that’s why the project success rates don’t seem to increase, irrespective of the fact we keep training them up and making them more professional. The same 25% work like magic.  50% of them, vamp projects or poltergeist projects.  25% don’t happen.  Vamp projects suck all the living blood out of you.  Poltergeist projects wander around the organizations, smelling bad, never going away.  It’s not changed in my lifetime.

Sabotaging Projects by Remaining Silent

BILL YATES:  Eddie, I have a question for you.  You’ve had so much interaction with leaders and project leaders.  One of the ways that I think we sabotage projects as leaders is by remaining silent.  Particularly I think of sometimes we have a sense of responsibility of I have to have all the answers.  If my team uncovers an issue that we had not planned for, I’m not going to tell anybody about it until I have a solution.  And then hours go by, or critical days go by, or a week goes by, and it’s like this little bitty issue becomes this huge snowball coming down the mountain, crushing us.

EDDIE OBENG:  That happens, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Do you see that?

EDDIE OBENG:  Oh, yeah, I see that all the time.  But it’s a variant of old-style paint by numbers.


EDDIE OBENG:  Assuming it’s paint by numbers, then the best project lead is the expert project lead who knows what and how.  And if you’ve been brought up on that, then you’re too scared to go, “Hey, help me.”  If you’re in the fog, you don’t go, “I’m lost in the fog.  I know everything.”  If you do that, guess what?  Nobody will follow you.  Okay?  So what happens by misinterpreting the situation, they select the wrong behaviors.  And then the behaviors then undermine them, allowing the problem to grow.  And if they’re in a culture where you want a hero project lead, sometimes that’s good.  But actually it just means you’re putting the project more at risk before you try and rescue it.  And often you can’t.

Reporting Your Doubts and Fears

BILL YATES:  What advice do you have to leaders or managers who say, you know what, you guys just described me.  I have that fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  It sits with me, and I try to hide it from my team.  I try to hide it from my leaders.  And sometimes it keeps me from admitting to things or reporting things in a prompt fashion.  And I know I need to get better at it.  How can I get better?

EDDIE OBENG:  I’ll tell you a story, two stories, and then it’ll set the context for how you never have to worry about that again.  I started going bald quite early.  And the reason I went bald was I was working for a company called Shell.  And not because I was working for Shell.  I’m in research, and we had a new senior guy, and I was running this project, and I’d been told the senior guy wanted to torpedo my research project.  So I was really worried about it.  So every night I’d go to bed, and instead of lying properly I’d sort of half sit up in bed, with my head at the head of the bed.  I might have done this a month because that’s how I started going bald, just the sheer worry of not sleeping properly in the bed.

And then I went and finally gave this presentation, and then the senior guy torpedoed what I’d done.  So had lots of worry, and then I got torpedoed, as well.  That’s a bit mad because I knew he was going to torpedo it, and yet I did nothing until he torpedoed it.  Now, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have done it differently because the reality is that fear you feel is really helpful.  You know, it’s basically telling you where the most dangerous parts of your project are.  And you shouldn’t be like me.  The analogy I use is, if you’ve ever watched a science fiction film, you know they’re all the same.  They involve aliens.  Aliens’ job description is travel millions of light years, come to Earth, and eat you.  All the time.

BILL YATES:  That’s it.

EDDIE OBENG:  That’s just – that’s their job.  Always when they crash land, instead of running away, the people in the film run towards the crashed vehicle, okay, they go in.  Okay?  When they arrive, of course, they say the magic words, which I love, which are “Let’s split up,” thereby allowing one of them to meet the alien.  But they never kill the alien.  They never fix the problem; do they.  They phone their friends and say, “There’s an alien here.  Look.”  And they get cut off because they’ve been eaten.  That’s it.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Yeah.

EDDIE OBENG:  Okay?  And then the others arrive and see their friend’s been eaten, take the alien back to the lab, lock it in the kitchen.  Somebody’s supposed to keep an eye on it, falls asleep.  Alien wakes up, eats that person, escapes into the air ducts, comes out eating people randomly and blow up the whole of the moon.  Always the same story.  Now, that creates five stages, which is identify the fear.  So if you’re already worried, that’s step one.  That’s really useful.  Okay?

Step two, is fix it now.  I should literally have just quite simply gone and spoken to the senior guy saying, “I’ve heard you’re not really happy with this.  Can I address it before I make this presentation to you in two months’ time?”  I needed to go and see him.  And so that would have then solved it.  He would have told me why I needed to change so I could move forward.  So let’s fix it now.  And you might not be able to fix it.  So if you can’t fix it, contain it.  Don’t let it spread to everything.

So you might say, what should I present him?  Maybe rather I could present some of the little bits now so he could torpedo the little bits.  Containment.  Locking the thing up.  And then keeping an eye on it, listening in, talking to the secretary and so on, so forth.  And then I needed a plan B.  When it blows up, what am I going to do differently?

So those five stages, I call that Fix It Now.  That’s the tool, the PET, the Performance Enhancement Tool.  And those five stages are really about, you know, surviving the alien invasion.


EDDIE OBENG:  If you go to qube.cc, and you register and stuff like that, you want a Performance Enhancement Tool about fear, somebody will send you one.  Or maybe meet you on QUBE and show you how to use it.  But you take your fear, and you basically break it down to see what you can do to get it to go away.  And that’s what they should do, rather than sitting around being stressed.

Change Management

BILL YATES:  That’s excellent advice.  Excellent.  Eddie, this conversation’s been so fun.  One of the things that we’ve talked about is, okay, how do people step in to identify the type of project they’re doing, handle their fears, either corporately as a team and also individually, and then participate and have success and, you know, not rely on that rearview mirror, but they’re looking forward.  They’re looking ahead.  There’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant in the room to me is the word “change.”  Talk a bit about change management and just the nature of human beings like me and you when it comes to this word “change.”

EDDIE OBENG:  Yeah, that’s a great question.  The thing to realize is when we talk about change, we’re often talking about the tasks, the chunks of work we need to do.  So that’s what people usually refer to in terms of projects.  When they talk about change, you’re really talking about human beings.  Now here’s the challenge.  Do you like all the ideas that you come up with?  All your ideas are brilliant; aren’t they?  Have you noticed that?

BILL YATES:  Uh, no.  They’re – sometimes.

EDDIE OBENG:  Your ideas are great to you, but other people think they stink.


EDDIE OBENG:  How is that possible?  That can’t be right.  What happens when you come up with an idea, literally you fall in love with it.


EDDIE OBENG:  Because your brain has burned the energy.  Therefore wants to turn it into food.  Okay?  Meanwhile, when you present an idea to somebody else, what they see is what hunter-gatherers would see, which is a big threat danger coming to eat them.  So that taps on their logic, pushes on their emotion.  They go into fear mode.  And they respond against it emotionally.  That’s why they don’t like it.  So for you, your baby is nice and beautiful.  People will often refer to their idea as beautiful.  You know if your baby’s beautiful.  But to other people it’s a really ugly baby.  Okay?

So that’s called the third law of change, which is people will create change, and they’ll also constrain it.  They always do that.  They create it, they come up with it, and they constrain it.  So if you can convince them they came up with it, using one of the tools, then they love it.  So human beings are designed that way, lack the change piece.  And if you get that wrong, you’re in trouble.  If you don’t spot people in advance as stakeholders, you surprise them.  Once you surprise them, they have their own set of ideas, and now you’re on an uphill battle.

So especially things like foggy projects, you really need to know the human-y, stakeholder-y bits first.  Really important.  But there’s another reason people get stuck which is sometimes the change is people change.  But it relies not just learning and doing new things, but letting go of almost everything you’ve got.  That’s a completely different type of change.  That is the nightmare change.  So when people talk about things like digital transformation or whatever, they say the word “transformation.”  They have no idea what they mean.  The way I illustrate it is
have you come across butterflies, you know, those beautiful flappy things?


EDDIE OBENG:  You know they come from caterpillars.

BILL YATES:  Right, they’re kind of nasty, and then they get beautiful, yeah.

EDDIE OBENG:  Correct.  So basically what happens is to make a butterfly, you take a caterpillar, and you stick some wings on it.  That’s what happens is the skill set of caterpillar is eating leaves and walking.  The skill set of a butterfly, completely different.  It’s about flying and drinking nectar.  How do you get from A to B?  That is transformation.  Transformation means that almost everything you knew how to do, all the methods, the processes of your caterpillar disappear, and a whole bunch of new things which you don’t even know whether they’re any good because, guess what, caterpillars can’t give you flying lessons, have to emerge.  And the projects plan that at the cocoon to make it happen.

And some of the projects which are going to get you closer to the butterfly tend to be more foggy, and the projects which keep business as usual tend to be more paint by numbers.  So people mix these three words up.  They mix the people side, the task side, and the fact that you’re going beyond the horizon.  They’re very, very different things.  But you can make them all work if you think about them in the same strategic structured way.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  It makes me think back to the earlier conversation, too, where you talked about, okay, when you’re in the fog, one approach to take is begin with the end in mind.

EDDIE OBENG:  Correct.

BILL YATES:  Envision that butterfly and say, okay, this is where we’re going to be, but now let’s backtrack; right?  Let’s…

EDDIE OBENG:  Go backwards; exactly.  So what would happen is a caterpillar trying to imagine the end state would imagine not a butterfly, but a hang glider.  We want a delta wing we’re going to hang under with all our hundred little legs and tentacles.  And then as you walk through the foggy project, somebody’ll go, “Hang glider is not so clever, you know, because it can’t go off on its own.  How about making the hang glider thing move?”  And then through that foggy project would emerge the concept of a butterfly.  If somebody tells you they know the end state of a transformation before they start, you know they’ve already failed.  Caterpillars can’t imagine butterflies.

BILL YATES:  It would blow their mind.


Get in Touch with Eddie

WENDY GROUNDS:  Eddie, we’ve just loved talking with you.  And I think your advice is going to be really helpful.  If our listeners want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way that they can reach you?

EDDIE OBENG:  Yeah.  So two things.  One, the next edition of one of my books “All Change!” is going to be coming out soon.    No, I’m quite easy to get hold of:  eo@PentacleTheVBS.com.  I’m on Twitter:  @eddieobeng. QUBE, I’m on LinkedIn.

But the way to catch me if you actually want to speak with me rather than go into like a holding pattern is on QUBE, about once every two or three months I run an open roundtable session.  Usually it’s by invitation only.  But if you register on QUBE, and you keep badgering my team, they might drag you in.  And then we can join.  They have a wonderful outdoor café on QUBE, so we can meet there and have a cup of tea afterwards or something like that.

BILL YATES:  Nice.  Eddie, you are so entertaining and knowledgeable in the experience that you have.  Appreciate your time.  We admire your work and thank you so much for your contribution.

EDDIE OBENG:  My pleasure.  Thank you.  Thank you and good luck.  Good luck with all.  And I look forward to reading about the fact you’ve broken the media.

BILL YATES:  That’s it.  That’s it.


WENDY GROUNDS:  And that wraps up another episode of Manage This.  Thank you for listening.  You can go to our website, Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  You can also claim your free PDUs by going to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and follow through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

3 responses to “Episode 142 – Looking Forward to Perfect Projects”

  1. Sarah says:

    Really loved this episode! Eddie provided some great tools, and it is super helpful to understand and articulate back to teams or organizations the four types of projects he has coined and validate the leadership approach needed.

  2. Anne-Sophie Drouin says:

    Great episode; lots of enthusiasm and smart insights!

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