Episode 148 – How to Launch, Lead and Sponsor Successful Projects

Episode #148
Original Air Date: 03.01.2022

38 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez

“Project success relies on applying the right methods to the right type of project.” Those are the words of our guest Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, author of the new book entitled the Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook: How to Launch, Lead, and Sponsor Successful Projects. The number of projects initiated in all sectors has skyrocketed, and project management skills have become essential for leaders and managers. In spite of this growth, the success rate of projects has hardly changed in the last 50 years. Antonio offers explanations as to why project failure rates still remain alarmingly high, and he emphasizes the value of senior leaders investing in the pursuit of better project management.

Antonio describes the Project Canvas Tool which he introduces in his book, and he explains how a project manager can use this practical, one-page tool to guide successful initiatives. Antonio has interviewed senior executives responsible for corporate “make or break” projects, and he shares his findings regarding those actions that are most likely to bring about project success. Antonio emphasizes the value of self-assessment, and his book offers 11 tough questions for the sponsor, plus 11 eye-opening questions for the project manager. The goal with these self-assessments is to pause, reflect, identify blind spots, and take action. We discuss several other topics, including the Engagement Triple Constraint and organizations choosing predictive or adaptive approaches.

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is an author, practitioner, and consultant who teaches strategy and project implementation to senior leaders. He is a visiting professor and a frequent guest speaker at business schools and project management events around the world. He has held leadership positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, BNP Paribas Fortis, and GlaxoSmithKline. His research has been recognized by Thinkers50 with its prestigious "Ideas into Practice" award, and he is featured in the 2020 Global Gurus Top 30 list of management professionals. He served as chairman of the global Project Management Institute, and in that role he launched the Brightline Initiative. He is also the author The Project Revolution, Lead Successful Projects, and The Focused Organization.

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Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"Senior leaders are not there yet.  They’ve never invested in the importance of project management, building competencies.  Part of what we started here is that they did not appreciate it as a core topic.  They preferred to talk about strategy, innovation, and other things, and rather than project management implementation."

- Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez

"The project management methods, I think, they have become a bit obsolete.  They’ve not been refreshed.  ...we’ve not evolved the methods.  We’ve not evolved the competencies and the role of the project manager."

- Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez

"Challenge your sponsors.  I think this is one of the big mindset shifts that the project management community profession has to do is we are not here to deliver and then just let go and hope that things will get better that we are not controlling.  I think that has to stop.  And we need to feel ownership, feel entrepreneurship."

- Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. The number of projects initiated in all sectors has skyrocketed, yet why do project failure rates still remain alarmingly high? Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, author of the Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook: How to Launch, Lead, and Sponsor Successful Projects, emphasizes the value of senior leaders investing in the pursuit of better project management.

Table of Contents

02:11 … The World Champion in Project Management
03:53 … The Project Economy
05:46 … Organizational Ambidexterity
10:15 … Low Success Rate of Projects
13:31 … Choosing Predictive or Adaptive Agile Methods
16:05 … Introducing The Project Canvas
18:44 … Three Dimensions of the Project Canvas
20:07 … 1.Foundation
21:05 … 2.People
22:02 … 3.Creation
23:20 … Senior Executives and Project Success
26:15 … Challenge your Sponsors
27:57 … Self-Assessment
29:15 … Engagement Triple Constraint
33:30 … Advice for Younger Project Managers
35:32 … Contact Antonio
37:33 … Closing

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Senior leaders are not there yet.  They’ve never invested in the importance of project management, building competencies.  Part of what we started here is that they did not appreciate it as a core topic.  They preferred to talk about strategy, innovation, and other things, and rather than project management implementation.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and joining me is Bill Yates.  Just a quick thanks to our listeners who reach out to us and leave comments on our website or on social media.  We always love hearing from you.  We know you’re also looking for opportunities to acquire PDUs, your Professional Development Units, towards recertifications.  And you can still claim PDUs for all our podcast episodes.  Listen up at the end of the show for information on how you can claim those PDUs.

Our guest today is Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez.  He is an author, practitioner, and consultant who teaches strategy and project implementation to senior leaders.  His research has been recognized by Thinkers50, with its prestigious Ideas into Practice award, and he is featured in the 2020 Global Gurus Top 30 List of Management Professionals.  Antonio has served as chairman of the Global Project Management Institute, and in that role he launched the Brightline initiative.  He is also the founder of Projects & Co, cofounder of the Strategy Implementation Institute, and a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches group.

BILL YATES:  Antonio has written several books, as well.  The one that we’re going to focus on today is the new “Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook.”  You may hear Antonio or us refer to this as the HBR, the Harvard Business Review, in our comments.  And Antonio is joining us from Brussels.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Antonio, welcome to Manage This.  We’ve looked forward to our conversation with you today, and so we’re so grateful to you for being with us.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Thanks to you, Wendy.  I’m really happy to be here with you and look forward to this conversation.

The World Champion in Project Management

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  Before we get started, I do have a quick question for you.  If you look back, when was the moment when you knew project management was your thing?  How did you get into project management?  And you’ve just done so much in the field of project management.  I think I saw in LinkedIn you’re the world champion in project management, and I love that.  So how did you become that?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Well, it’s a pretty sad story, Wendy.  I recognized that I wanted to work and specialize in project management when I was fired.  I was fired in the sense that I had this big idea in a big consulting firm where I wanted to become partner, and I said, “Let’s develop project management advisory service because everybody’s struggling with projects.”  This is like 20 years.  And they said, “Well, yeah, we like the idea, but it’s not something we can make money out of, project management; right?  It’s very tactical.  It’s kind of boring.  So that kind of – and you’re fired, Antonio, because that’s a bad idea.” 

And it was like a game changer for me, was painful for a few weeks.  And then I say, how come senior leaders don’t understand the value of project management?  Why do we have these bad names, that name of boring, old and complicated, bureaucratic.  So that was the start of a love story.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Wow, very cool. 

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Great idea.  Just you’re out of the company now, go figure it out yourself.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Well, I’m glad it turned out that way because we can gain so much knowledge from you.  And I think you’ve gone on to do better things.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:   Thank you, Wendy.  I feel like that, too.  So if you ever get fired, take it as something good.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.


The Project Economy

BILL YATES:  That’s right, I have my eyes wide open, thinking, okay, what opportunity is coming?  Antonio, one of the questions we wanted to ask you about, it’s related to the project economy.  You speak about the project economy.  We’ve had projects in the economy since the Industrial Revolution.  What’s changed?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Well, Bill, good question to start.  I always like to talk at the big picture first, and then deep dive.  I think it helps people to follow on the conversation.  So there are two dimensions of the project economy.  One is the macro level, is what happens around the world, what happens in countries with governments, public spending.  And what I say is that with the pandemic the world will see more projects in the next decade with all these public investments to regenerate economies and infrastructures and healthcare, than we’ve ever seen.  So the amount of project that we’re going to see from a macro level, we’ve never seen before.  This is millions of projects, millions of project managers, billions of investment, or trillions of investment.  So that’s one side.

And I compare figures.  I look at the Marshall Plan, I look at the numbers from the financial crisis in 2008, and this is like 10 times more.  So that’s exciting.  I think that’s great for the profession.  But the bigger challenge or change or disruption is what happens within companies.  This is like what I call the more micro level, where the type of work is moving from operations to project based.  And that’s what is a very radical change because in the past, Bill, companies would have projects that are nice to have.  They would have a few people, a few people just working as project managers, 5% maybe.  What changes now is that most of the employees will work project-based.  So that’s a radical shift, radical disruption I’m talking about.

Organizational Ambidexterity

BILL YATES:  There’s a phrase that you used in the book I thought was quite clever, wish I’d come up with it myself.  It was “organizational ambidexterity.”  And in that you talk about this balance that companies are looking for between running the organization and changing the organization.  Talk a bit further about that.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Sure, Bill.  This is a concept which I deep-dived in the past in curiosity about this organizational ambidexterity.  And there’s been quite a lot of academic research, more in the field of strategy implementation.  And then there has been good papers around these exploitation versus exploration.  So a company needs to have these big main areas which is exploiting your current business, your current assets, your operations.  And then on top of that, think about the future, your future, the exploration field, what I call change in projects.

And over the last 50 years what happens is that the primary area of focus of processes, people, competencies, leadership, senior management attention and time has been on that operation, on exploitation.  We’ve become so efficient that we don’t need so many people there anymore; right?  It’s done by machines.  And what happened is that the exploitation part that changed the project has exploded this, where most of the things happening in the life cycle of our projects have gone from maybe five years to one year. 

If you look at some statistics, for example, Booz Allen Hamilton was talking about how many of the revenues of companies come from new products.  And in the past, in 1980s, was about 20%.  So 20% of the revenues would come from new products, new projects.  Over the past 40 years that’s about 50% of the revenues comes from new projects or new products.

So that means that everything is accelerating; right?  And the exploitation versus exploration, the business as usual versus the change has shifted.  And I’m going to be long here, but it’s important.  The key is not eliminating your exploitation; right.  You cannot remove your operations.  And that’s a big challenge because it’s finding the right balance of how much do we do in the operational part, we need to keep that.  But how much do we shift in terms of changing, agility, different culture, different type of organizational structures.  And that’s where I think many companies struggle.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  And Antonio, it’s interesting to me at a grassroots, at a tactical level.  Those people, the resources that are working on those projects, for some that are doing the ongoing operations, okay, here’s an existing, let’s call this a – this product is our cash cow.  This brings in great revenue for a company, and it’s evolved through the years.  But it’s kind of boring from my standpoint as a contributor.  Now here’s this fun new project that the company’s doing.  I really want to be on that team.

So I think there’s so much to balance for an organization in that where even down to the human resource level we need people to have opportunities to try out those new projects with a newer technology, and the bright lights are there.  But we also have to have those same talented people commit resources back to those things that are providing revenue for the company.  There are a lot of challenges to project leaders to keep people focused and know why both of those are important within the organization.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Absolutely.  And I think that unfortunately there’s no magic formula which says this is the amount of people you need on that side of the operations, and this is the type of profiles you need in the other one.  At the moment we’re in a mix where most of the companies are struggling.  And to one of your points, Bill, what happens is because that anxiety and that excitement of launching new projects – and we all love that.  We’re human.

One of the things that we love is start things; right?  That no doubt, call a kickoff meeting, and you’ll have the whole organization there.  And if you don’t invite them, they will get upset and say why?  Yeah, but who shows in the second meeting, where you are saying we’re going to split the work, and half of the people don’t show up; right?  We’re too busy.  But what has led to over launch of projects is that companies have more projects than employees.  Many companies that I talk, and senior leaders constantly say, “Antonio, we have a big problem.  We have more projects than people.  We’re a 1,000-employee company.  We have 1,500 projects.  And we still need to run the operation.  How do we do that?”  Right?

Low Success Rate of Projects

WENDY GROUNDS:  Apparently one of the stats in the book was with $48 trillion invested annually in projects, and yet only a 35% of those are considered a success.  So what’s the problem?  How has the success rate of projects hardly even changed in 50 years?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah, great question, Wendy.  I think this is one of the bigger questions that the profession should be trying to address.  And I just didn’t see it at the time, and it just came with research and writing this book for HBR.  I realized how can we, in a profession where the success rate is 30% or 40, or digital transformation is 20% success, there’s no other industry that I know that has such a poor performance.  And it’s a sensitive topic.  I have a LinkedIn newsletter where every week I address a point.  When I address poor performance, I get haters.  It’s a very passionate topic.  But I think we need to address that.

And just to keep it very high level, Wendy, I think that there’s three main domains where things can get better.  One of them is the project management, the profession.  The project managers.  The project management methods, I think, they have become a bit obsolete.  They’ve not been refreshed.  Agile came into play, and it kind of destabilized everything and made a war between agile and traditional.  So I think we’ve not evolved the methods.  We’ve not evolved the competencies and the role of the project manager.  So that’s about one third for me for project failure.

The second is the organization, the culture, the structures, the compensation, the competencies have not evolved.  It’s just very hard to change a company, the organization.  So they’re not prepared.  Imagine there are still companies where you are doing a big digital transformation project, and you need to wait three weeks for the next steering committee to take a decision.  That’s not acceptable.  We need decisions today.  So that organization is the second of the problems.

The third, which I guess is the most important, is senior leaders.  Senior leaders are not there yet.  They’ve never invested in the importance of project management, building competencies.  Part of what we started here is that they did not appreciate it as a core topic.  They preferred to talk about strategy, innovation, and other things, and rather than project management implementation.

So from many researchers is that senior leaders, they have no competencies in this place.  They don’t know how to prioritize.  They don’t know how to select the best project.  And they don’t know how to sponsor projects.  They think that the more projects they sponsor, they’re better.  And it’s the contrary.  You need to sponsor a few, but dedicate time.  So leadership, organization, and the project management, that’s how I would explain that terrible performance.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, and I know the purpose of your book was to help with that gap.  And some of the heavy areas in the book that I think go to a different level are addressing not just those project managers, but to your point senior management, those that they report to, and the sponsors, and helping them understand what their roles are and how they can be supportive in that.  So kudos to you on that.  We’ll go more into that.

Choosing Predictive or Adaptive Agile Methods

I have another question I want to ask first because this really struck me as I was reading through the book.  Over the last 20 years or so, last couple of decades, we’ve seen a surge of agile methods, the Agile Manifesto, et cetera, for managing projects.  You’ve stated that this emergence of agile methods has sometimes led to tribalism in the project community.  I love the way you put that.  Organizations felt they had to choose either predictive or adaptive.  And as we know, that’s just not true.  Can you explain this further?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah, again, I don’t have all the facts.  And it’s more my view of the problem which probably there are better people to talk about maybe with the details.  I think there was a big frustration with the technology work in the ‘90s, where we tried to implement basically, you know, project management, the predictive one, the waterfall.  And technology was booming, and the Internet, and ecommerce, and these people felt frustrated by all these documents and checklists and locks that we were trying to impose on them, which were good for other type of projects, but not technology.

So the project management didn’t evolve, and these people in Silicon Valley said let’s change that.  Let’s remove everything.  Let’s remove, even remove project managers from the projects; right?  They don’t like that, the token project managers.  And that kind of led to this big movement and big attention.  And big media like HBR published a lot about agile.  I was discussing with the people in HBR, you talk about agile a lot and never about project management.  And yet many of the people don’t work in agile teams.  They don’t.  But they do projects.  So I don’t understand why so much focus on agile.

I adore agile.  I think there’s lots of good things there.  But that kind of big focus on agile created frustration on a big part of the project management community, which we were still very proud of what we were doing.  And that created this stupid discussion around is one or the other.  And I can tell you I didn’t see it.  I was in the middle, and I thought, yes, maybe you need to choose between one or the other.  And now looking backwards I think what a big mistake.  It’s both.  Right?

BILL YATES:  Yes, right.


BILL YATES:  I totally agree.  Again, I see agile and traditional, predictive versus adaptive, I see those as just two different toolsets.  And you look at the job that you have before you and reach into your tool bag and pull out the appropriate one, the appropriate tool.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Exactly.  So I hope we can change that, not just with my book, but with your podcast, that you’re bringing these new perspectives to dealing with a big challenge, which is addressing all these projects, creating value.  Not just for organizations, but to make a better world.

Introducing The Project Canvas

BILL YATES:  Antonio, in the book you introduce the concept of the Project Canvas.  It’s one simple tool for managing any project, whether it’s traditional, agile, or hybrid.  The project canvas has three domains, and each domain is made of three building blocks for a total of nine.  One thing I love about it, the entire project canvas can fit neatly on one page, to give you a display of key things you need to think about with the project.  We’ll talk about it further.  But first I heard that an early draft of your project canvas had more components than the business canvas by Alex Osterwalder.  Is that true?  Do we project management professionals overcomplicate things?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah.  Bill, great question.  And yes, absolutely.  And it was super painful.  My first project canvas, which was part of another book called “The Project Revolution” where I started to talk about this project economy, was 14 dimensions.  And I incorporate, for PMI, we have like all these knowledge areas.  And I translated every knowledge area to a business kind of domain. So you would see risk management.  You would see procurement, things that were familiar.  And it’s a very good canvas.

But then talking to Alex and Yves, who I had the pleasure to meet, and we’re good friends, and they said, “Antonio, what the heck?  You have, like, 14 dimensions for a project, and we have 4 in a business model, and Porter has five forces in strategy, and seven P’s for marketing for Kotler.  What the heck?  Why projects are so complicated?”  So that really pushed me, and I have to admit they helped me, gave me some ideas on this.  And in the new canvas from the Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook, you don’t see risk management.

So one of the comments that I always get when I’m talking about this new version of the canvas is where is risk management?  We’ve been trained so much on thinking about risk in projects that they don’t see it here in the new canvas of the nine building blocks.  So for me it was difficult to let go what I had been learning for so many years and had been considered a space where risk management is embedded in all these modules.  If it’s there, we need to think about it.  But it should not be like the focus.

So what I say is that the earlier version, Bill, was more like an evolution of project management and maybe more for project managers that they can use.  This new version is for the nonprofessionals, for the senior leaders, for the people who want to mix agile with predictive project management.  So yes, that’s a bit the back story of this project canvas.

Three Dimensions of the Project Canvas

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  And I know, just as someone who’s developed content before, it is so painful to edit yourself.  Right?  I can look at somebody else’s stuff and go, oh, yeah, you could combine those, or that doesn’t really need to be this repetitious.  But it’s so hard if it’s something that I’ve created.  So I feel the pain for you in going from 14 to nine, that it had to be difficult.

But I also see your point, like I think of communication, as well.  That’s a knowledge area in the PMBOK Guide.  And risk and communication, when I look at these nine building blocks, those would be sprinkled throughout; right?  They would touch every aspect of those.  So can you talk to us a bit about – I know obviously this is audio.  We don’t have a visual to share with people.  Maybe we’ll show the canvas in the notes so people can see in the transcript.  But describe the three big areas and then the building blocks underneath those, just to give us a high-level understanding.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  So, yes, this is oversimplification or hypersimplification.  But I wanted to get to the essence of what are projects.  So I created three dimensions.  One is the foundation.  If you don’t have the foundation of your project right, then there is no point of going further.  The second dimension is the people; right?  This is the centerpiece.  And I will walk you quickly on all these areas after I cover.  And the third one is the creation, what are we building with the project.


So it’s super simple:  foundation, people, and creation.  Under each of them there’s three domains.  One of them on foundation is the purpose.  I wanted to highlight the importance of the purpose in your projects.  We’ve been learning for 40 years that return investment business cases are key, are the main tool for deciding on a project.  What I came to realize is that nobody gets excited at working on a 10% return on investment project; right?  It’s so boring.

And we wanted to bring the human dimension in the purpose, so that’s why I just emphasized.  Then you won’t have the classic investment and benefit.  I do put a lot of attention on the benefits.  And I come with different tools, different approaches for that piece which I think is something that we were missing, at least on the practical level.  There’s a lot around benefit management.  So that’s the foundation.  Purpose, investment, and then the benefit.


The second one, the big dimension is the people.  And here again what I want to highlight is the role of the senior leader.  So that’s why a good sponsorship, that’s one of the key ones.  The sponsorship is if you are doing a digital transformation, and your sponsor is missing, is not prepared, that project is a failure.  We know that.  So why would you continue?  So big focus on the sponsorship.  Then resources, so that’s your team, internal, external.  That’s where you will see also the procurement side that I didn’t put here, but that’s part of that.

And then the stakeholders.  I think something that has come into play in project management over the past maybe 10 years was the role of the stakeholders.  I wanted to emphasize that stakeholders are not the ones that you need to just manage when you’re managing your project, but you should ask your stakeholders about what they’re expecting from your project.  So I connect benefit with stakeholders there.  So that’s the second, Bill.


And the third one is the creation.  So that’s really the core, the more technical part of the project.  But I wanted to keep it high level.  So creation is the deliverables.  What are we going to produce?  What’s the solution about?  I am not going into too much details there.  But then the plan.  So I keep it at use the plan you want.  You want to use agile?  Perfect.  Whatever you want to use.  But you need to have a plan.  You can call it “stories.”  You can call it a “Gantt chart.”  But we need to have the plan.  Yeah?  And then you can mix it.  I’m a big fan of hybrid approaches.

And the last bit is the change.  And the change again, just to emphasize that communication was maybe necessary in the past.  With a communication plan you would help the people to embrace the project.  Today a communication plan is not enough.  Nobody will move from their chairs or change the way they work with a communication plan.  As the project leaders, we need to think more about change, how we engage and we use change management concepts.  So that’s the nine building blocks, as you can see.  Super simple.  A bit far from the traditional concepts that we use.  They’re all inside.  So people who are big fans of project management, don’t worry.  They are there.  But we just put some nice top on all of them.

Senior Executives and Project Success

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’ve spoken to many senior executives responsible for corporate, what you call “make or break” projects.  So what do these guys do differently?  What are they doing differently than other executives?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Well, it’s very simple, Wendy.  You will not believe how simple it is.  They dedicate time.  They make time for them. If you look at the HBR magazine of this November/December, the chief editor Adi Ignatius, really a brilliant person, he said your projects are your future.  And then I wonder why so many senior leaders don’t spend time on their future.  When I have training sessions or a conference, I ask the people, “When was the last time you saw your CEO in your project?”  And nobody raises their hand.  Nobody.  Why CEOs don’t show up in their top three projects?  Why are they not present?

So in talking to HBR, this lady who was interviewed, Alison, the senior editor, she said, “I was talking to the CEO of Pfizer recently.  And he said on this point that for the COVID development I think he spent 100% of his time, something that he never had done before.  And then he wondered why did it work because people at the top with big decision-making powers, with budget, drive these projects.”  So I think it’s as simple as dedication, really.  I’m seeing senior leaders fighting of who has more projects to sponsor.  And they love to say I’m sponsoring 15 projects.  And this has been like that in many organizations.  It’s not about the quantity.  It’s the quality and the time that you put on that.

My CEO was telling me recently, “Listen, I do sponsor 15 projects, but I’m really involved in two of them.  And I’m participating in meetings, and I’m following up.  And the other 13 I don’t have time.  The two are going well; 13 are a mess.”  And I said, “Yes, okay.  So you’ve told me what you need to do.”  So I think that’s where we need to focus.  And I’m sorry I’m going a bit long.  But this connects to one of the earlier points when Wendy, you asked what can we do to solve these big failure rates?  And I told you three dimensions:  senior leaders, organization, and project managers.

And what I’m telling now project managers is saying, okay, we know that these are two very important elements.  We need to look at better.  But now it’s your task to bring the senior leader in.  Don’t wait for them.  They will never go for a training.  That’s what I hoped for 20 years, that we’d learn sponsorship.  They will not.  They will not.  Let’s stop dreaming. 

But bring them and say, “Hey, sponsor, for this project I need you.  And I need to see you every week.  And I need one hour of your time.  If this project is strategic for you, for your company, then I want to see that.  I want to see you.  I’m happy to explain you the concepts.  We’ll use the canvas.  Whatever.  But if you are not there, then let’s not launch it.”  Why we don’t do that?  I’m kind of pushing the project managers to fill in those gaps in terms of leadership and organization.  So a long answer to the point:  dedication.

Challenge your Sponsors

BILL YATES:  Mm-hmm.  This is excellent.  Antonio, I can feel the passion that you have on this topic.  And this was one of the areas that I circled heavily in my book.  Page 106 you offer 11 tough questions to ask yourself as a project sponsor.  And I’m not kidding, for listeners, you want to get a hold of this book and look at page 106 and 107 and either give the book to your sponsor, or make a copy of these pages and put it on their desk in front of them.  And I’m not going to use the word “confront,” but challenge them to take their sponsorship to another level because to your point those projects that get done, they have active ongoing sponsor involvement with them.  Those that fail are ones where the sponsors lose interest or don’t provide the support that they need to ongoing.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Absolutely, Bill, I love what you said.  I don’t have much to add.  Exactly.  Challenge your sponsors.  I think this is one of the big mindset shifts that the project management community profession has to do is we are not here to deliver and then just let go and hope that things will get better that we are not controlling.  I think that has to stop.  And we need to feel ownership, feel entrepreneurship.

Think about it would be your startup, and would you fight for your startup?  Yes.  Would you call the CEO at 7:00 o’clock in the evening or at 10:00 if you have an issue?  Yes.  Right?  You don’t go through these hierarchies.  You don’t wait.  And you fight for it and feel accountable of the resource and the benefits of, yeah, I wrote these tough questions because sometimes they need to be raised.  And I propose that to use that in a steering committee or as a project manager or if you’re a sponsor, read them.


BILL YATES:  That’s good.  And before the project managers feel like I’ve just completely let them off the hook, you also have 11 tough questions for project managers.  Again, I thought these are so on point.  Page 115, you go into those.  So project managers, I’m not letting you off the hook.  It’s not always the sponsor’s fault.  There may be something you can improve in, too.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  So you have the 11 for the sponsor.  There’s 11 for the project manager who can be done as a self-assessment, like you were saying, Bill, exactly.  Am I ready for this?  So I think there is something that we don’t do very well is to be honest with ourselves.  Do we believe in the project?  These kind of soft things I realize are so important.  If you are in a project that you don’t believe, it’s going to fail.  Maybe you say, yeah, I believe.  But the body language, the way you behave.

I think being honest and say to your boss, “Listen, Boss, I don’t feel like I believe in this project.  Can we twist it?  Can we do it differently, where I feel like, yes, I want to win, I want to make it.”  So this honesty is so important because in projects people are looking to you as a project manager, really as a leader.  And you say, “Okay, we’re going to just have fun in the pitch and let’s see, hopefully we win.  But I’m not sure.”  That no team will ever win; right?  So it’s very important.

Engagement Triple Constraint

BILL YATES:  Antonio, you introduced the concept of an engagement triple constraint.  You actually, you talk about two triple constraints, the benefits triple constraint and the engagement triple constraint.  Very clever mechanism or model that you have there.  I like that.  Describe how a project manager or sponsor could use this engagement triple constraint to track and involve stakeholders throughout a project.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah, and this has been also one of the kind of more controversial areas for the more passionate project managers, where I say, well, listen, the triple constraint which is the scope, the time, and the cost, it’s a bit outdated, or it doesn’t really reflect.  And I make it very  clear with the Sydney Opera House, which was a disaster in terms of cost, a disaster in terms of time, but a very successful project.  So I said, “How can we say as a profession that the Sydney Opera House was a disaster, one of the worst projects ever?  You don’t look credible.”

So I think the triple constraint is a great tool.  I love it.  But it doesn’t build a complete picture.  So that’s why I set myself to this risky task of developing two additional triple constraints, which is that I would say, to be honest, some of my concepts are more solid.  The triple constraint I think is more an experiment.  I hope they get evolved, not just with my views, but you, Bill, Wendy, listeners.  But I thought we need to have something on the benefit side.  So how can we say that the Sydney Opera House is still doing bad on one of the angles, but on the other one has amazing potential.

And the other one is the engagement.  We don’t have KPIs that will tell you how engaged your people are in your project.  So we’re managing projects blindly with maybe – so the time, people that don’t think and don’t have emotions but just focus on time, cost, and scope, and that doesn’t reflect reality, especially nowadays where people are so in the center.  So this triple constraint is about the alignment between the purpose that we talk at the first dimension in the canvas with the personals.  There’s nobody more engaged in a project when people feel like, oh, that’s my passion.  So that alignment is so important and cannot be disregarded.

And a bit of an anecdote, just sharing with you, when I’ve been asked, yeah, what do you think about people in projects, I say, “Do you know what’s one of the biggest issues is that people are  appointed for projects.  Do you know who are the most engaged people in projects are volunteers.”  And I say, “Do you do that in your company?  Do you say we’re launching this new initiative, who wants to volunteer?  No?  Why, why not?  Why not?”

BILL YATES:  That’s a great idea.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah, they would say, “Hey, Wendy, tomorrow you’re starting this project.  Congratulations.”  They didn’t ask you if you’re free, if you’d like it.  Just drop it on you.  Why don’t we ask?  And just to make fun is if nobody raises their hand that they want to volunteer, what tells you?  That project is crap.  Don’t do it.  Right?  Right.  It’s so simple.  Don’t do three months of analysis.  If nobody wants to volunteer, that project, it should never happen.  So I just put people in the center.  And people should feel aligned.

And again, it’s oversimplification because there’s projects that you will need to do.  There’s regulatory projects that have to be done.  Right?  Nobody likes them, but they have to be done.  So you need to think of other ways to engage in people.  But the other thing in this triangle which is key is we talk about this dedication.  It’s great that you are aligned and that you love the project.  But if you can give me just two hours per week, I don’t want you in my project.  Really, you are more a problem.  I want people who can dedicate half of their time.  I’d say if you don’t get people half of their time, don’t take them.  Really.  Don’t take them.  It’s a problem.  Get them 100% if you can.

And the third is the recognition.  So there is, based on what we were talking before, the recognition today in business is for the operations, is for the business as usual.  People in projects don’t get compensation.  Very few companies pay for this project was well done, here’s the bonus, and you get promoted.  No.  That doesn’t happen.  So if a project manager doesn’t recognize with words and making them feeling proud of what they’re doing, who is going to do that?  So I think that’s kind of the story behind this other triple constraint.

Advice for Younger Project Managers

WENDY GROUNDS:  Antonio, before we go, do you have advice for younger project managers?  We have a lot of project managers starting out in their careers in our audience.  What advice would you give them?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Well, I think if they chose project management, I congratulate them because I think there’s very few ways to learn more exciting than leading a project.  Let me turn about the question.  When senior leaders ask me, we have a problem with younger people, I tell them, do you know the solution?  Give them projects.  Give them projects because they work on six-months assignment, maybe in the marketing, and they don’t have these rules to follow because it’s much more flat.  But then in six months you can send them to operations.

So projects is a great way to engage the millennials and younger generations because they like to learn.  They don’t care about structures.  They like the excitement and the challenges, and they like that it’s finished and they can move on.  But just if I can talk to the younger, I think we need a lot of young professionals in this sector.  We need the passion that they bring, the way they challenge, establish norms.

I have a webinar where I say, “What can we learn from you juniors?  What can we learn?  We’ve always been teaching you.  Tell us.”  And I think there’s amazing projects like Greta Thunberg, who has done more for climate change than many of the presidents of the world, but is a teenager.  Right?  And there is a guy in the Netherlands who launched a project to clean up the ocean.  Yeah, they thought, how come this guy didn’t want to clean his swimming pool, but said no, I want to clean the ocean?  And he was 16 years old.  And so we need more younger professionals.  Go into this profession.  It’s exciting.  But you will help us to make organizations in a better world.  So thank you, Wendy, for the question.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  The Ocean Cleanup guys, we actually talked to them.  We had them on our podcast, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it was a fantastic conversation, yeah.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, we loved that.  We spoke to Henk van Dalen.  He was their project director.

BILL YATES:  An avid surfer.  And that just caught right in.  He wanted to clean up the ocean; you know?

Contact Antonio

WENDY GROUNDS:  I love what they’re doing.  Antonio, how can our listeners reach out to you?  Where’s the best way that they can contact you if they have further questions?

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  Well, today it’s super easy to reach out.  So just google my name, and you get to either my website, there’s a contact form, and I always reply.  And then LinkedIn, of course that’s the second way.  The problem with LinkedIn, you have the limitation of friends, or contacts I think they call them.  And it’s 30,000.  So you cannot have more than 30,000 connections, so it’s a bit of a mess.

But if you write me and follow me, there’s a lot of free stuff.  I think our role as experts in this field is to give a lot of this stuff for free, some of the tools, a lot of the webinars.  I have a LinkedIn newsletter every week talking about a controversial project or topic.  And then there’s two LinkedIn learning courses which I tried to summarize in about one hour the role of the sponsor, and then also how to be a good project manager, a reinvented project management for non-PMs.

BILL YATES:  Excellent.  Antonio, you’ve made such an impact on our industry, and I thank you for your time today.  I really was looking forward to this conversation, just appreciate all that you’ve offered, both in our conversation and in this book.  I can’t recommend this book any higher.  It’s just a great resource.  And it’s not overwhelming if someone is new to project management, or especially for those managers of project managers or those sponsors that are out there.  This is such a great way for them to understand some of the nuances, some of the challenges that we face with projects and why it’s important for them to have a better grasp of that as they deal with those project leaders that are under them.  So thank you for this contribution.

ANTONIO NIETO-RODRIGUEZ:  What you are doing is amazing, too.  So it’s always a pleasure.  I could have gone on forever.  I think this is a community.  We have lots of good experts, and we need to do this type of thing.  So it was a pleasure.  And I hope this is not the last time, and hopefully we can keep in touch.  Thank you for the invitation.  Really an honor.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you for joining us today.  You can go to our website, Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  You’ve also just earned those Professional Development Units.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com.  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.

5 responses to “Episode 148 – How to Launch, Lead and Sponsor Successful Projects”

  1. Megan says:

    Great enthusiasm, kept me wanting to hear more from Antonio.

  2. Tammi B says:

    Great podcast! Thank you!

  3. Jeannie says:

    Great podcast! Is there a way to access the Canvas Tool? Or do we need to purchase the book for that tool?

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Hi Jeannie, If you take a look at Antonio’s website you will find some free resources. He has a link to a PPT of the Project Canvas and you can download a Project Canvas Guide.

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