Introduction to the interviewee:
Teppo Nurminen is now CEO, trainer and coach of Project Institute Finland Ltd. He’s interested in organizational psychology, organizational development and leadership questions. He can find satisfaction in seeing somebody succeed in achieving his or her goals, or getting the strategy implemented.
In December, 2018, Teppo visited China to attend the PM Congress in Shanghai. We took this opportunity to do an interview with him.
Q1. Dr Young’s research shows that project managers’ certification doesn’t help project success. What’s your viewpoint?
Teppo Nurminen: Project managers’ training might not help project success because there are other factors affecting project success such as project ownership, which means that someone has to be responsible for the benefits after the project. Project managers and project owners are inseparable and they have to work together towards project success. Sometimes it just happens that people are not sure who owns the project or why this is being done. Project owners can enable resources and remove obstacles so they are also quite essential for project success.
Q2. So do you advocate people to get certification or not? Why or why not?
Teppo Nurminen: As any certification, PM certification works as a market tool to distinguish between people who have the ambition to be professional and people who “just work”. While the process of getting the certificate may require that you educate yourself a bit further on the theory side, I share Dr. Young’s idea that certification alone does not necessarily improve the actual results. However, it does help you convince the employers and clients that you are serious.
About People Skills
Q3. Talking about people, I recalled that Matti has said that all projects finally depend on people. Do you agree?
Teppo Nurminen: Certainly. No matter how detailed specifications project plans contain, project plans are not doing any work. It is people who are doing the work. Project managers and owners have to figure out what people want, what motivates them, why they are working here and whether they find this work interesting or not. People skills are getting increasingly important.
Q4. With the development of artificial intelligence and digitalization, do you believe robots will replace project managers or not?
Teppo Nurminen: No, robots don’t have human skills. They can help with the routine work like planning and maintaining time schedules or resource allocations, which will facilitate project execution. Anything technical may be facilitated by robots. But still someone has to work with people, engage people and make them committed, so robots will not replace people fully.
Q5. In the presentation in PM Congress in Shanghai, you talked about secrets of teambuilding. Would you please share that?
Teppo Nurminen: With the progress of globalization, managing virtual teams is far more difficult. Since people don’t meet face to face every day, we have to do things quite differently. First of all, no matter how big the project is, no matter how remote or virtual the project team is, they should meet at least once in the beginning. They should hold a kick-off meeting to plan the project so that they get to know each other and get motivated. That’s how we human beings are. If we have met people in person, we feel more committed than “meeting” via email. According to some research, ninety percent of our message is delivered through things beyond words such as body language, gestures and facial expressions. Secondly, they have to develop rules for communication. Thirdly, define authorities and roles. Role descriptions have to be very clear. The decisions have to be made as low as possible. Fourthly, empower people and make them self-directed so they are not just waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. Just keep the project manager informed instead of waiting for his or her “orders” all the time.
Q6. How should we deal with the cultural factor in managing virtual teams?
Teppo Nurminen: There are many layers of differences that we should pay attention to. For instance, in some cultures, people are very polite, which is good but we have to break that surface layer to get people’s true opinions. For instance, some people just don’t use the word “no”. When I worked as a trainer in Japan, after training them for a day or two, if I ask them “Did you understand?”, the answer was always “yes”. But on the second day they came back to me asking the same questions. They tend not to admit they didn’t understand. With regards to the culture, I realized I was asking the wrong question. What I should have asked is “In your own words, how do you understand this topic?”
Q7. Apart from communication, what other soft skills do you think a project manager should have?
Teppo Nurminen: One of the top soft skills is delivering feedback. Whether it is positive or negative, we have to deliver both. Maybe it’s easier to deliver good news to people, to tell them how good they are. But sometimes we may forget to tell that to people. For instance, if we never hear back from the customer, we assume everything goes well and that they are satisfied. That’s not how what things should be. We should deliver both the positive and negative feedback. Delivering negative news is more difficult because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or get them upset. But failing to deliver negative news for fear of people’s reactions may endanger the project by leaving things undone or wasting time. Therefore, also give the negative feedback, and do it in a constructive manner.
The second one is to motivate people. Project managers are not responsible for the benefits’ delivery after the project closure, but they must know why they do the project and what they are supposed to deliver to fulfill the benefit expectations. If the project manager himself is not motivated, it’s hard to get other team members motivated. They must be able to show the big picture to the people.
Thirdly, trust people and offer them opportunities to try new things in order to allow them grow as multi-skilled as possible.
Q8. What are your tips on improving leadership skills in VUCA era? In your eyes, what qualities should an excellent project leader have?
A project leader – or any leader for that matter – should encourage people observe the world, and empower them to act based on their observations. Targets that are too rigid and fixed may lead us astray. The world is transforming, so ways for adjusting the course flexibly must exist. Agile processes comply well with that requirement. But still, we must make sure that we maintain a proper balance between quick response and stable direction. Changing the direction too fast or too frequently is sometimes mistaken for “dynamic behavior”, even if in reality it should be called “bouncing”.
About Strategy and Governance
Q9. You’ve said vividly, “A strategy that wants everything gets nothing.” So when planning a new governance model, what should we pay attention to?
Teppo Nurminen: At least the following themes must be considered:
1. Despite of any warnings or instructions, a human being will still want it all. Systems or models can never fully prevent us from blocking the smooth flow by initiating too many efforts simultaneously. A system must prompt us to self-control and responsible behavior through indicating what is possible right now and what is not.
2. Even the most transparent information system does not substitute for profound dialogue between people. A shared understanding of the matters often requires a vast amount of discussion. A governance model should not alienate us from human interaction, but actively call for authentic dialogue.
3. Transparency requires openness, and each one of us must keep our true goals visible for others. It’s the ideas that should be competing with each other, not the individuals. Transparency is a key word also when we are designing the technical solutions of PPM.
4. While we must seize new opportunities, we should still choose our battles wisely. Guidelines and processes do not eliminate the need for intuition and experience, they should on the contrary offer our ideas a framework for flourishing. Please also re-read item #2 of this list.
Everyone loves their own ideas, and abandoning them is painful. However, with more and more ideas on the table, non-feasible ones must be discarded more quickly than before, we must “fail fast”.
5. Also an agile governance model must have an inescapable, built-in flow. Output must be predictable, and opportunities must progress steadily in line. Less mature ideas must give way to more viable ones, and less profitable opportunities must wait for the more attractive ones to be implemented first. Implementation pipeline must be kept separate, and once an idea gets to the actual implementation, it should not be interrupted any more.
6. If the “dynamicity delusion” prevails, decision-making can become random or arbitrary, resulting in increasing amounts of unfinished or wasted work. In systemic thinking, the outer control loop – the decision-making – must have the slowest cycle, otherwise the system will start oscillating.
7. Driving in fog with a 10-meter visibility can be nerve-wrecking, and panic reactions cannot always be avoided. Personal tolerance for uncertainty is vital, but this is not a natural talent for most of us, but needs to be learned.
About PM Career
Q10. How many years have you been in the profession of project management? What is the greatest joy in working in this profession?
Teppo Nurminen: 25 years. I’m now running Project Institute Finland, so I’m not calling myself an active project manager any more. I started this profession by accident. I have a Master of Science degree in electronics, but I haven’t done anything related with electronics. When I was leading an R&D department at STERIS Inc, I noticed that in that role I not only had to manage all the product development projects, but also develop all the project processes for those. In fact, most project managers don’t know in the beginning that they are going to be project managers in the end. I still enjoy the occasional chances to manage project efforts since with a structured approach we achieve more than with “improvisation only”.
Q11. Life itself is a project. Do you think so? Have you managed your life project well?
Teppo Nurminen: I don’t think so. I’m now CEO of Project Institute Finland, which wasn’t too intentional. But seriously, for certain things, I have managed my life perfectly, while for others I have more like drifted. For instance, I was very determined when I studied psychology and work counseling (coaching), and that was because I wanted a shift in my career, and I wanted to be more with people than with technology. I still train mainly people skills, which is the most interesting part for me. But other than the certain main drivers, things just tend to happen to me. And I feel that is a perfectly fine balance.
Q12. Your personal interests are keyboards and synths (all through the year) and alpine skiing (winters only). Have you purposefully used PM methods to help plan your hobby activities?
Teppo Nurminen: Regarding hobbies I don’t have any ambitions, and do not feel that I have to “achieve” anything. Since that is only for fun, I lead that part of my life totally without goals and that is truly relaxing. Without goals, however, no one would pay for instance for my musical skills, so I better keep this strictly-planned daytime job as well. It is a matter of finding a fruitful balance.