In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Mario Vanhoucke: Project Management Will Be Increasingly Data-driven


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan (Spring)  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2019.01.21

Introduction to the Interviewee:

Mario Vanhoucke, PhD in Operations Management, is now and has been a professor in many universities worldwide such as Ghent University, Vlerick Business School, University College London, Northwestern Polytechnical University and Peking University in China.

In recognition of his contributions to PM, he has been recognized by many awards such as 2017 Elsie Cropper Award for Best Paper, 2008 IPMA Research Award, PMI Belgium PhD Award, just to mention a few. 

He is also a productive author with numerous books and papers published worldwide. His recently-published book is The data-driven project manager: A statistical battle against project obstacles, which is well-received internationally. 


Part 1: Data-driven Project Management

Q1: Your latest book is “The Data-driven Project Manager”. What is it mainly about? What’s the biggest selling point of this book?

Mario Vanhoucke: The book gives a full overview of data-driven project management, going from planning to risk analysis and resource management, and ultimately, to project monitoring and control. It focuses on the use of data and the integration of methodologies to support better decisions to bring projects back on the right track. 

The book does not only give a summary of tools, techniques and methodologies, but instead it takes a look behind the techniques to show why these methodologies work for some projects, and why they might fail for other projects. In my opinion, getting insights into these data-driven tools is crucial to a better understanding, and a better translation of these tools to a practical setting. And of course, the book is not a dry summary of tools and techniques, but it is written as a technical story, from a project manager’s point of view. Emily Reed, the protagonist, is in charge of a new project, and wants to convince her team that using data for understanding the project is the only way to go forward. It could be the story of your company!

Q2: What role will data play in managing projects in the future?

Mario Vanhoucke: It is of course tempting to say that data will be key in the future of managing projects when artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms will take over the role of the project manager. Although I believe it won’t go that fast, there is nevertheless a spark of truth in it. I believe that data will play a crucial role in managing projects for the following reasons:

1) All methodologies for planning projects, analyzing risk and controlling projects require data, so a good understanding about the importance of project data is key to decision-making when managing projects.

2) Since data is key to making decisions, ultimately, people are involved in the decision-making process. People have their own ideas about the project, and with their experience (and their biases), they make decisions to bring the project back on track. It is well-known that these biases lead to sometimes irrational and wrong decisions. Data can be a very good alternative approach to overcome the biases of people.

3) Data will become more and more important to detect project problems. We have done tests with data-driven tools to find out when the project manager should react and take decisions to bring projects back on track, and found that these tools can sometimes better predict (compared to humans) when problems will have a bad impact on the project outcome. Data-driven tools will more and more replace parts of the decision-making process, and get things done without the intervention of people.

Q3: You once made a presentation titled “The big data project manager: Harder, better, faster, stronger”. Is it about qualities of project managers in the era of big data? Would you like to elaborate on that?
Mario Vanhoucke: With this presentation, I wanted to warn people that with the rise of data-driven decision-making, managers have to be sure that they jump on the wagon now before it’s too late. It’s tempting to say that these advanced methodologies are too complex, too mathematical and too quantitative, but it’s wiser to say that a good understanding of these data-driven methodologies is key to the success of the business, and therefore, a good understanding is crucial. I just want to say to my students that it’s now the time to learn more about these techniques, because they will become more important than ever. Jump now and learn about them before things get harder, better, faster, stronger.

Q4: With the rise of gig economy, what challenges will project management face and how can we overcome them?
Mario Vanhoucke: I’m not an expert in this matter, but the sharing and free economy has started to become more and more important due to the rise of the internet and the free availability of goods and services. Data will be key in this process, since the whole internet explosion has been one (and will continue to be one) of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. I read a lot about the rise of the gig economy, its benefits, and its risks, and despite the different opinions I have read in the field, one thing is sure: DATA ARE HERE TO STAY!

Q5: As you have said, people are important in projects but people tend to be biased. What should we do to deal with this barrier?
Mario Vanhoucke: Let the data speak! As said before, the good thing about data is that they don’t lie. Data allows quantification, data has no feelings, and it enables the project manager to compare alternative proposals without taking people’s biased opinions into account. Of course, data is not there to replace people, but rather to help people overcome their biases. That’s why the main message of data-driven project management is: “First the data, then the gut-feeling”.

Part 2: Integration Is a Trend in PM

Q6: You said that project management had evolved as a special discipline to a more integrated decision-making process approach. “Integration” is a trend in project management, right?

Mario Vanhoucke: I am totally convinced about that! Planning without risk is nonsense. Control without planning is worthless. Risk analysis without a plan is impossible. One of the most important lessons to learn in my book is that the key to a better PM is “integration, integration, integration”. In my academic articles, I have shown that integrating planning, risk and control leads to improved efficiency for managing projects. That’s the main message of the book. And above all, this is not just a bunch of words: the main learning message is tested in several academic studies!

Part 3: Trust and Control Should Go Hand in Hand

Q7: You believe that the old saying “trust is good, control is better” will be more important than ever. Why?

Mario Vanhoucke: Because trust is something that you cannot quantify. Trust is good, and it is a requirement when we are working in a team. But it is not a good indicator for validating the quality of decisions. Control is better. Control does not override trust, but instead, works like its partner: trust and control should go hand in hand. Control quantifies the impact of decisions, and benchmarks different alternative proposals on an objective basis. Trust is gut-feeling, emotional and non-quantifiable. It is nice and crucial to have trust, but it should not be the main objective when managing projects.

Q8: In VUCA era, what leadership skills are essential for project managers?
Mario Vanhoucke: Without any doubt: Understanding risk. It’s key to business. Understanding risk is not the same as being able to predict what will go wrong, since no one can predict the future. Instead, it means that a project manager should have insights into the possible impact of different sources of risk. Understanding the impact of risk enables the project manager to better focus on the most sensitive parts of the projects (i.e. the ones with the biggest possible impact if the risk occurs), and a better focus means a more efficient decision-making process. 

Part 4: Planning Is Much More than Just Planning

Q9: Based on your research, what are the top reasons for project failure?

Mario Vanhoucke: Bad preparation! I’m not talking about a simple Gantt chart but about a clear understanding of the relations between project activities, the impact of possible events that go wrong, the allocation of resources with good understanding about the impact of risk and the knowledge that control only works in collaboration with a plan and risk understanding. Consequently, planning is much more than just planning. It’s understanding your project and be prepared for the unexpected.

Part 5: Teaching PM Is like a Performance

Q10: Looking back at all these years in PM teaching, what are your feelings and reflections? 

Mario Vanhoucke: My feeling is that everybody has a different opinion about project management. 15 years ago, it was not done to talk about planning tools and risk analyses. It was all about leadership, people skills and that stuff. Now today, it is good to talk about data, and suddenly, the quantitative methodologies are important again. Honestly, I think teaching is bringing a message and convince students that it all makes sense. If there is one thing I like about teaching, then I should say that it is the way you teach the content, which is more important than the content itself. I talk about planning, control and risk, probably the most boring theories invented on earth, but I tell my students what they mean to them, how people can use them, how they work, and how they fail. I love teaching: it’s like a performance. 

Q11: Every course teaching can be called a project. Do you think you have managed them successfully?
Mario Vanhoucke: Haha, that’s a good question. I’m not sure that I practice what I preach. I try hard, sometimes with success, while other times I fail. Maybe that’s why it is indeed a project. If I fail, I correct, as a good project manager does.

Q12: You’ve been lecturing in several universities in China. What’s your impression on China, Chinese students and project management in China? Will Project Management enjoy a promising future in China?
Mario Vanhoucke: I indeed lecture a lot in China, and I love my Chinese students. They are willing to learn, are not afraid of data, mathematics and other complex tools, and are eager to improve the business. I am convinced that Project Management will become more and more data-driven, not only in China, but in the world. But maybe the Chinese students can take a front role in this process. In my opinion, a rising economy combined with a large pool of young ambitious managers (my students) is the ideal recipe for a more data-driven business future. I will keep coming back to China and keep teaching these young potentials about the relevance of data-driven management for business.

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