In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Ruth Murray-Webster: Future of PM Will Be Exciting, Varied and Fast-faced


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2019.04.08

Introduction to the interviewee:

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster is an expert on Change & Risk, and a Partner of Beyond the Deal LLP, a specialist consultancy helping clients to ensure that their mergers, acquisitions, divestments and strategic alliances deliver long-term value, not just complete. She is also Editor of APM BoK 7th edition and has extensive practitioner experience supported by leading-edge research and books.


About APM BoK 7th edition

Q1. Having been the Editor of APM BoK 7th edition, what have you learned from doing this project? Do you have anything unforgettable to share with us? Compared with the 6th edition, what changes have been made in this edition?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: The 7th edition is very different from the 6th. Through consultation with the profession we decided to adopt an approach that provided information on project-based working to a wider group of people – from senior leaders who need to decide how to use projects, programmes and portfolios to deliver strategy – to all people working in projects. We also focused on multiple life cycle choices – from deliberate/linear approaches to emergent/iterative approaches. This reflects the reality of project-based working in 2019. What was unforgettable was the engagement from the profession to help us shape the outcome.

About risk management

Q2. It has been said that the biggest risk is not taking any risk. When it comes to project management, what is intelligent risk-taking? What are your tips?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster:
1) Understand the objectives ‘at risk’;
2) Engage your team and stakeholders to understand risks from their perspective;
3) Concentrate on good risk conversations rather than ‘ticking the box’;
4) Explicitly link risk to decision-making in governance.

Q3. In the age of digital transformation and artificial intelligence, what kinds of risks should we pay special attention to in managing projects?
Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: It depends on the project, but building skills to use digital solutions well is important, as it makes sure that people are confident to work securely and without breaching data privacy rules. I personally think that being creative in the way we use technology for virtual working is vital.

Q4. You’ve observed that risk analysis and management is an unloved management practice, but one that creates value or at least saves embarrassment. What makes you say so?
Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: People find it difficult to think about risk (what might happen) when so many things are actually happening that need attention. Risk management can seem hypothetical and pointless. But correcting errors usually costs more than preventing them in the first place – and missing upside opportunities destroys value so we need to find ways to get people to think risk – upside and downside - without over-burdening them.

About change management

Q5. In your opinion, what are the top competences of a project manager to embrace changes in VUCA era?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: 
1) Listening to people around you – not thinking you have all the answers;
2) Adaptability – being able to change course when necessary;
3) Resilience – bouncing back after problems have happened.

Q6. People tend to be resistant to changes. How should we establish a culture that embraces changes in an organization?
Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: This is a huge topic – I wrote an 80,000 word doctorate on it. People don’t resist change illogically or illegitimately – they just get concerned about what the change might mean for them. 

Seeing the change through the eyes of the recipients of change is vital. The culture needs to be one that accepts that change can be difficult and that all people need support with it. When thinking about organizational culture and cultural change, people often talk about the ‘tone from the top’. This reflects that senior leaders’ behavior has a huge impact on the culture in the rest of the information. If senior leaders are closed, do not accept challenge, are quick to judge and slow to admit their own learning, it will be much harder to build a culture where change is embraced. 

Although some sectors are more stable, for many organizations, change is a constant and requires trial and error learning, prototyping solutions, iterative life cycles and ‘failing fast’, i.e. being willing to have a go and then deciding quickly if the project is not going to be a business success. I would reiterate however, that to bring people with you on a change journey requires an empathy for the impact of the change on processes, systems, mental models and ways of working. It really does require an ability to understand as far as possible what will help people to move forward to the ‘new normal’.  

About diversity

Q7. What do you think of the impact of cultural diversity on project success? What are your secrets of managing virtual teams?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: Cultural diversity – whether that be national or organizational culture – can cause issues if there is a lack of willingness to understand the others’ point of view. But diversity is good – value is created from difference so we need to work with diversity. Virtual teams need all the things that co-located teams need for success – but it’s harder virtually. My best advice is to put lots of creative thoughts into how you communicate (two-way) and do not just stick to tired technologies such as conference calls. I was lucky enough to be trained in how to lead virtual calls with multiple participants when working with Shell Project Academy. It is simple things that can make a huge difference. For example, placing virtual participants around the ‘table’ in your mind, and then when asking for input going to each person in turn to give them a voice. Asking a question such as ‘who has a question?’ on a conference call is pointless – some people won’t contribute. Asking for comments or questions using a chat function, or by going to each person in turn is much more useful. Use visuals wherever you can – share screens – or better still create visuals as you go on a tablet. Writing up what people say (as you would on a whiteboard or flipchart when meeting in person) is important to make people feel they are heard and contributing. I would highly recommend a book entitled Virtual Leadership written by Dr Penny Pullan and published by Kogan Page. It has many secrets that are simple to put in place and very effective. 

Q8. With the rise of gig economy, people change jobs frequently. How should we ensure a project creates lasting value for an organization?
Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: The project sponsor is the one who takes the primary risk for the investing organization – accountable for delivering benefit and value. If the organization cannot retain staff to provide continuity to deliver projects, the sponsor needs to look to the incentives for staff to stay. There will be a cost/benefit decision to make – how valuable is the project to the organization – how much will the organization pay to build a committed team?

About leadership

Q9. Someone has said, “Don’t be a boss; be a leader.” So how do you see the differences between bosses and leaders?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: Leaders do not need to be directive and autocratic all the time – they know when that’s necessary and when they can motivate and lead people through different approaches. Leaders listen, learn and can put their ego and insecurities aside for the benefit of the whole team.

About the profession

Q10. How will you summarize all these years’ experience in PM? As a female, have you been challenged by how to balance work and family? Would you please use several words or phrases to describe this profession to newcomers?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: Working in projects is typically exciting, dynamic and never dull. With that comes pressure that sometimes does have impact on social and family life. It’s important to have good support and teamwork at home as well as at work.

Q11. In your eyes, what will the future of project management be like?

Dr Ruth Murray-Webster: Exciting. Varied. Fast-paced. A profession, not just an add-on to a technical discipline such as engineering or data science.

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