Introduction to the interviewee:
Marisa Silva called herself “the Lucky PM”. She is an experienced PMO and PPM professional with a track record of building capabilities in complex organizations undergoing transformational business change. She is a passionate, high performing, and results-oriented PMO consultant and trainer trying to succeed in her biggest project: life itself.
Her book Bedtime Stories for Project Managers (and others with trouble sleeping) (hereinafter referred to as Bedtime Stories for Project Managers) is so popular and practical that it has been translated into several languages including Chinese. The book draws insightful project management lessons from well-known stories. Based on the topics covered in the book, we did an interview with Marisa Silva.
Part Ⅰ Stories make the understanding of project management easier
Q1. Your book Bedtime Stories for Project Managers has been published in China. How did you think of writing such an interesting book about PM lessons from stories?
Marisa Silva: I have always been fascinated by stories. It’s such an easy and enjoyable way of sharing a message and it brings me sweet memories since my passion for reading started with the stories my parents read to me as a child. As for Bedtime Stories for Project Managers, the idea arose when I was shadowing a trainer colleague who used the story The Stone Soup (very well known in Portugal) to make a point about scope creep. I found it was such a clever idea that I then started looking for other metaphors that would make the understanding of project management easier.
Q2. In order to promote the book to Chinese readers, would you please summarize the highlights of the book?
Marisa Silva: The first thing to note is that it is a light-reading book – just about 100 pages – which brings together fairy tale stories and project management concepts. This helps readers to establish relationships between ideas, to look at a known model from a new fresh perspective, and to consolidate knowledge. Each story is presented in its original version, followed by its relation to the world of project management, a set of best practices and practical recommendations, and a list of further reading recommended relating to the concepts under analysis (e.g. risk management, team engagement). From the popular “The Little Red Riding Hood” story to the “Bed of Procrustes”, stories provide an opportunity for reflection and imagination – for children as well as for grown-ups.
Q3. If there’s a chance to publish subsequent editions of the book, what improvements will you make? Will you add some new stories or topics?
Marisa Silva: The international success of the book was a very happy surprise to me: it made me realize that stories are universal and they can touch anyone regardless of their geography. At the same time, it also made me more aware that there is room for more stories to be added and I’ve been fortunate to receive suggestions from all over the world. A second edition might indeed be possible in the future. Stories are more effective if they are co-created so I’ll welcome any ideas from my dear readers.
Part Ⅱ We should aim to make our projects anti-fragile
Q4. Where does fragility in PM lie? What are your tips on how to deal with fragility in PM?
Marisa Silva: We see fragility every time a project is challenged in its objectives – projects that are late, overbudgeted, and with unhappy clients. Due to the lack of investment on the capabilities of the project teams, poor sponsoring of projects, or simply due to the lack of a structured approach to project management, projects can break at the minimal disorder. What I propose is that we should aim to make our projects anti-fragile, following the idea coined by Nassim Taleb, that is, projects should not just resist disorder but rather benefit from it. Take the example of the COVID-19 pandemic: suddenly most organizations realized that productivity was possible amid the chaos. Not just that, some project teams became even more productive, quicker, better than they thought they would be. People are now more prepared to deal with uncertainty. I advocate that we should seek levels of redundancy, rely on our internal experts, and are unafraid of bringing some stress to our project teams. When we add stress to our muscles by doing exercise, the muscles grow stronger, and the same applies to our projects.
Part Ⅲ The front-end is where projects start failing
Q5. Project managers should participate in managing the front-end of projects. It seems that you agree with this viewpoint, why?
Marisa Silva: I fully support that view and I’m glad that more practitioners are starting to pay attention to the project front-end. Make no mistake: that’s where projects start failing; it’s not in delivery. What we need is a clear blueprint for the project, defined benefits from the offset, a committed and supportive sponsor, and a management and governance structure that enables just enough project management. We can no longer afford to think just about the execution of projects. We need to also start thinking about the management for projects.
Part Ⅳ Let’s start with the project end in mind
Q6. In your opinion, what should we do to avoid losing sight of the whole picture of a project?
Marisa Silva: I think it is fundamental that we start with the project end in mind. It is very easy to be distracted by the day-to-day details. However, you wouldn’t be able to build a 1000-pieces jigsaw if you don’t know what the end result is expected to be. So why do we keep doing it for projects? To avoid losing sight of the whole picture, let’s go back to the start: what are we aiming to achieve? What are the benefits? What is the legacy this project will bring? Those are the questions that matter.
Part Ⅴ Success should always be defined from the start
Q7. Based on your observation, how should we measure the success of a project in the VUCA ((Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and ambiguous) era?
Marisa Silva: A VUCA era definitely brings additional challenges to project management. However, it should not be used as an excuse for poor project management practices. Despite the volatility or the complexity, success should always be defined from the offset of the project (the front-end we discussed earlier). Yet, this is where the problem often lies: many projects don’t have a clear definition of what being good looks like and just start considering this matter when the project is terminated. In fact, I’m always amazed by the statistics showing every year in several reports about the failure rates of projects. But if you ask practitioners, they don’t acknowledge failure: instead, projects just move to a phase 2 or get a new name.
Q8. To deal with VUCA, what qualities should project managers have?
Marisa Silva: A VUCA world demands more preparation and flexibility from project managers. It is no longer enough to be a subject matter expert on the scope of the project or proficient in a project management scheduling tool. What we need, more than ever, are project managers who empower their projects teams to succeed, have emotional intelligence to work under pressuring circumstances that can change at any time, can read the business context and be agile to respond in light of the unexpected.
Part VI Mechanisms should be put in place to enable better sponsorship
Q9. Experts have emphasized the importance of sponsorship, which has long been ignored. What’s your opinion about this topic?
Marisa Silva: Sponsorship is one of the factors that are critical to the success of projects and that can make or break the project. However, many sponsors are not aware of their role and responsibilities, are busy, not committed, or not bothered to support the project and the project manager. It is a strange situation because projects are run on behalf of the sponsor, for the sponsor, yet they are not as vested as they should be. Similarly, there is so much education and training available for project practitioners but not enough for the project sponsors who often don’t speak the language of project management. A committed and available project sponsor is a key difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful one – therefore mechanisms should be put in place to enable better sponsorship.
Part Ⅶ The future will be project management-oriented
Q10. You’ve said, “Projects are our future.” Would you please explain it?
Marisa Silva: More than ever we are living in a project economy, where the development of societies happens through projects, either as infrastructure or business change. Also, we are all project managers now: we all need project management competencies because that is how strategies and dreams come to life, by projects. This being said, it is clear that the future will be project management-oriented and that project practitioners will be in high demand. To be aware of it is, on its own, a competitive advantage. Finally, all projects bring a legacy with them – thus, it is fundamental that we keep in mind what legacy we want to build for future generations through the projects that we are implementing today.
Part Ⅸ Projects are a fantastic way of making a difference
Q11. Why did you call yourself “The Lucky Project Manager”?
Marisa Silva: There are three main reasons for that. Firstly, I think that chance or luck play such an important role in what happens in our life and projects, even if we prefer to ignore it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Secondly, there’s a saying that goes, “There are no good project managers, only lucky ones: the more you plan, the luckier you get”, which I fully agree with because being lucky also requires hard work and preparation. Finally, because I’ve been very lucky to grow and learn with amazing colleagues, clients, organizations, and project teams. And, of course, I call myself “The Lucky Project Manager” because “The Lazy Project Manager” was already taken by Peter Taylor who wrote a book on this topic.
Q12. Why did you choose project management as your career?
Marisa Silva: I wanted to be able to make a difference in the world and I think that projects are a fantastic way of achieving that, one project at a time. In fact, that is also the reason why I’m actively involved with the global project management community and have held positions with not-for-profit organizations. I sincerely believe in the power of project management for social good. Additionally, to work in projects is to be exposed to competing priorities, multiple stakeholders, the management of a team, defined boundaries and constraints, and so much more … that sense of order among chaos strongly interest me.
Q13. As a female, what advantages and disadvantages do you believe females have in practice?
Marisa Silva: Project management is contextual but it is not gender-based. Fortunately, I have never felt being treated differently because of being a woman in project management and I can’t find any immediate disadvantages of having more women involved in the field. Quite the opposite: I think that women, being multi-taskers, intuitive, and very proficient at managing expectations, make an ideal project leader and that is being recognized by more organizations over time. The development of societies and the empowerment of women are hand in hand. Thus, to be working in project management as a woman is an opportunity to lead that change from the field. We need to be that change we want to see in the world.