In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Mark Dickson: Project Management Is Into the Mainstream


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan (Spring)  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2018.03.26
Journalist’s notes: 
Mark Dickson, Chairman of PMI board of Directors, has more than 30 years of experience in managing and leading multi-disciplinary teams and has been a Project Management Professional (PMP)? credential holder since 1998. During the PMI 2017 Congress in Shanghai, I met him for the first time. He was surrounded by crowds eager to take photos with him, from which we can see his popularity in PM world. He treated each of his fans with great kindness and patience. When I extended the interview invitation via email after the congress, I was worried that he won’t even think about it as he has a busy schedule. However, to my surprise and joy, he agreed to our interview invitation, to which I’m so grateful. He replied to every email with politeness and answered each question carefully and professionally. What impressed me most is his good manners and professional spirit. When I edited his answers to interview questions, I took great pleasure in reading them. The answers are so inspiring and forward-looking that I am not willing to edit any word down. I believe you readers will also enjoy reading his share of insights.  


Q1. You are a person of great achievements. What are your keys to success for project managers? You’ve led teams in different nations; how do you deal with cultural barriers in projects?

The key to being a successful project manager is leadership; the ability to articulate a vision and align the team to the vision, guiding, influencing, communicating, motivating and inspiring. Projects are delivered by teams; successful projects are delivered by high-performing teams, so leaders should build high-performing teams and manage the team environment through:

?Focus. Identify key issues to achieve critical success factors and focus on them. Do not get distracted by project ‘noise’ or issues that do not contribute to achieving the critical success factors.

?Momentum. Build and maintain momentum.  Get some early success to establish momentum – capitalize on progressive milestones to maintain momentum.  Do not get distracted and maintain team energy and enthusiasm.

?Communication. Manage expectations of clients, sponsors, management team and stakeholders.  Avoid surprises with regular communications with all stakeholders. Adjust your message to be relevant to each stakeholder and use the language of the stakeholder — be empathetic.

? Culture. Satisfy the team’s hygiene factors (establish fair conditions of employment, accommodation, travel and benefits); establish a good work environment (with project logistics, resources, management systems, IT and support in place); and establish a positive attitude and culture of success (build a strong team espirit de corps)

Projects of any size or complexity will be multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural. Regardless of position, discipline or culture, people are individuals and should be treated with respect. No culture is superior to another, and expecting people to adopt another culture is not successful in the long term because people cannot have job satisfaction and work efficiently if they are not allowed to be authentic or maintain their identity. Accommodating and accepting diversity, or giving exceptions for divergent behaviours because of cultural differences, can be patronising and whilst generally well intentioned, is discriminatory and often leads to inequity or dysfunction.  

The most effective way to break barriers is to embrace all cultures, capitalising on the diversity of perspectives and behaviours, and engage with people equally (as distinct from the same), fairly, and if necessarily firmly, to establish credibility and respect. The key is to let people be themselves and build bridges between cultures.

Q2. What’s your impression on PM development in China? What impresses you most? In which aspect should China make more efforts?

China has embraced project management and is a leader in recognizing the value of project management. China is a country renown for large exciting and successful projects and is successful because it has leaders who have a vision — who dream! The change required to turn our leaders’ vision into a reality can only be done through the execution of projects. I find it most impressive that organizations in China have rapidly made the link between change and implementing successful projects and recognize that project management is a critical business capability. 

The Project Management Institute’s purpose is to advance the practice, science and profession of project management throughout the world and is the largest association representing the profession of project management. Our Project Management Professional © credential is globally recognized as demonstrating competency in project management and China is the largest contributor to the growth in the credential.

Q3. You have over 30 years of experience in managing and leading multi-disciplinary teams. Based on your experience, what are the top qualities project managers should have? As a project manager, how did you deal with challenges in work?

The top three qualities that project managers should have are:

?Integrity. Project managers must be able to establish their credibility, and to do that they must be the trusted source of information on the project. A project manager must be able to explain the nature and consequences of the project, both good and bad, to all stakeholders and continually manage expectations and establish a reputation for delivering what they promised. Most projects do not proceed strictly according to plans, and a good project manager will be able to communicate the good news and the bad news, so that there are no surprises and expectations are continually aligned to reality.

?Tenacity. Projects are essentially about change; change is not easy and change involves uncertainty. People are generally resistant to change, and uncertainty means that there will be setbacks: variously termed road blocks, rocks on the road, dead ends, project noise, unintended consequences, recalcitrance, unknown unknowns. These are all tests for a project manager, and a good project manager will keep their eye on the end vision and systematically and tenaciously keep delivering; where a lesser person may despair or give up.

?Flexibility. Projects are delivered by people, for people, in an ever changing environment.  Projects will seldom proceed strictly to plan and for larger projects the end state (technology or customer demand) may change during the development and delivery of the project. Good project managers will continually be aware of the current environment, with an eye into the future, and build flexibility into the project plan, think through contingencies and even have redundancies. Good project managers will have the structures and discipline to recognize change and to continually adapt resources, processes, systems and even the scope and deliverables to the changing circumstances.

As I said above, projects by their very nature are full of challenges. The best way to overcome challenges is to surround yourself with good capable people, and build a team with a positive ‘espirit de corps’.  That way the challenges are shared, minimalized or even delegated. Whilst all projects are unique, the challenges are often not. Systems, structures and processes that are disciplined and flexible will ameliorate most challenges. Being attentive and an active learner and turning the learning into knowledge and action, also ameliorates challenges.  

Notwithstanding the above, there will be challenges that escalate to the project manager and the best way to deal with them is to step back from the immediate pressure of the challenge, and take a holistic view with a clear head to separate the noise from the root causes. Then act on the root cause clinically and decisively employing the behaviours of a good project manager: integrity, tenacity and flexibility.

Q4. According to 2017 PMI’s Pulse of the Profession Report, agile transformation drives positive change in business operations and project delivery, what’s your opinion on agility? What are the principles in building agile culture in a company?

Agility is an organization’s ability to change or adapt rapidly in response to changes in the market or other parts of its external environment. In practical terms Agility is the capacity to provide appropriate systems, structures and resources for projects – and adapt them in response to change. Knowing when to use specific approaches avoids overly cumbersome processes when they aren’t needed and prevents chaos by providing the right level of oversight and controls.

Agility balances compliance requirements with high-performance objectives and the dangers associated with too much reliance on process.   True agility is getting the right balance between control or compliance and action.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to project governance. The particular approach should reflect:

? The level of organisational project management maturity
? The level of project practitioner capability and competency
? The complexity of projects
? The duration of projects
? The size/value of projects

PMI research identifies that the five key elements to build an agile framework within an organization are:

? A supportive culture. The culture of an organization defines the organization. An organization can only be truly agile if the organization culture supports agile characteristics.

? Agile mindset. There are two factors that demonstrate an agile mindset: being good at change management and good at risk management. If an organization and its people are good at these two factors, it means your organization can anticipate, identify, develop and implement change.

? Collective leadership—a shared effort for the greater good.  Leadership demonstrates agile behaviour and is actively engaged in ensuring that strategy is aligned to the execution of projects, it nurtures a culture of agility balanced with discipline. Agility is not an excuse for lack of discipline or lack of vision – change must have a purpose and a value.

? Adaptive process.  In a volatile environment, over-reliance on a single set of processes is dangerous. Organizations should recognise change, develop new skills and competencies, move resources, and have the flexibility to select the right approach for the right project.

? Capable people. Capable people are the bedrock of Agile organizations. Organizations that elevate the roles of project managers to the level of strategic talent are better prepared to capitalize quickly on new opportunities and initiatives. 

Q5. What do you think of the future of project management?

In many industries project management is becoming seen as an essential business skill and being absorbed into the mainstream. Project management is no longer the domain of isolated specialists: technical and general management staff are expected to have project management competencies to be able to deliver relatively simple projects themselves, and project managers are expected to have business and leadership competencies to be up to deliver more complex projects within the organizational and strategic context.

Project management is fundamentally about managing change and project managers should see themselves as change agents. In the past project managers relied on, or were even judged by, their expertise within a particular discipline. Over time project managers were judged by their ability to master the technical aspects of the science of project management. Now and into the future project managers are expected not only to understand the principles of their discipline, and related disciplines, and to have mastery of the technical aspects of the science of project management, but to be able to function as an appropriate business professional.

As project management is absorbed more into the mainstream, more opportunities will arise for project management professionals to capitalize on their project management expertise to become business leaders and carry the project management baton through to senior management, the C-suite and even the board room.

In looking to the future it is important not to forget the basics.  Functional expertise in your base discipline, a good understanding of related business disciplines and mastery of the science of project management provide the fundamentals to develop your career. With this solid base project management professionals can build their general business skills and their leadership skills.

Business in general is becoming more integrated and more global.  Understanding the cross connectivity of business is important but more and more having a cultural intelligence and successfully working across cultures is becoming essential. This may actually be a key differentiator in the future.

Q6. As far as you’re concerned, what’s the significance of publishing a project management magazine (like ours) in China?

Project Management magazines are essential for professional development, providing a means to stay abreast of changes in the profession, providing news and information about changing conditions affecting projects and awareness about new concepts, new research and new tools and techniques. Magazines can provide a network and other resources to advance your career and establish credibility in the marketplace.
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