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Achieving Project Governance in a Disruptive World

By Joanne Jacobs

Disrupt Podcast: Project Governance in a Disruptive World

For over 20 years, Margaret Wright has been involved closely with many complex and difficult projects, including delving into the lessons from both success and failure – and in between. Over the past 3 years alone she has been involved in project governance of programs with a total value of more than $3 billion, often involving restructure of organisations.

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Margaret Wright

Consultant and Project Executive

Over the past 20 years I have been involved closely with many complex and difficult projects, including delving into the lessons from both success and failure – and in between. Combining these insights with voracious reading and research, I keep up to date with new technologies and approaches and the challenges they present. My accounting background means I have a practical understanding of business case development and benefits realisation and how to achieve sustainable results from change programs.

Gavin Heaton

Founder Disruptor's Handbook

Gavin is a marketing technologist, strategist and advisor. He is the founder of the Disruptor’s Handbook – a strategy and innovation firm that brings the best of startup approaches to the enterprise.


Gavin: [00:00:01] Welcome to Disrupt, the podcast for social, tech and corporate innovators.

Gavin: [00:00:06] Hello and thanks for joining me on the Disrupt podcast. I am Gavin Heaton, the founder of Disruptor’s Handbook a strategy and innovation services firm that helps organisations shift mindsets innovate products and respond to a disruptive and uncertain future. Today I’m joined by Margaret Wright. I first met Margaret when I joined the Good2Give technology advisory board. And since then Margaret has been gracious to share her experience and insight not only with Good2Give and advisory board but also by being a judge at some of the hackathons that we run for clients. Over the past 20 years, Margaret has been involved closely with many complex and difficult projects including delving into the lessons from both success and failure and everywhere in between. She’s worked as an executive and consultant across a number of industries in both commercial and government with a focus on financial services. Over the past three years alone she has been involved in project governance of programmes with a total value of more than three billion dollars, often involving restructure of organisations. Understanding project governance is essential to managing a well run innovation programme and Margaret’s experience and insight in this interview shines through.

Gavin: [00:01:11] I’m here with Margaret Wright and I’ll get my right to introduce herself to you.

Margaret: [00:01:15] My name is Margaret Wright. I’m the director with Adaptive People. Our job is to help executives to do better projects and get better outcomes.

Gavin: [00:01:26] Better projects you’d think everyone would want to do better projects – right.

Margaret: [00:01:29] You would – indeed.

Gavin: [00:01:31] So what led you into working with better projects and understanding what works with projects and what doesn’t.

Margaret: [00:01:38] So I’ve had a bit of time in couple of areas actually – one of them was working at Macquarie Bank and being in charge of about 400 people, delivering various projects and what we found – and this was in the early days of agile – was that with the old style of working – which was waterfall – we’d deliver something and the customer would say “actually we don’t like it”. And we’d say well, how come you didn’t like it because that’s what you specified. Well now we see it, we don’t like it. So. The question then was how do we actually work what people want – earlier – particularly in this very much more user driven environment that we have now where you’ve got people outside going “I don’t like it”. That’s quite common including probably you and I.

Gavin: [00:02:27] Exactly

Margaret: [00:02:28] So since that time, I’v also been involved in helping turn around projects, look at projects that have failed and say what went wrong. And usually what we find it wrong very peace and there’s a lot of pain and heartache. And I guess what I want to do is help people avoid that because it’s not really good for anyone.

Gavin: [00:02:51] So at what point do people realise their project is failing? Do they realise that it’s failing too late?

Margaret: [00:02:56] Well what happens interestingly because we’ve just done a survey of 162 project managers around the world and asked them about project failure and in particular about people changing the status of a project to make it look as though it’s okay when it may not be and the project is putting their hand up and saying I’m worried that’s not quite right. So what happens is that actually occurs in most cases either in delivery or just before go live – which is a bit late when you consider what I’ve just told you about with agile. And in some cases there were signs much earlier on that there was an issue with the project. Some of those things are only things you’d know in retrospect i.e. someone like myself who’s been through it and probably made a few mistakes along the way.

Gavin: [00:03:47] So experience counts a lot in projects – right?

Margaret: [00:03:49] It does – bad experiences particularly – I actually wrote a book on mistakes some time ago so yes, I’m quite flooded in those things.

Gavin: [00:04:01] And so here’s an interesting one. So we all know that we make mistakes and we all know that projects are complex, so what stops us from whistleblowing on our own projects or whistleblowing on the projects we’re working on?

Margaret: [00:04:14] Well interestingly in the survey we found quite a number of things. Of course there’s our natural bias not to be wrong and not to be embarrassed and put our hands up and say there’s a problem but we also found there were cultural issues. There was a lack of maturity – people not understanding that the signals that were coming up like the red traffic lights actually meat we need to fix this rather than we’ve all screwed up. And the final thing interesting is KPIs in bonuses from senior executives or executives outside.

Gavin: [00:04:47] Tied to progress success or progress?

Margaret: [00:04:47] Interestingly it’s tied to progress which is a short term measure which is interesting given all of the issues around Wells Fargo and others where they have short term measures in place and people then manipulate them.

Gavin: [00:05:00] Interesting. So one of the things we look at a lot in our work is on reducing the risk of innovation. But risk is also an interesting topic when it comes to project failure because exactly as you’re saying, the red, green, orange traffic lights should tell you how your project is going in terms of risk. But do you think there’s a lack of maturity or understanding of what their risk is or what risk means for that business or that project?

Margaret: [00:05:27] Possibly. One of the other issues though is this thing I talked about before where you don’t know what you want until you see it.

Gavin: [00:05:35] Right – which is also a risk.

Margaret: [00:05:36] And happened in traditional projects was that you’d write this massive specification and then you’d get to the time when you were doing testing and suddenly people would go – this isn’t what I wanted. Or even sometimes after go-live, you’d suddenly go oooh. And I remember one particular where we had to go back the next year and fix a whole lot of stuff because things just went awry – we hadn’t anticipated the massive peak after go-live and we had a lot of complaints from customers so wasn’t very expensive to fix but it was something that we hadn’t really anticipated. So the idea these days is to bring forward as many of the things that might uncertainties or risks as possible and think that through, spend more time up front than you do later on.

[00:06:24] But interestingly a friend of mine – he’s an innovation lecture at one of the universities – he said look, here is what happens in product innovation in manufacturing. And the management attention is at the last half of the project because that’s when it gets interesting and you start seeing stuff.[00:06:41] So what we really need to do is go how do we bring management’s attention into the beginning to say what are the things that might go wrong, what do we really want this to look like, is there a risk of someone saying they don’t it or it’s not working, it’s not flexible enough or whatever. Let’s bring that risk as far forward as we possibly can.

Gavin: [00:07:01] Interesting – so that probably is why we’re seeing a great of interest in things like Design Thinking.

Margaret: [00:07:06] Yes.

Gavin: [00:07:07] Because the executives are able to come into that design process very early – at the very earliest stages and they get a taste for it and they feel more comfortable for with a more agile methodology maybe or with a commitment to a design oriented approach or a customer centric approach – even through a waterfall project.

Margaret: [00:07:28] So they might have that output and then you say well you’ve got to move things to the cloud or there are some other dependencies so yes, you still may have an element of waterfall later on to actually have the infrastructure to put the design that you’ve came up with on. But it does remove a lot of uncertainty and it does mean also that management is a lot more engaged right from the beginning.

Gavin: [00:07:48] Excellent. Interesting. So what’s the role of communications in project management? You were talking a little bit before about – before we started – about some of the soft skills around project management. What are some of the soft skills you are seeing?

Margaret: [00:08:03] One of the biggest is open communication and one of the challenges obviously is that you’ve got people across an organisation in silos who don’t normally work together competing with each other normally and now they’ve actually got to sit down and nut things out and collaborate.

Gavin: [00:08:24] That’s interesting – in which case then you run into all sorts of other challenges around what is the language for your project, are the things that we’re talking about meaning the same things in different parts of the organisation or your partners as well.

Margaret: [00:08:37] Yes. And what does an – even a little example like what does a red signal mean?

Gavin: [00:08:42] Absolutely.

Margaret: [00:08:42] And no, it’s not something to worry about – it might mean that we need those people over there. It could also mean that for example with suppliers, one of the challenges you have is that if they’re a big organisation, I saw one a while ago where there was a situation where someone came in and said I need this firewall set – it was a five minute job as it quite often is – but it had to go all the way through the approval processes and then it ended up being a lower priority for the whole organisation that cost several hundred thousand dollars because they then had to delay the release. So it’s really important to understand those critical small things that need to be done that might actually cause maximum delays because it costs you a lot of money because you’ve got people people sitting and waiting. So one of the critical things – even with an agile process – is understanding what all the bits and pieces are that need to be connected to make sure the thing works if that makes sense.

Gavin: [00:09:43] Yeah, absolutely. So it sounds like we’ve got a number of different challenges so in a world of disruption we’ve got things that are massively changing inside our organisation, they’re changing outside our organisation, we’ve got project management methodologies that are agile in some cases, waterfall in others and not well understood.

Margaret: [00:10:06] And be the combination of those. The other thing that’s really interesting – and I’ve done quite a bit of study into this – is complexity. So you’ve heard of VUCA so there’s degrees, there’s just things that are just really complex because you need to know more about them so it might be you’re putting this into a highly integrated set of other systems – you need to know all of those and you may not know them. And there’s uncertainty so you go – How much do I know or need to know more about this particular thing? So you actually should be identifying those things early on. Volatility – a board member that I know recently said that their organisation had a significant challenge – they’d started a project and then they found that the price of oil moved – and significantly more.

Margaret: [00:10:59] So any pricing – external shock – it could be the price of the commodity or product you’re trying to sell reduces in the marketplace and all of a sudden that project is not actually worth the investment you’re spending because you’re not going to get the return. So there are those sort of things as well and then there’s ambiguity which is really around one lot of people think this – the other lot of people think this – what’s the real story?

Margaret: [00:11:24] And each of those you go okay, volatility, what that means is I need to say how much external shock can I absorb before my investment’s not worthwhile so I have to monitor that.

Margaret: [00:11:34] Ambiguity is actually nailing down who’s really supporting this project who’s not and what are the issues and then the uncertainty is well I don’t know enough about this – and even complexity, do I actually know everything that I need to know if that makes sense.

Gavin: [00:11:57] Brilliant. So I want to be respectful of your time and I’m going to ask you – What’s that one thing that people that know you or have worked with you may not know about you?

Margaret: [00:12:07] I’ll tell you one that – there’s two actually. One is that I paint pictures but quite a few people who’ve known me for a while know that.

[00:12:15] The other thing is that I was a union negotiator for the Otago Southland Chartered Accountants Employees Union which had a grand total of 300 members.

Gavin: [00:12:24] Wow.

Margaret: [00:12:26] We managed to get 12% increase per annum for two years after failing to get anything two years prior to that – which is the only reason I actually took on the role which obviously free – I wasn’t paid for it. And what’s really fascinating is years and years later, I met – who’s still a friend of mine – one of the employers on the other side – and he said to me Oh we did really well in that negotiation. And I said so did we actually which is the perfect thing. It’s win win – not win lose.

Gavin: [00:13:05] That’s super interesting actually. Must check out your paintings the next time I see you. The other thing that’s always interesting is to understand what influences people like you. So has there been a mentor, a piece of advice you’ve been given or a suggestion that you’ve taken on board and thought that’s really interesting and it’s helped you make a change or a change of direction?

Margaret: [00:13:35] It was an accident – I wanted to be an archaeologist and then I wanted to be a detective but it was going to take too long to get above constable so I decided I didn’t want to do that. I was going to be a hairdresser and I was told I was too smart for that. So then I wanted to be an architect but I couldn’t – in those days it was harder to get to university, it was expensive and my parents didn’t have the money so I end up doing IT because I could get into that quite quickly. So I ended up in IT and then I decided IT was just too hard because nobody every appreciates what you do. You know it’s always harder than people think. And you’re saying it’s going to take this long, other people are saying no, this is how long I think it’s going to take – you don’t always know. And so I went back and completed an accounting degree, did tax audit and accounting and then what happened was that when I came to Australia, they said oh, you’ve done audit and you’ve done IT so you should look at IT risk. So that got me on the path some time ago looking at projects, looking at security, looking at various other IT risks, technology risks.

Gavin: [00:14:46] Brilliant, thanks for your time Margaret. That’s awesome and we’ll speak again soon.

Gavin: [00:14:50] I’m sure you agree Margaret’s insight into risk, project governance and bringing an agile approach to large scale projects is fantastic. Be sure to connect with Margaret via the links in the show notes. And for those of you who have an interest in corporate innovation and how the tools and techniques used in the world of start-ups can be applied in the corporate world be sure to head over to our website to view and download our library of handbooks for disruptors at DisruptorsHandbook.com. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


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