E57 - Projectify: the end of the strategic plan as we know it - Interview with Jeff Schwisow

Business mentor and strategist Jeff Schwisow shares:

  • Why the real enemy of business evolution is not change, but how ‘now’ cripples your ability to focus on ‘next’.
  • How an effective project mindset is one that moves away from large transformational change in favour of a steady stream of smaller adaptive projects.
  • One of the biggest blocks to Boundless Leadership is being too focused on the scoreboard and not the game you’re playing.
  • Build your organisation as a circle not a triangle.
  • Three key tips to get started to bring the future into now and be better at getting strategic results.
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Jeff Schwisow is a strategist, speaker, mentor and author of Projectify - How to use projects to engage your people in strategy that evolves your business. Jeff helps businesses generate exceptional results and make their people a more powerful force by understanding the art and science of projects. He has worked with some the world's largest organisations including Shell, Chevron, PetroChina, CPB Contractors, Downer Utilities, Powercor/Citipower and many more.

Jeff's website

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Narrator:                          Welcome to the Zoe Routh Leadership Podcast. Your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader. Influence. Improve. Inspire.

Zoë Routh:                       Hi. This is Zoe Routh. I have a very special gentleman on the podcast today. His name is Jeff Schwisow. I was just laughing with him before because I just think that's the most extraordinary, fabulous last name. It's got such a flair to it. So apart from his groovy last name, Jeff is a strategist, speaker, mentor, and author. He's produced and published his latest book, Projectify. I think Projectify is the best way to pronounce it ... How to Use Projects to Engage Your People and Strategy that Evolves Your Business.

                                           I love this concept, and I can't wait to tease it out with Jeff. So, Jeff, he helps businesses generate exceptional results and make their people a more powerful force by understanding the art and science of projects. He's worked with some of the world's biggest companies, including Shell, Chevron, Petro China, CPB Contractors, Downer Utilities, Power Corp, and City Power as well. So heavily into the utility side of things. Well, welcome, Jeff.

Jeff Schwisow:                 Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here Zoe.

Zoë Routh:                       So I haven't done much work in utility sectors, and I'm curious to hear a little bit about your leadership journey. Tell us how you evolved through your leadership experience to where you get to today. Where you talk about the art and science of projects.

Jeff Schwisow:                 I started life as an engineer. I started life like everybody else, but I started my professional life, life as an engineer. A mechanical engineer specifically and just my engineering journey took me to construction. Once in the construction engineering arena, I pretty quickly moved into project management. First, managing design projects, in the U.S. Where the world there is slightly different than it is in most of the rest of the world, quite honestly. But then moved into managing engineering on design and construction projects when I first moved overseas in 1998. Then finally got into overall construction project management when I moved to Australia in early 2000.

                                           So I've always kind of been a student of whatever game I was playing. With project management, I pretty rigorously studied and applied traditional project management principles and practices. However, pretty quickly I learned that those traditional approaches weren't necessarily enough to ensure success. So I started looking for different ways of thinking around how do we actually deliver results when we're doing projects? That took me sort of down a path of a set of principles that I started using in the projects that I was managing. And then around about 2007, I learned that there was this thing called 'LEAN' that brought practice to those principles if that makes some sense. But fundamentally, it really allowed me to explore this idea of the way to be exceptional in the work that we do for others is actually create exceptional workplaces. Get people working effectively together.

                                           And the more I dug into that world and saw it as a ... that improving the way work gets done is the way that we improve the results that we produce for the industry, for our clients, for the people that are ultimately investing in these projects that we are being asked to do. The more I said, "This is something that the industry needs." That sort of drove me to start my own consulting practice. What I learned fairly quickly is when you are in the construction process improvement game, that most of the work you get is on troubled projects. So many of the early assignments that I got at my practice were projects that were on fire. And because there's nothing to drive different thinking like crisis and the immediate need that sits behind those crises. Although it can pay the bills, it's not a very exciting place to make a difference, and it's not the value-adding world that I really wanted to be in.

                                           And so I started to realise that I needed to approach the way I worked within the organisations I was working with differently. If I want to get them to move out of the day-to-day and start being more future-focused in a way that they applied different ways of thinking. So that started me down this path of how do we actually create transformational change in a world that has people that are way too busy for transformational change? How do we get people focused on the future? Their cup runneth over, so to speak, in terms of the day-to-day needs of their businesses. That started me down a path of how about, let's use projects as a way of fixing projects? That sort of strategic approach, my work started to expand into this idea, well, that sort of strategic thinking can be applied to any sort of businesses. Ultimately-

Zoë Routh:                       Let me just ask this clarification question. So, taking projects to fix projects?

Jeff Schwisow:                 Yeah.

Zoë Routh:                       So you take a ... your approach to fixing the projects? Is that right?

Jeff Schwisow:                 Absolutely. I think it is, absolutely. Look, at the end of the day, one of the things that people struggle with is the ability to bring the future into the present. Because of so much present in their face every single day, if that distinction makes some sense. When we talk about ... I use the term project initiatives, activities, however, you want to couch it, you start breaking things down into small steps. Those small steps, for me, were, "Let's create a project that gets us to the next place where we want to get to. In terms of evolving what we're trying to do." As opposed to, "We're going to completely change the way you do the business of construction projects." Because let's face it, there aren't many executives that sit down and say, "Oh, that sounds like a fun undertaking given that I'm already working 60-hour weeks and that can barely keep up with what I need to keep up with."

                                           So this idea of ... First, I was trying to fix the construction project environment. So let's use projects to apply to projects. Because you're a project people, certainly you understand that. That then evolved based on conversations with different organisations I was getting a chance to work with to say, "Well, it can be more than just fixing your construction projects." It can be the way you look at your business strategy as a whole. Because, at the end of the day, projects that you do as a business, are fundamentally investments. So let's start maximizing our investment. Let's do some things that would give us a better return out of this project investments. So that we're starting to shape some of the businesses we want to shape into the future.

                                           I've work with the oil and gas companies, and the reality is that a Chevron or a Shell has absolutely no Intranet same building or liquified natural gas plant. They want to sell. They built that plant because that's an investment in their business that gives them the ability to do what it is that their senior managers, their shareholders, their business exists to do. That's sort of been the leadership journey really is I've kind of just kept applying my own thinking into learning ... Actually, put it like this, applying my thinking to the way I think. Learning against the struggles that I was having to lead the businesses that I was working with. That kind of leadership concept, if you will even though I seldom say that, makes the change that I'm trying to make within those businesses.

Zoë Routh:                       Okay. It sounds pretty straightforward from the outside. Let's take a project approach, and you set an agenda, you make a plan, and you implement. I'm curious, what gets in the way of people actually getting the work done? You talked about you wanted to improve the way that work gets done. You started with projects that were on fire. What are the blocks and barriers to people doing work better?

Jeff Schwisow:                 The thing that I often like to say is in the world of doing projects, and this true in a lot of different areas of business. We're heavily focused on the scoreboard. We believe we can affect the scoreboard by focusing on the score. Where in point of fact, the way that you affect the score and the scoreboard is by how you play on the field. At the heart of traditional project management, is the belief that we can measure our way to success. Where in fact, the way that you make a project successful, or I believe, execute strategy successfully, is that you get good at actually playing on the field so to speak. Doing the day-to-day activities that they'll produce the results that you're trying to produce. You can affect results by focusing on results. You can only affect results by focusing on the way that you work together to produce those results. Ensure that you're focused on the right things, you're starting to manage your time and attention in a way that you're doing the highest priority activities at any given time to support what you're trying to achieve. Either from a project-result perspective or from the business strategy perspective.

                                           It's really getting people focused in on how do we work together to ensure that what each of us individually is trying to do on a day-to-day basis is supported by whatever everybody else around us is doing individually on a day-to-day basis. And starting to connect that all the way up to, what is my strategic intent? What am I trying to achieve as a commercial outcome? What am I trying to as an overall strategic outcome? Start creating linkages right down to what people are doing on a day-to-day basis. Now, that's where the complexity starts to come in. One of the fallacies about business strategy is as much as executing projects is, we create a plan, we go execute the plan. Well, what military strategists have known for a very, very long time, is that ... to quote Eisenhower, "Plans are useless. Planning is indispensable." Because no plan survives first contact with the enemy. That idea that we need to have a dynamic operational environment that is in keeping with the dynamic change that's happening in the environment around us if that makes sense.

Zoë Routh:                       Yeah, it means being responsive to the given moment as opposed to sticking with the plan no matter what?

Jeff Schwisow:                 Exactly, right. Understanding that change happens. Our ability to respond to and adapt to change is what makes us good. A white-knuckle approach to, "We're going to hold on to our plan irrespective of everything that's happening around us," doesn't acknowledge the dynamism and the uncertainty in the world that exist around us.

Zoë Routh:                       Cool. Well, I want to tease out a couple of things here from you. You termed some of the key secrets to implementing work better. One of them was connecting what we do on a day-to-day basis back to the strategic intent of the plan of the organisation. Managing time and attention is another key. The other third thing that you mentioned which we haven't teased out ... which I would like to tease out is that how do we work better together? Do you mean around communication? Do you mean around conflict resolution? What does that look like for you, the working-better-together?

Jeff Schwisow:                 One of the things that is true about the modern business environment is that most of what we do today was born out of the scientific management movement that developed out of the post-industrial revolution. That was put in place round about the turn of the 20th century. Most of the way that we organise our businesses fundamentally comes from the early 1900s and it hasn't changed very much since that time. However, when you start to ask people, "Describe for me if you will, a geometric shape that makes up your business." Usually, they're going to describe some sort of a triangle where it's sitting on its base. The do-ers are at the bottom of that triangle and the leaders, managers, whatever, are at the top of the triangle.

                                           The way that that hierarchy works, from an operational perspective, is that people at the top of the triangle have direct report. They tell those people what's expected of them and assess and then tell them whether they've successfully achieved those expectations. Then those triangles sort of make their way all the way down to the operational level. The problem with that from an operational perspective is that when you have people at different parts of the base of that triangle. If you can imagine this sort of the shape in your mind, trying to work together. There's some version of it has to go up the triangle and back down to effectively interact ... So one of-

Zoë Routh:                       Keep going. Sorry, that was my phone in the background. I beg your pardon.

Jeff Schwisow:                 That's quite all right. What we want in a more effective team environment from an operational perspective, what we want to do is we want to create an environment where the people that are doing the work together, actually are responding to each other very, very directly. They're making commitments to one another, they're planning and controlling their own work. I often tell a story of a TEDx talk that I heard Michael Henderson give. Actually, it was 2008 and 2009; I believe it was. He's a corporate anthropologist, so he literally was trained as an anthropologist. That was his degree. He actually went out in the field and studied tribal cultures and then took that thinking to the corporate environment. He said that when we talked to people about, "How would you describe your organisation?" They described a triangle. You go to a tribal culture, and you say, "How would you describe geometrically the way that your tribe works?" They, generally speaking, describe a circle. It's a fairly flat circle. The leaders are at the centre of that circle. Not at the top of a triangle. The people that sit around the leaders, actually have specific responsibilities for the way that they make the tribe work. So an effective-

Zoë Routh:                       Excuse me, Jeff. The leaders are at the very centre, where the radius is or on the outskirts of the circle?

Jeff Schwisow:                 No, at the very centre and the people that are actually making the tribe work, are around them. An effective organisation from my perspective is one where the leaders sit at the centre, and their job is to help create that strategic direction. To support and enable the people around them that are actually translating strategic intent into action and activity. And if you will, a whole series of smaller circles that sit around them that are actually doing projects that are that strategic execution. That are translating the strategy into things that move the organisation getting into the future. What you want to create within those project teams, are cross-functional groups that are made up of the people closest to where value is created in your organisation.

                                           If you're trying to improve an operational approach within your organisations, those are the people that most directly understand the way operational approach works. They potentially have a leader at the centre of their little circle. But that leader's job is not to tell them what to do; it's to support and enable them. It's to ensure that they stay true to the strategic objective that that project has set for. Ensure that they kind of drive a continuous improvement engine, if you will, within those groups. Those teams, if you will, make up the edges of the circle, if you will. So organisations, in the way that I describe it, are inside-out not outside-in as opposed to top-down and bottom-up. It's getting those people that are most familiar with, "This is the way that this business works. This is the day-to-day interaction I have with customers. Getting them attached to the way that strategy gets translated into operational reality, is the way to create a strategic engine, if you will, that drives business forward."

                                           Then its leadership, its role, is to make sure that you create a framework for constantly refreshing that strategic view, the strategic direction that the business is headed in. Because the world outside is constantly shifting and moving. So your strategic objectives need to shift and move both with what's happening outside the business and through feedback from your strategic project teams, the activities that they're doing, the experiments they're running, the sort of strategic findings, if you will, that help inform that strategy moving forward.

Zoë Routh:                       I'm curious about this because I love the organic nature of this. I love the inside-out, outside-in concept and that the people at the core phase are really doing the implementation of the strategic direction. My challenge with this concept is, now that we have cross-functional teams and projects, is that with a lot of the clients that I work with are on multiple cross-functional teams with multiple projects being implemented at the same time. What they struggle with is competing priorities and also with the person who leads the different projects. They might have three different project managers that they're involved with then lead the project themselves. So this juggling of priorities and commitments and visibility of workload is the two primary challenges. How do you help organisations like that who have gone the project route and have cross-functional teams, but have this complexity about the implementation that causes confusion?

Jeff Schwisow:                 One of the things that ... It's not unique by any stretch of the imagination to any one type of business or any single industry. Most people are struggling with this problem. One of the things that we ask organisations to do when looking at their strategic projects that they're doing is to make sure that the strategic projects that you work on as an organisation are the highest priority projects based on strategic value. That you have the capacity to give your undivided attention to. That you have the capacity to complete. As you said, the challenge comes in when you start talking about workload visibility. But if you start getting intentional about saying, "Okay, how many projects can we actually take on given our day-to-day operational expectations, and given that these multiple sources of projects that sometimes come from different places within the business?"

                                           It's that constant process of "triage" ... is the terminology that I use ... of your strategic projects that you're not trying to do too much. There's this view on many, many organisations that, "The more projects I start, either the more things I'll finish or the more optically I'm focused on the sort of things that improvement or strategic focuses." In, in point of fact, the more things you complete, the more strategic progress you actually make. You want to be very intentional about not overloading your organisation with the number of projects that you try to do. So that's a lot of the work that I do in setting up a routine of a strategic project portfolio, is what I call it.

                                           But a routine of refreshing that portfolio is an assessment of what are your strategic priorities? What are the things that you most need to be doing right now to move you forward in the way that you need to move forward? What's your capacity to do those things? It does force some the organisations to then to say, "Wow! Hold on a second. How many projects are people working on? What are the source of those projects?" Let's start getting more people into the tenets of so to speak that are making decisions about what strategic priorities are and start to filter that down to our specific choices. In any given quarter ... I go kind of on a quarterly cycle. In any given quarter, what things we'll work on during that quarterly cycle.

Zoë Routh:                       It sounds like a really intimate knowledge of people's capacities for delivery is essential here because I think this is the part that's missing. In some of the organisations, I work with is that is that they just have ... as you said, they launch a hundred different projects and expect their team just to stamp up and deliver. The team doesn't want to disappoint, so they go into overwork mode. Is that your experience too?

Jeff Schwisow:                 Well, worst yet, that they get into overwork mode, but you don't get results. You don't get the strategic outcomes that you're looking for. What is the least amount I can possibly do? Not saying that people are responsibilities, but if I want to say that I've accomplished something, what's the least amount I can do to demonstrate accomplishment? You really want to be intentional about saying, "This is the outcome that we're targeting. Let's understand each cycle of projects that we move through. What was our capacity? If we didn't complete things, why didn't we complete them?" Be honest with yourself, "Did we overload our teams? Did we actually achieve what we set out to achieve?" So forcing yourself into a cycle of self-reflection if that makes some sense.

                                           I call it retrospection. Retrospective is what we do at the end of each quarterly portfolio of projects. How did we go? Did we accomplish what we set out to accomplish? If we didn't accomplish it, why not? But what we've learned from it. So if we're overloading people, if we're coming up short because we didn't have the right people involved, let's start to understand that. It's more art than science know what your people's capacity is. You need to be intentional about gathering that knowledge as well as moving the business forward. Quite frankly, in some cases, actually building their capacity. You suddenly ask people to work on a strategic project, but that's not necessarily their day-to-day job. There's things they have to learn about doing projects that they probably haven't learned in doing their daily operational activities. So you're building capacity, at the same time, you're moving the business forward.

Zoë Routh:                       Okay, that makes sense to me. When you're talking about project management books ... Project management as a concept as you've mentioned is not a new thing. So what's different about your book?

Jeff Schwisow:                 Well, it's a book about projects that actually isn't very much about projects. To be honest with you. But at least not how-to-do projects. It's really a book about using projects as a vehicle for as I described it, traversing your strategic journey. I think I'd devote a whole two-pages or something around pointers in how you might actually carry out these projects. So it's more "How do you use projects" as opposed to "How do you do projects." Being pretty specific about what sort of projects we mean. How do we want to approach them? Ensuring that you're constantly making meaningful strategic progress through your projects.

Zoë Routh:                       Are there any projects that people should not ever do?

Jeff Schwisow:                 ... What I would say is large transformational change projects are something that nobody should ever take on unless you're really good at projects. Because they-

Zoë Routh:                       All the change management specialists around the world just went, "Oh, my God!."

Jeff Schwisow:                 Oh, trust me. I'm an anti-management guy, and I'm an anti-management change guy. But the history with large transformational change projects is because they just don't succeed very often. More often than the not, the reason you do them is because you have to. So you're playing a pretty high-stakes game. "I've got a low chance of being successful, and I'm probably doing this thing because if I don't do it my business is in trouble." So what I absolutely believe is it's much more important to break down large transformational change into much more smaller, much more focused pieces that'd you move through step-wise. Just because you'll be more effective in actually executing those projects than you will a large transformation change project for many, many reasons. You're skill at executing projects, the organisational capacity to execute the project.

                                           I mean, you got to continue to do your business. You dump a big transformational change bit of the project and hop on the business. It's very difficult for people to actually have the capacity to do it. Also, you start moving away from this world of that fundamentally change management is managing people's resistance to change theoretically. My belief is that people don't resist change, they resist uncertainty. People are actually pretty good at change. I mean, we're the most adaptable creatures on the planet. My parents are technologically illiterate, and they have smartphones and use Facebook. We're already in and that all happened, didn't it? In less than a decade. So our ability to change and our acceptance of change is pretty good.

                                           It's uncertainty around change that we don't feel good about. If you actually get people directly involved in the change that you're trying to make and do that in a way that they can start to shape that change, and break down some of that uncertainty, then you start managing that resistance. You don't eliminate it, exist. You start to manage that "inherent resistance" that happens to change. Because you're actually managing the underlying uncertainty around a big transformational change. Does this mean I won't have a job? Does it mean I won't like my job? Does this mean that I'm going to be working with clients that are happy with me now that won't be happy with me in the future? Those kinds of questions are going to inherently come into people's minds when uncertainty strikes.

Zoë Routh:                       That makes sense. Uncertainty is the thing that rattles people's cages in its very primal sentiment. That's for sure.

Jeff Schwisow:                 Yeah, absolutely

Zoë Routh:                       ... two questions left for you. The cover of your book, you got this guy juggling elephants. What's up with that?

Jeff Schwisow:                 When I started planning my book, I went 99designs to have a cover competition just get a book cover concept. I got a number of book covers back, and one of the designs had the juggling elephants imagery on it. The final design has actually been tweaked since then. But it caught my eye because it was very, very different than anything anybody else was doing. As I started to short-list my cover designs down to those that I thought were the most likely to be eye-catching, for lack of a better way of saying it. I started sharing it with friends and colleagues and then asking opinions. The juggling elephants whether or not, it drew more commentary than anything else.

                                           First and foremost, it was either imagery that people loved or the imagery that people hated. That interested me a lot because if you hate something, you've though enough about it. Or it's impacted you at an emotional level to generate that kind of a response. But then also people almost universally tried to translate the imagery into meaning. So what sits behind these juggling elephants? So I got all these different versions of what my cover meant as it related to my book. The elephant in the room was one of those, "Strategy is like trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, and those balls are as big as elephants." Strategy is like eating an elephant. You have to it one bite at a time. All kinds of different versions of what people were perceiving the imagery on the cover to fit with this idea of projectifying strategy.

                                           I started to realise in some ways; it's good that people are thinking about how the two things sit together. It almost doesn't matter what the designer had in mind when designed it, or I saw on it when I ultimately chose it. But that's what I wanted people to do with the ideas in the book. To start to understand how these concepts might be applied to them. How might it translate into their worlds? If they engaged with the imagery on the outside at an initial glance in that sort of way, hopefully, they would engage it with the ideas within the book in a similar way. How might leaders make that linkage between the relationship that exceptional workplaces have with the future direction of their businesses? And start to try to put these concepts together and have meaning around it. So that's-

Zoë Routh:                       Those are great metaphors everywhere. I like the fact that you've got this provocative cover that can be translated in many different forms. I like the fact that you weren't prescriptive about it. That's great.

Jeff Schwisow:                 I have tried to figure out what the designer actually had in mind when he submitted the cover. But he's Romanian, and he actually doesn't speak English very well. So we tried to communicate back and forth via google translator and I never quite was certain exactly what he had in mind.

Zoë Routh:                       Oh, that's okay. My last question is the practical tips for a business leader or a manager. What can they start doing right away?

Jeff Schwisow:                 The first place we start is with what I call creating a strategic roadmap. Understanding your strategic intent, connecting that to what sort of improvement activities could we be doing that will help us realise that strategic intent? Then, what are the projects? What the practical things, initiatives that we could be putting in place that would help us seize those strategic improvement opportunities? In very simple terms, if leaders always wold be able to say, "This is our strategic intent. The strategic intent for our business over this our current planning horizon," for a better of describing it, "let's find the three best projects that we can be doing that would help us attack the improvement areas that will allow us to get to that strategic intent. Around those three best projects, let's build cross-functional closest to the work teams that attack those projects over the next three months. Create those projects in a way that we have a very specific outcome we're trying to achieve.

                                           Then support them in a way that allows them to move that forward." Then just rather repeat so to speak. "At the end of that time, how did that go? Did we achieve what we tried to achieve? What did we learn from that? Now let's do it again." Just starting to get that sort of rhythm if you will, around, "What are the three best things we can be doing strategically? Who are the best people that they'll work to allow us to do that in a way that we've connected to what's happening at the value-adding front of our business? Where the customer is, where the operational activity we're trying to improve is, where the product development activity lives." Just three things. "What can't we do with three things over the next three months? Let's build teams that are closest to the work that we're trying to improve."

Zoë Routh:                       That's great. I love the fact that three months just sounds like it's a doable timeframe. It's not overwhelming, and that kind of helps contain the scope of the projects, doesn't it? So it doesn't become bigger than Ben-Hur. "You've only got 90 days. So what can we pull off in this timeframe?"

Jeff Schwisow:                 Exactly. Then once again, what did we learn from that? So we apply that learning to the next 90 days. Continuing to step forward just little by little by little. Then you can start to say, "Okay, where or what might we expand? Where might we use what we're learning to feedback into our strategy, to redefine priorities, and redefine our strategic focus and these kinds of things?" But mostly, you start to engage your people. You engage them by giving them something to be engaged in. The fact that you have a very short single focus project, that progress drives sort of that intrinsic motivation engine within your people as well. "Okay, that was cool. We got something done. Let's go get something else done."

Zoë Routh:                       Yeah, I like it. Jeff, thank you so much for being on the show today. I'm going to put a link in the short notes which will be zoerouth.com/podcast/projects to your book and to your website. So people can go and check out your juggling elephants and get a sense of the projects that you've been working on since you launched yourself into the consulting land. Jeff, thank you so much.

Jeff Schwisow:                 Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me, Zoe.