Category Archives: Leadership

Functional areas where machine learning is applied first


“The future of business process improvement is on making them intelligent. Machine learning is the driving force”

Machine learning is on a steep adoption curve and making its inroads in our daily lives and work. The application of the technology won’t be an issue at all. There’s an abundance of meaningful value propositions for many functional areas, business processes and roles across multiple industries.

Software vendors of enterprise business solutions are focusing their product development on machine learning and other related artificial intelligence technologies. CEO Bill McDermott of SAP said that intelligent applications will fundamentally change the way you do work in the enterprise in the next decade. He mentioned that we need the system to tell us what to do.

In many publications about machine learning we read about IBM Watson beating humans at Jeopardy, or Google’s AlphaGo beating a Go world champion. There are predictions, for example from Nick Bostrom,  that indicate that singularity, or the moment in time when a computer will be as intelligent as a human, is going to happen around 2040.

We also know that machine learning solutions work with structured and unstructured data. Data is growing at a fast pace and doubles every 2 years. 80% of the data is unstructured and 20% is structured. The technological advancements of the last 5 – 10 years removed barriers that artificial intelligence has been struggling with for many decades. Computing power being the most important one. As an indication, IBM Watson can read 200 million pages in 3 seconds and understand the content.

Machine learning solutions are coming our way. A fundamental principle is that they predict based on past behaviour.

Think about weather predictions. IBM acquired the digital assets of The Weather Company in 2016 and is leveraging IBM Watson platform to provide meaningful services to businesses and consumers. The weather notifications you can receive on your smart phone are coming from IBM Watson, a machine learning solution.

Machine learning solutions aren’t always perfect and there are ways to go. Facebook is using machine learning to recognize and understand photos, video and audio that are posted by its users. Content that is not meeting Facebook’s standards is removed. An example of this is the recent removal of a 1973 world press winning photo of the Vietnam war. After a public outcry Facebook reversed its decision.

A few weeks ago I had a personal experience with Facebook’s machine learning solutions and how it influenced a post. I was using an iPhone app to splice a few videos and thought it would be great to add audio to it. I selected the tune from the app library. When I posted the video, Facebook rejected it, because it believed that I did not have the rights to use the audio. Facebook’s interpretation was wrong, because the tune was general available to the app users. It’s an indication that machine learning solutions can learn on their own, but need human intervention to train them.

Machine learning is going to change the way we design and optimize business processes and functional roles. Automation will shift the role of humans more to exception based interactions and real-time, evidence-based decision making. The level of people, process, technology and data integration will further increase. Standardization of end-to-end processes in the supply chain will further manifest.

My expectation is that the software vendors of enterprise business solutions like SAP, Oracle and Salesforce will put their focus on functional areas where there is a high volume of routine transactions first. Think about the order-to-cash process where recurring orders flow through the order entry, fulfillment and delivery processes with limited human intervention. Think about the customer service process where the scheduling of work orders is further automated. Through internet of things technologies, real-time data becomes available that enable machine learning solutions to schedule service orders at the right time with the right spare parts ordered and skilled technician assigned.

There will be niche solutions too where machine learning is augmenting the human capability in a specific area. Think about travel and expense management solutions, where the processing of entries is for the greater part done without human intervention. Another example is recruitment. Machine learning solutions will take over the steps of identifying and screening candidates. Recruiters will receive a short list of qualified candidates and can focus more on the softer aspects that do require human interaction, for example determining if the candidate is a good fit with the organization.

Interaction with customers through call centres and other channels like email, apps or internet is another example. Machine learning solutions can understand text and speech and process simple transactions. Audible from Amazon does that to process refunds for audio books that the customer does not like.

Machine learning and other artificial intelligence solutions are at the top of Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2016. The evolution of the technology in the next decades will be fascinating, because it is coming so close to our existence as human beings. The potential to apply it in a meaningful way to our live and work will be enormous.

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How to keep project team performance high


“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go”  – Oscar Wilde

When organizations initiate a project, the level of enthusiasm is at an all time high as it should be. All noses point in the right direction and people are ready to make things happen. They are ready for the fireworks to rumble. However, a few weeks into the project the first cracks start to appear. And some of those cracks are hard to repair. Why does this happen and what can be done about it?

There can be many triggers that cause the project team performance to change and sometimes change rapidly. Some of these triggers surface more often than others. Here are 5 triggers that are quite common in technology-driven-change projects:

1 – The vision of the future-state does not seem to be same for the key stakeholders as they are going through the solution design and build phase

It can be very hard to get and keep the key stakeholders aligned and committed to the purpose and vision of the project. They all have their opinions, ambitions and agendas to manifest. Working towards shared project goals continues to be a challenge, especially for the more traditional and function oriented organizations, where silo-ed behaviour is still very dominant.

It’s a core task of the project leadership team to provide progressive insight and detail as the project moves ahead. This is an ongoing responsibility. Among other instruments, visualization and demonstrations of the end-state can be quite helpful to manage expectations, deal with adversarial conditions, and level set on the intended outcome and benefits.

I have seen projects where key stakeholders signed off in front of the project team on the vision and high level design as a symbol of unity and conformity. That in itself is a great idea, but it doesn’t necessarily mean much. What it ultimately comes down to is ‘how bad do you want the change’ and ‘what is in it for you to give’ instead of ‘what is in it for you to take’. Unfortunately, the latter is still too powerful.

2 – The willingness to transition to the new operating model has diminished now that people and organizational impacts are better understood as well as the change process itself

People really get a good understanding of change when it is about to manifest and not much earlier for various reasons. This is regardless of all the organizational change impact activities and communications that are happening.

Internalizing the scope and impact of change is a challenge in itself. Robin Sharma says ‘change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end’. Based on what I have experienced in projects his message is bang on.

Dealing with competing priorities is another reason why this occurs, as well as work prioritization and simply procrastination.

There are a few ways to address this. First of all, the overall change leadership must come from a revered senior leader in the organization who has the authority, experience and ability to pull the right change levers. As an example, somebody at the senior level must be in a position to force people to decide to ‘get on the bus or not’.

Second of all, the implementation of people and organizational change should be managed by the key stakeholders themselves with assistance from the project team. Not the other way around. They are on the receiver side and have a vested interest to manage change properly, whether they fully understand it at first or not.

Taking early ownership of change is crucial. Organizations who have been successful with transformations have established change teams in their business operations that worked closely with the project change team.

3 – Some of the key internal and external resources do not qualify for their role on the project and are not timely replaced

The quality of the solution is directly related to the quality of the people who are put on the project team. Technology is not the key driver of success, people are. It is how the people work with technology and apply it to their own organization, operating model and business processes. If you set people up for success, you set up the project for success.

Therefore, the best and most qualified internal and external resources must be assigned to the team. A key qualifier is the ability of the individual to bring the organization to the future-state.

Adequate time should be dedicated to define job profiles, roles and responsibilities and the project governance model. This applies to all project resources, internal and external from system integrators and staffing agencies.

At the start of the project, a process should be defined for managing resources who do not perform. Key stakeholders and external organizations should agree and sign off on the process. The issue management process should be used in case one of the parties is non-compliant with the process.

4 – The internal project team resources have not been adequately trained in methods, tools and the new technology. This can lead to a communication gap with external resources, and eventually solution quality issues and less realized benefits

There are too many projects that start without the core project team being trained properly for time and budget reasons. There is an expectation that the team members obtain the required knowledge as the project progresses. This is fundamentally wrong and should be avoided at all times. Senior leaders who initiate projects should understand that training pays off in multiples for the short (project) and long (sustainment) term.

When people grow their skills the organization grows with it. The return on investment on project team training can be significant. Technology-driven-change projects are the best events for top talent to grow and extend their potential.

Organizations should spend time on assessing the personal goals of each of the core team members and match them as best possible with project and business goals. This activity leads to major mutual benefits: intrinsically motivated project staff, high-performing teams that drive results, and organizations achieving key objectives.

5 – The organization has limited experience with managing large scale business transformation projects. Despite setting the initiative up as a project, the key business stakeholders in reality manage it as an extension of their daily functional operation

Every technology-driven-change project must be set up with a ‘projectized’ organization model to minimize the risk of functional leaders ‘indirectly’ running it with potentially different interests and priorities. The authority over scope, schedule, budget and resources must be with the project leader and not with the functional leaders.

Project leaders run into issues when one of these dimensions are outside their control. As example, a project leader who has no influence over budget and resources is not able to optimize the project team as required. As mentioned above, projects are all about people, their character, competence, capacity and performance. A project leader must be able to influence that at all times.

It is critical that the core team resources are full-time assigned to the project and backfilled in the functional organization as required. The reporting relationship transitions to the project leader, as well as all performance management activities. The organization should develop a career plan for each of the core team members that allow for a return to the functional organization once the project has been completed

To enable this ‘projectized’ model the project sponsor must provide a transparent mandate to the project leader that is supported by the functional leaders impacted by the project. The roles and responsibilities of the project and functional leaders must be clearly articulated at the same time.

These are just 5 triggers of many that can cause the happy state of the project to change. It is very important for organizations to establish the right level of project leadership. Organizations that have successfully delivered projects have build their own leadership team of internal and external resources. The internal resources bring in the business expertise, whereas the external resources project management, business process improvement and business transformation skills.

You build and sustain a happy state project when you set up people and teams for success. That can take a lot of preparation and effort before you conduct the project kick-off. The extra time is well spent and is much less compared to the time that is required to make corrective actions as you go. Think twice!

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5 key steps to get a derailed project back on track


Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless – Thomas Edison

I have been lucky for the number of occasions where I was asked to put a derailed project back on track. The recovery of a troubled project is a great learning opportunity for any organization. When it goes wrong, it can go wrong really fast and oftentimes with severe impact. On the other hand, the learnings can be of value for a lifetime, nut only when one is receptive to it. There are five simple steps to turn a project around:

Sit down and listen: The first thing you want to do is to meet with the people who represent different internal and external stakeholder groups. Listen with empathy. Seek to understand first, before to be understood. Conduct a detailed impact analysis that clarifies the root cause of the derailment. Keep digging in case of conflicting information, up to the point where the facts speak for themselves. Be audacious in asking for information when you believe its available, but appears to be inaccessible. Escalate if you need to. Leverage senior level relationships

Structure your findings: Document your findings in such a way that it can be easily shared with stakeholders upon request, and retrieved for presentations. Create a separate ‘living document’ to capture lessons-learned. What has worked for me in the past, is to structure the findings by business process, technology and stakeholder or stakeholder group. These are three key dimensions of the solution the project is about to deliver, and people can easily relate to when you discuss your findings

Build a coalition of positive advocates: While you are making your rounds to gather information, you’ll find out who the strong, positive advocates are of the project. At a certain point in time you need to rally the troops to re-start the project and you can only do that when you have established a coalition of people who can positively influence the outcome. The key purpose of the coalition is to drive change throughout the lifecycle of the project, and make sure that key stakeholders remain aligned and committed. Especially at the start when things can be messy and ambiguous, you need leadership support to keep things moving forward, make small adjustments and celebrate quick wins

Present options to move forward: When you have got your facts straight, completed the root cause analysis, defined options and a recommendation, developed a plan, and got buy in from the key stakeholders, it is time for an official presentation of your findings and plan to move forward. The presentation is the first milestone of recovery and start of a new begin. That moment in time must be celebrated and marked as the turn-around point. The presentation is more of a formal approval of the new approach, as you have already obtained your approvals ahead of time through a number of preliminary meetings with the Executives. Make sure that the key messages are shared with all project stakeholders with the right level of detail. Transparency and openness are key values as you move forward and put the project back on track

Rebuild the team: Re start the project with the right people and make use of the momentum to assess the integrity and capability of the project team. Make the necessary changes as required. This applies to internal and external resources. Look further than the required knowledge, experience and skills. Think about personality, leadership style, motivational aspects and willpower. Establish a team with leaders who are intrinsically motivated to make it happen. Aim for a world-class team that has the guts, courage and bravery to deliver with relentless effort. Re build trust in the team.

There is a reason why projects derail and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as there is a willingness to learn and do it different and better the next time. By adjusting plans and strategies, and by making changes to the approach and team, organizations will be able to behave themselves out of the troubled situation, and oftentimes faster than they think.

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How do you put your project team in the zone

Team Concept


Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work – Vince Lombardi

When you hear about flow and being in the zone, you almost always associate that with sports. The performance improvement of an individual athlete or sports team is increasingly based on science and technology, along with the deep practice and motivational triggers. For a project team it shouldn’t be much different you would say. Have you ever wondered how you put a project team in the zone?

Before we go into more detail, let’s define first what the concept of in the zone or flow actually means. According to Wikipedia it is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

My personal experience in leading project teams is that flow is very much about exceeding expectations by being aware of what’s happening in the present moment, having a monomaniacal focus on a single goal or key tasks, being driven by an abundance of energy and inspiration, and by being intrinsically motivated by a higher level purpose in work or life.

To put your project team in the zone, there are 5 conditions that need to be met.

Clarify the purpose – This is much more than a communication from the Executive Sponsor of what the project is about in terms of objectives and scope, and why it is so important to the organization. Purpose starts to live when team members are able to relate it to their own world. Many of them think about ‘what’s in it for me?’ Once they are able to connect project to personal goals, the purpose of the project becomes meaningful for the individual. At that point you have got their commitment, and it is up to the project leadership team to keep it. Give this step as much time as it needs

Focus the team – There is long term and short term focus that needs to be addressed. At the start of the project you must focus the entire project team on the future state. ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’ As you move closer to the end-state, you need to refresh the outlook continuously, not only when it changes. This is all part of the long term focus. Equally important is to focus the team on interim goals and key tasks, or the short term priorities. Although many of us will say that they are great at multi-tasking, in reality they are not. There are two dynamics that you need to be cognizant of at all times that trigger you to multi-task: distraction and procrastination. Both of them force you to demonstrate behaviour that looks like multi-tasking. When people are distracted it is often because there is a foreign task appearing on their to work list. Oftentimes it is outside their control. Remove distractors at all times as soon as you see them. Procrastination is harder to deal with, because it is a personality trait. The most effective way to remove this barrier is to go back to the purpose of the project and the value it has for the individual. Procrastination goes away when you entice the intrinsic motivation of the person involved.

Establish one communication matrix – When you form teams, you are in a situation where the members can come from many origins with different knowledge, experience, skills, personalities, interests and cultures. It takes awhile to get the team to a performance level. A critical step in that process is to level-set or calibrate to a single operating model and communication matrix. ‘Team members must start to sing from the same song sheet shortly after they onboard the project’. As an example, an organization launches a project to implement an enterprise wide business solution. They have selected an external consulting firm to implement the solution. The organization has identified top talent to join the project as key resources. The set expectations are very high. The team members are highly motivated and know their business very well, but not the new technology. In this situation, it must be imperative that these team members are being educated on the new technology before the project starts. In reality this is oftentimes not happening for a number of reasons, available budget being one if them. Education is crucial. Not only to bring them up to speed on the features of the solution, but more from a communication perspective. Once the team members have been trained, they are able to speak the same language as the consultants. That has an immense impact on the quality of the solution design, but also all subsequent steps in the project.

Give immediate feedback – High-performing teams know their plays. They know when to start, how to work together, finish, and pick up the next task to do the same thing over and over again. ‘Their brains wire and fire together.’ During the execution of the work it is critical to give immediate performance feedback for two reasons. At first, you want to team to grow and further improve, and second, the work needs to continue and hit the right level of quality on time and on budget. You cannot afford to hold back on giving feedback. Create a project culture where team members feel that it is okay to fail. The best project teams have a reversed balloon effect in failures. Or in other words, they get less and less over time. That can only happen when people can speak freely about mistakes and where leadership fosters progressive learning. One of the things that I frequently do in projects is to hold daily stand-up meetings (even when it is a waterfall project) where team members speak about what has transpired, what is up next and what is holding them up. This can become an effective communication platform over-time when there is the right level of interaction. If there is a lack of interaction, most likely the organizational culture is much different as the project culture that you want to establish. In that case, one of the better options to provide immediate feedback is to have frequent meetings with the key resources on the team.

Clear the way – Any project team, high-performing or not, will run into obstacles that they cannot remove without assistance. Regardless of their autonomy, creativity and collaborative willpower. How do you keep your team in the zone when they hit a wall? Take a time-out as many as you think the team needs. Of course, effective leaders, try to minimize this by being a few steps ahead of the team by exploring the path that the team will eventually follow. Nevertheless, their will be situations where the stop light flips on red and you need to call a time-out. In that case, you pull the team together and analyze the situation. You always must consult the team and seek their input. Keep them involved and close to the fire. Missing out on that steps increases the risk of derailment further down the road. Work with the team on options and drive towards consensus on the decision and next play. This approach also applies to situations where an issue gets escalated to the executive level or when a third-party gets involved. Always keep the team closely involved and make them part of the process.

Flow or being in the zone is a concept that can very well be used in project management. When I kick-off projects, I frequently draw a comparison between a project team and a NBA basketball team. If you really think about it, there is not much difference in the mechanics. High-performing project teams consists of members that really want to play together and know how to play as one team. When they go on the court, the have a purpose, they are focused on closing a deliverable, they speak the same language to properly execute the play, they give immediate feedback to progress and learn, and finally they switch to different plays each time the opponent blocks them. Ultimately they make the basket and finish the project successfully.

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How companies limit project success

Man in office / Project

It always seems impossible until it’s done – Nelson Mandela

Companies can limit project success and may not even know it. If they do, they tend to ignore it at first and move ahead, often up to the point where it really becomes broadly visible and dismaying. By then the damage has already been done and it’s hard to recover, if at all possible.

Technology-driven-change projects have a massive impact on the organization, because they touch people, processes, and technology all at once and deeply. Before you start the project, you need to take care of a number of derailing factors that can be deeply rooted in your companies DNA.

I will list a number of these factors first, select a few and address those in greater detail:

  • Establish leadership alignment and commitment on vision, scope and strategy
  • Remove silo-ed behaviour of departments and groups
  • Assign full-time, qualified people on the key positions
  • Implement governance structures within the project and outside with external stakeholders
  • Focus the team on the key tasks by minimizing distractions and prioritizing the work
  • Educate project staff on how to execute key tasks and what the new technologies are about
  • Select qualified business partners to help you deliver and act upon their recommendations
  • Adequately resource the organizational change management team
  • Communicate the project scope, timeline and strategies over and over again

The factors that I have picked to explain in more detail below are not necessarily the obvious ones, but they can be very detrimental to the project outcome.

The first factor is about silo-ed behaviour of departments and large groups. Traditional, function oriented companies struggle in today’s fast pace world with cross-functional collaboration. The majority of the leaders of these organizations are still very comfortable in their verticals and do whatever it takes to optimize the fragmented reality of the day for themselves first, and others second. When they engage in cross-functional activities and communications, they appear to work well together, but in reality they hardly do. This is a severe challenge for projects who are implementing enterprise business solutions.

It is very hard to course correct this behaviour and oftentimes requires people changes to remedy. A short term effective measure is to work with performance metrics that stimulate cross-functional collaboration at the executive and mid-level of the organization. Another short term measure is more frequent involvement of the CEO or GM who can bond the team of senior leaders, foster the right behaviour and make key decisions in adversarial situations.

My point of view is that traditional, function oriented business models don’t work effectively in today’s world. Instead, organizations should strive for a horizontal design of their business operations. They should orient their structure by end-to-end business processes and lines of business. It is business process first and then function, instead of the other way around.

The second factor is about distraction and competing priorities. Most people and project teams struggle with getting things done when there are too many tasks at hand at once with similar deadlines. They have a hard time dealing with planned work that happens concurrently. At the same time, they are getting distracted by unplanned work that grows in volume towards the end of a project phase. When the pressure goes up, the team’s progress slowly comes to a grinding halt. People start to point to the timeline being to aggressive. But is it really? What do you need to do on this front before you start the project, and as you move forward?

The biggest step to make or take is to educate the team on how to organize and schedule the work. Make sure that every project and sub-team has work planners and schedulers. Make sure that highly effective communication structures are set up. Make sure that internal and external dependencies are identified and managed. Use a hierarch of work plans and schedules, with a MPS – master project schedule, and TWS – team work schedules that are aligned all the time.

There has been a lot of discussion the last years of waterfall versus agile project management methodologies. Without going into detail in this post, my point of view is that for technology-driven-change projects a combination of both is most effective. As example, the baseline of the project can be waterfall oriented, but when the planned work volume peaks you use SCRUM techniques to get through that particular moment. You can also decide to use agile for certain parts of the project scope, where waterfall is more effective for others.

There is one behavioral element that is hard to deal with when you are in-flight and can be addressed at best before the start of the project. It is called procrastination. Many people have a habit of leaving the work up to the last minute. This can be devastating if they don’t understand what the work is in detail, and when at the same time unplanned work comes up.

When you staff the project team with internal and external resources, be aware of the core personality traits of the key resources on the project. Do not only focus on the expertise that the person can bring to the project, also focus on ability to deliver under pressure and tight timelines, collaboration with other individuals and teams, and verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Get the right team on the ground. From your own internal organization, and from the business partners.

The third factor is about project management capability. Companies limit project success, because the majority of the resources they assign to the project don’t have  the right level of knowledge and experience to manage a project. Let me be more clear on this. Every resource in the project has a responsibility to manage the project to some degree. For the program and project managers it obviously is a full-time responsibility, for team leads and team members it is a partial responsibility.

An example of what happens quite often is an issue that should be reported upwards to the project level, stays far too long at the team level without a decent chance of getting an effective response. When it does finally boil up, the severity and impact has gone up dramatically with less time for resolution. Another example is work planning and execution. It happens regularly that project resources get stuck with their project work, because their functional leader has other non-project work assigned to them that the project leadership is not aware of.

What you also see is that the initiative is not managed as a true project, but more as an initiative that functions as an extension of the departments involved. Let’s say there are two departments leading the initiative. That means there are two circles of influence that overlap. Ideally the overlap would be significant. Project resources operate where the circles overlap. You may call that area the project. In such a situation, project resources tend to go to the home base first to discuss anything that is related to the project. Once that happened, they may or may not discuss it within the project. This occurs because the traditional function or department is stronger than the project. What should it actually be?

There should be three circles of influence. The two circles of the departments and a third circle, being the project. The project needs its own identity with its own leadership, governance and resource structure. With the project assignment, resources move over completely to the project and only report to the project and not to the home base they originate from. At the same time, the company must have a clear strategy of how project resources at the conclusion of the project flow back to the organization. Such a strategy builds trust and gives comfort to the project resources, because they know what will happen in the long run.

An example of a behavioral issue that happens all the time with two circles and not with three, is accountability. When there is no true project (two circles that overlap), the needs of the home base can take precedence over the needs of the project. Resources tend to ignore project leadership in favor of their functional leadership, because they know that in the long run the functional leader has more impact on their future at the company. This is a situation that is not beneficial for anybody: company, department, project and resource, yet we still allow it to happen.

Before companies embark on technology-driven-change projects , they must take care of a number of factors to maximize the potential for success. I am a firm believer that projects do not fail of the technology itself. If they fail or realize less benefits than planned, it is about key decisions the senior leadership team did not make properly before the start, or not adequately executed them while in-flight.

If companies want to deliver projects and achieve the planned benefits, they must set people up for success. If they do that for each individual, they will build high-performing teams and get the anticipated results. Make sure you have got all of the factors addressed before you go.  Investigate what leading practices or world-class standards are and implement them. Use the expertise from professionals in the marketplace to get you off to a right start. Build the right project platform to operate from.

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A leader changes the ground rules

Untitled picture

The hell with the rules. If it sounds right, then it is – Eddie Van Halen

Have you ever been in meetings where the eyes of the people in the room are starring at you and almost instantly ask you to provide direction? What are we going to do now? For less severe issues, the response can be given on the spot, no problem. For deeper rooted issues, a change of the ground rules may actually be required. That demands leadership, but what kind? Course corrections aren’t easy, and not meant to be either.

Changing the ground rules implies taking risk and requires boldness. We are good at doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results (Einstein’s definition of Insanity). That’s because we have a natural resistance to change and are not audacious. Oftentimes we tolerate a problematic situation far too long, lean back, play victim and hope that somebody will stand-up and fix it. Changing the ground rules, means altering the operating model. That means changes to one or more of the following dimensions: people, process, technology, policies and procedures, governance structures, business partners, etc.

There are always opportunities to change the situation. There is always a way out. You have got to find them. You have got to go after them. You have got to become creative. You have got to thrive on willpower. There is no change without a plan and action. What is required is true leadership.

The first step is to take responsibility for the troubled situation and accept the current state. It is what it is. It can only go better if you start doing the right things moving forward. The leader that you want to see stepping up has a high level of accountability, confidence and grit. It’s crucial that the leader starts with building trust. That core value fuels the quality of relationships and boosts pace and performance. The leader must bring focus on the critical path activities and introduce concepts to better manage time, work load and quality of output. With that the process of change and turnaround has started. A relentless, unstoppable, collective effort with the intention to improve and win.

The leader must be able to quickly grasp the context. That can only happen if the leader has a broad orientation and interest, and has gained cross-functional and cross-industry knowledge and experience. The leader you are looking for is shrewd, sharp aware and far-sighted. He knows where to go and how to get there from your current state. The leader is a big picture thinker with eye for detail. That is a rare contrast. It is a very important characteristic as it determines the ability to go from planning to successful execution and implementation.

Changing the ground rules is an expert skill. That is because of the integrative nature of the dimensions that have to change almost all at once. Its like a chef of a Michelin star restaurant finding the right mix of ingredients, flavors and colors to serve the best meal ever. Day in day out like it was the last meal to come out of his kitchen ever. The leader is plan driven yet pragmatic in the execution. He strives for simplicity in input, process and output. There is a strong tendency to plan and take action based on facts. Simplicity and a fact-based approach greatly helps with building trust, proper communication, team bonding and performance. When people understand and deliver, they gain confidence and want to do more and more.

The leader is competitive and an achiever. He is comfortable with making decisions without exhaustive and comprehensive sets of information. He is decisive. With enough information he will come to the best decision. In most cases this is a consensus driven decision making process. Having said that, the leader knows when time is up and a decision can no longer wait to be made. At that point he will take the information available and make a decision using his instincts. Once the decision is made, the leader relies on his strengths to convince the key stakeholders. He does that by zooming in on the purpose and meaning of the decision. Why are we doing this? That’s the departure point in those discussions. The leader is a team player and encourages and stimulates collaborative behavior. With that he will make a dent in the Universe and make a transition to a better, future state.

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World class achievers do 3 things nonstop


Success is the result of knowing what to do, the willingness to do it, and the drive to continually improve at it  – Tim Grover

Why do only a few make it to the top? What does it take to become a world class achiever in your field of expertise?

The other day, I was at a NBA play-offs game between Toronto and Miami. It was a spectacular match where the Toronto Raptors beat Miami Heat in overtime. The crowd went absolutely crazy. It was a sign that the players delivered: they won and they entertained. While I observed the game I tried to figure out what the 3 things are that top talented professionals have, or do over and over again that makes them an outlier.

One of the concepts that I like when talking about top talent, is the one that Tim Grover introduced in his book Relentless. Tim is a well-known trainer of top basketball athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade, and he talks about 3 categories of professionals: Coolers, Closers and Cleaners.

A Cooler is a follower who “can make a huge play, but he’s ultimately not responsible for the outcome. A Closer “can handle a lot of pressure” and will perform effectively if his task is clearly defined. A Cleaner is the ultimate competitor who has an “insatiable addiction to success. Or in other words: good, great and unstoppable. This model is not limited to sports, it can be applied to any profession.

My point of view is that world-class achievers have or do 3 things nonstop.

World-class achievers are self and socially aware. They are self-conscious, know what they want and deeply understand their strengths and weaknesses. The have a strong desire to learn and improve. They handle a mistake, set-back or failure as an opportunity to grow, instead of a showstopper. They are hungry and have a broad interest in exploring new concepts and emerging technologies that have potential to make them better. They come from humble beginnings. They know that arrogance eventually bend their performance curve downwards. They build and maintain strong relationships and have the intent to help grow people they interact with. They understand that trust fuels every relationship.

World-class achievers attract the right conditions such that they can operate and grow to the best of their abilities. This can range from working conditions, to the employer you want to work for, to the kind of projects you want to be on, to seeking advice from coaches, to support from family and friends, and so on. They respect these conditions and nurture them, because they understand the positive impact on their results.

World-class achievers persevere. The are focused on delivering the plan. They have alternative plans in their back-pocket in case the situation asks for it. Nothing will stop them. They run scenarios in their head that can possibly derail them or their team, and have answers ready. They are competitive and want to win. There’s no doubt. Everything they do is aligned with their goals, because they realize that if they don’t, somebody else will.

The point of succeeding can be different for each world-class achiever. It could be driven by a survival strategy, or the desire to leave something behind of significance, or an act of humanity or justice, or something else. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you are mindful about it and let it keep up the fire in your belly to run and deliver. Nonstop.

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5 qualities a leader must have to turn around troubled projects


Turning around troubled projects is a tough thing to do. It requires an interdisciplinary team of professionals with the right skill mix and personality traits to pull it off. The team must be led by an accomplished leader with the right qualities. But what are those qualities?

If you miss out on this step, don’t even bother to try to make a turn-around. Most likely you will end up with the same results: failed attempts. You have got to change the ground-rules and that takes courage. You would actually be surprised how often organizations ignore reality and keep driving through a red light. This is primarily because of time pressure, cost impact and lack of leadership.

A few months ago I saw the film ‘The Martian’, and for some reason got inspired by the main character Mark Watney and his approach to dealing with severe, existential problems.

Mark is an astronaut who is mistakenly presumed dead and left behind on Mars. The film depicts his struggle to survive and others’ efforts to rescue him. Mark is relentless in finding solutions to return to Earth.

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?”

In my mind his attitude is what turn-around leadership is about. Leaders grow when they have to deal with difficult situations, because it requires them to change. They advance to the next level when they find a way out that brings them and the team to a better state.

What are the 5 qualities that a project turn-around leader must have?

Resilient – Being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions is crucial. Mark Watney is unstoppable in his actions to return to earth, despite all the set-backs that he has to endure along the way. What it comes down to is a deeply rooted belief in the possibilities to reach the ultimate goal of turning around the troubled situation, without knowing exactly how you can make that happen. 

Plan driven – For turn-around project leaders, planning is an art. It is a skill set they master. They are able to quickly grasp the business context and the root-cause of the troubled situation and with that define targets, strategies, plans, alternative plans and realistic timelines. The structured approach sets the turn-around team up for success. With a roadmap, there is a way out. Without you are stuck. Mark Watney had a road map in his mind. He knew that he had to be able to survive and worked that out first. Once he fixed that, he started working on his way back home. He planned and carefully executed all the steps. When he faced unplanned circumstances that were devastating, he had a plan B

Creative – Having a plan is one thing, to make it happen is another. Turn-around project leaders must have a mixed bag of business, technology and organizational change knowledge and experience, because troubled situations are a mix of these 3 elements. With their creativeness they are able to unlock the potential of the team to the fullest by continuously challenging them on what the result can and must be. In his final attempt to return to earth, Mark Watney needed to find a solution to cover a wide open space at the top of object that would bring him back into space. He challenged the team of experts who helped him remotely and found a way to make that happen. It wasn’t necessarily the ideal way, but it was good enough for that particular step. The same applies to turn arounds, not all individual steps needs to be perfect, as long as the end result brings you were you need to be

Focused  – Turn-around project leaders are relentless in the planning, execution and control of the engagement. They are laser focused on the all the aspects that bring the organization from troubled to desired state. Their focus is based on automaticity. With that they are keen on articulating and managing expectations of the team. They implement mechanisms to ensure that progress is made and tasks completed. Their primary focus is on results, but they know how to balance that with the people aspects turn-around projects. Mark Watney had to make sure that he had enough food to survive, while he was executing his plan to return to earth. He was meticulous with his diet. He knew what was available, how much he needed at a minimum, and what he could possibly produce with the means that were available to him. His focus on the primary survival needs kept him going

Decisive – It is not uncommon that decision-making in organizations is a challenge, left alone in troubled situations. Turn-around project leaders must have a mandate from the executive team to make decisions. They are masters in building trust with the key stakeholders in the organization and the turn-around team. Turn-around project leaders build trust because of their character and competence. They are clear in their intentions and work in full transparency. Their environment knows what they are up to and value the results that are being delivered. As they go, turn-around project leaders gain ground and confidence from the organization by making the right calls with involvement of the right people. Their decision model is based on real data, facts and intuition. They do not need to discover all the facts to make decisions. They calculate risk, weigh options and make the decision and move on. They seek feedback, learn from mistakes and strive to do better the next time. They are opportunistic and look ahead. Up to the point that they have turned the situation around

Troubled projects should be perceived as opportunities and not as failures. Not only from a project management perspective, but more from a leadership and educational perspective. It requires a different attitude towards dealing with set backs, ambiguity, uncertainty, change, risk taking and cross-functional collaboration. All of these aspects can fuel and accelerate growth if the organization responds in an adequate manner by putting the right leadership qualities in place.

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Project Portfolio Management (PPM) is a game-changer


A goal without a plan is just a wish – Larry Elder

The chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing business environment that has become the new normal, needs Project Portfolio Management (PPM) to drive value. Organizations struggle to prioritize the right initiatives and manifest them at the right time. They are falling behind on their peers and over time put their existence in the market place at risk.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) are forces that have an immediate impact on an organization’s ability to perform. PPM is the answer to VUCA. It provides a level of structure and concerted, orchestrated organizational behavior that is needed to drive ideas to results.

It is time for a new PPM vision.

PPM is not just implementing a tool and you are done. It is much more than that. PPM is a mindset. It is an organization-wide solution that impacts people, process and technology. Its purpose is to unlock and extend organization’s potential and innovative power, which is then translated in meaningful projects that successfully get delivered.

PPM is a business function at a strategic level of the organization. Ideally, PPM has a direct reporting relationship to the CEO. With that, it gets the right order of magnitude and can operate in an independent and effective manner. If you move PPM under a dominant function, for example technology or finance, it can less optimally operate as facilitator of organization-wide initiatives.

PPM is a business process and permeates through the body of the organization. PPM operates as a facilitator of 4 main process steps: prioritize demand, manage portfolio, execute project or program, sustain and improve. The end-to-end PPM process drives consistency and enforces all key stakeholders to actively participate. It allows people to work collaboratively towards manifesting a shared set of goals and initiatives. The recognition of PPM as a business function and process, sets the organization up for success in responding to change.

PPM requires a robust solution architecture. What that means is that PPM is an integration of 4 building blocks: process, application, analytics and governance. It is important to keep the PPM design simple. The value is coming from how well you deploy the solution, not by adding secondary conditions and increased levels of complexity.

There are organizations who believe that PPM is a stopgap measure for failed projects. It is not. PPM will provide a robust platform for planning, execution and control. It will increase the number of successful projects, but it is not a magic wand. That’s because the root cause of project failures our outside PPM’s control. Projects fail because of wrong people behavior that may have been identified but has not been properly addressed. PPM requires a horizontal, cross-functional focus of the entire organization, instead of a vertical, silo-ed focus of a team or department.

PPM is a game-changer. It can drive value and provide sustainable competitive advantage. If you do it right, it attracts top talent. They want to work for organizations who are successful, because success helps manifest their dreams. To build a world-class PPM solution, an organization has to go through 4 stages. The first one is where it “grounds” PPM, by building a cross-functional coalition of key stakeholders. The second stage is where the coalition “visualizes” the future end-state and documents the PPM vision. In the third stage of “align and commit”, the focus shifts towards broadly communicating the vision and getting buy-in. In the fourth and last stage, it is all about “making it happen”. This is where the PPM solution has been successfully deployed, and the organization is consistently performing and delivering high priority initiatives.

If you do it right and implement this PPM vision, the changing environment with its VUCA forces, become less of a problem and can actually work in favor of the organization. PPM can get you ahead of your industry peers. It allows you to have a real-time view of your demand (ideas), your supply (resources) and in-flight initiatives (portfolio) supported by analytics (transparency) and effective governance structures.

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3 steps to make project portfolio management a business process


If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing – W.E. Deming

Organizations have a hard time to plan and execute the right initiatives, because project portfolio management (PPM) is not deployed as a business process.

With an increasing need and desire to innovate and change the ways we are doing things, one would expect that organizations are keen on project portfolio management. In an ideal state, PPM is managed as a business process, equivalent to the more traditional process like finance, marketing and sales, procurement and human resources management. Yet we are not doing that, or at best we are trying, but agree that there is room for improvement.

The PPM process should be cross-functional of nature and serve internal customers from all business areas. To make that happen it should reside in a business function that by default is set up as such. A Project Management Office or Information Technology Department are then quickly becoming the logical candidates.

What are the steps to deploy PPM a business process?

Align Leadership

Ideas, become successful when we all buy into it, make it happen, and live up to it once it is in operation. Implementing PPM as a business process is a game changer and requires adequate change leadership. Part of that is executive alignment. A key element of the alignment process is visualization. Senior leaders must be able to envision what the future-state looks and how that improves their business area and the organization as a whole. An introduction to the high level process design, a demonstration of the PPM application, and a walkthrough of a few use cases, are instruments to get them all on the same page. Once the alignment is there, a change leadership committee should be established, tasked with delivering the PPM solution.

Implement and Deploy

PPM is an enterprise application, which means that the implementation and deployment must be managed as such. The project team is a balanced representation of the organization with functional and technical resources. If these two principles are violated, the probability that the end-users do not adopt the PPM solution as intended, is high. The focus of the implementation must be on business process, analytics, application and governance. These four components make up the integrated PPM solution, and all need to come into play at the same time. Examples of PPM applications are: Innotas, Workfront, Clarizen, ChangePoint, and others

PPM projects tend to fail when the focus is primarily on the application. Organizations rush through the software product capabilities, make design decisions on-the-go and forget the importance of the business process, governance and analytical requirements. Mobilize a team with internal and external resources. It is imperative that the vendor can provide the expertise in all the four areas of the PPM solution, and can assist the change leadership committee with manifesting the future-state

Execute, learn and adjust

When the PPM solution goes live, it’s the start of a new beginning. The primary focus of the project team and business must be on user adoption and tying the experience back to the original business case. It is a good idea to have super user representation in all of the business areas. The super user is a functional expert in the PPM solution and an evangelist pur sang. It is the first line of support for all the end-users. The PPM business process has a natural cadence where at set times and gates, certain activities must be completed. It is not uncommon that this is a one year cycle. As a consequence, the learn and adjust cycle is at least equal to that period. The organization must go through all the hoops and loops, complete lessons-learned sessions and optimization steps, before the project can be declared a success and closed.

Project portfolio management (PPM) must be perceived as a business critical process for organizations who have the intention to grow, accelerate and improve. Those organizations who want to be an outlier and exception in their marketplace, out serious effort in implementing and deploying a robust PPM solution. It is part of innovation and getting better than your competition.

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