It was in 2013 when I first came across Rita McGrath work. I still remember the impact that “The End of Competitive Advantage” had on my thinking. It was an eye-opener of the disruptions that would be soon coming and turn our world upside-down. Exactly one year ago, I had the pleasure to meet Rita in person at the European Business Forum. We were sitting at the same table together with Marshall Goldsmith, Erin Meyer and later on by Michael Porter.
Last November, we were both awarded at the Thinkers50 gala in London, where she was recognised again as one of the most influential management thinkers in the world.
Since then we had several discussions about the future of strategy and management. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rita; I wanted to find out about her latest thinking, and in particular, on her views about project and project management. I was totally flabbergasted when she mentioned (18’08”):
“I actually think the future is about Projects.”
You can find the full interview on my Youtube channel and the written version here. I hope you enjoy it and learn from Rita’s wisdom. It is truly inspirational; a free lesson you should not miss.
Finally, I am delighted to announce that two weeks ago I signed with LID to publish my next book, Project Revolution. I am very excited about this new “project”, which I would like to make you part of. You’ll hear more soon.
Keep well and stay focused,
Antonio Project Management Champion to the World
Interview with Rita McGrath
The Future is about Projects and Project Management
Rita Gunther McGrath is a globally recognized expert on strategy, innovation, and growth with an emphasis on corporate entrepreneurship. Her work and ideas help CEOs and senior executives chart a pathway to success in today’s rapidly changing and volatile environments. McGrath is highly valued for her rare ability to connect research to business problems and in 2016 received the “Theory to Practice” award at the Vienna Strategy Forum.
Recognized consistently as one of the top 10 management thinkers by global management award Thinkers50, McGrath also received the award for outstanding achievement in the Strategy category. She is a highly sought after speaker at corporate events, such as the Yale CEO Summit, the Innosight CEO Summit and at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
McGrath is one of the most widely published authors in the Harvard Business Review, including the best-selling “Discovery Driven Planning” (1995), which was recognized as an early articulation of today’s “lean” startup philosophy and has been praised by Clayton Christensen as ‘one of the most important ideas in management – ever.’
Rita thank you very much for dedicating some of your precious time to share your thoughts with us. It is a great opportunity for project managers to get to know people like you; unique for all what you’ve done and the way foresight way to look at management.
I promise not to take too take too much of your time, but I do want to take a lot of your wisdom 😉
Rita, you’re one of the most relevant thought leaders in the world. Was this intentional? Did you say when you were 18 or 24, “I want to be the world leader in thinking and management” or it was more like a coincidence? When I was 18, my mother forced me to take typing classes. She said that at least I would be able to support myself if I knew how to type. The current situation is very far from what she certainly imagined for me. No, it wasn’t this big deliberate plan. was very interested in public service, doing things that would be helpful for the common good and so the first part of my career I worked for the municipal government. I also worked in politics and two start-ups.
The reason I went to business school was that I thought it would be amazing to teach and to help other people learn. I’d always been interested in management and organizational change. Then one thing led to another and now, here we are. But the original goal was not nearly as grand.
When I started to think about becoming a “guru,” the unspoken rule was that to become one, you had to publish three times in Harvard Business Review. Well, I’ve checked your work on HBR, and you have published hundred eighty-four times (article, videos, pods,..)!! You must be in the top ten of all time authors, and the top woman for sure. What HBR likes about me is that I am what they call a platform author. What it means is that I have books with them and articles in the journal and I do digital contributions with them. We have an excellent collaboration collaboration, and I love their editorial process which a lot of people don’t understand. Their editors do help you craft your ideas so that they’re accessible to a broader audience. For those of your listeners who are interested HBR is always interested in hearing from new people. They like a fresh take on commonly understood topics.
Rita, you are creating new ideas always, you don’t sleep on one for years like many other thinkers. How do you keep so sharp?
That’s part of what I love about my job, which is to get paid to think. It’s amazing!
I read a lot; I spend a lot of time with people who are very stimulating and challenging. That’s a big part of it. If you surround yourself with people who agree with everything you say, that’s the road to negative outcomes. I think is critical to interact with people who are smart, who challenge you and who you know are thinking ahead. Reading is hugely important too. And social media, like Twitter, for example, it exposes me to things I wouldn’t necessarily run across.
What is your next big idea? Are you working on a new book? My next book, yes. I can tell you what it’s about strategic inflection points. Two big ideas in the strategic inflection point world.
The first one is that these disruptions take a lot longer than we usually think. We think of the internet, or 3D printing, or artificial intelligence. But when you really look at the history of these things they’re often gestating for a long period before they actually turn up at our doorstep. What that means is that you can often prepare and take action ahead of time before these disruptions land on your doorstep.
The working title of the book is “gradually then suddenly” just like Hemingway’s comment about how did you go bankrupt: well gradually then they land on your doorstep then very urgent and then it seems to have come out of nowhere. But if you really study them the seeds have been there for a long long time.
In your best-seller book “The End of Competitive Advantage” you talk about transient advantage economy, where competitive advantages are getting shorter and more difficult to keep. What are the consequences of this on strategy? Is there a shift from strategic planning to strategy implementation? Strategy is more important than ever because the temptation to change constantly. When you’re in a world that is changing very quickly is to be reactive. I think that’s a mistake because a lot of what you need to do, as a business, is to execute right. But you need to know what you’re executing against. If I don’t know what the goals are if I don’t know what the plan is, if I don’t know what their boundaries are, then it’s very difficult for me to execute consistently. And that gets worse the larger the organization.
So I think that strategy, ironically, becomes more critical than ever because leaders have to make more explicit choices.
Let me give an example that might bring that to life. I’m a huge admirer of what Satya Nadella has done as CEO of Microsoft. He said: let’s stop focusing on profits and margins, they are lagging indicators. We want to focus on is the leading indicators. I want to create a company that customers love. If customers love us and if customers want to use what we produce, profits, ROI will come. If we don’t have customer love, those other indicators will not ever happen.
So that is a statement of strategy. Profound as it says to people let’s not just focus on producing producing producing for the quarter, let’s focus on what’s going to drive the future.
How does all this impact the way companies are organized? Most are still very hierarchical, yet shouldn’t they need be much more agile and project-based? This is what we see nowadays in Chinese organizations. I think it’s going to make a huge difference and back to my work on inflection points, there’s a wonderful quote that Andy Grove uses, and he says if you want to think about inflection points you need to remember that snow melts from the edges. What he means by that is the things that are going to affect your business don’t happen neatly at corporate headquarters, right in the conference room. They happen when somebody picks up a phone, or with a customer that makes an unexpected question, …
The theory behind hierarchy aims at efficiency and specialization. We have all these different functions at the operating level of the company. The functions all do their own thing, and then the different layers up the organization do their own thing and so the only place in the company where all the information comes together is at the CEO level.
That was the theory of hierarchy: if all that information came together in one place, it is there where essential decisions should be made, that’s where all the stuff happens.
But if you think about today’s organizations, what you really need is a strategy to help people make the decisions. You need to be able to react at the level of where that is actually happening, which is typically at the operating level. So yes, there will be a significant disruption in the ways companies are organized.
In project management, we often have the feeling that senior leaders don’t take us very seriously, that what we do is not very strategic, it is tactical. So Rita what is your opinion about projects?
I actually think the future of the world is about projects.
If you think about careers, there is no longer like a ladder, where you start at level 24 and eventually reach level 3, and that’s Nirvana. It’s really about tours of duty, projects.
There’s some fascinating research by Korn Ferry that actually backs this up. They were interested in who gets the C level jobs. And what they found is that they were people that broke their traditional career path, that had different roles and run large transversal projects. They expanded the experience that allowed them to be successful in the more senior roles. I definitely think project management is going to be more and more critical.
And one final question Rita, what advice would you give to all the project managers to be more successful in their careers? The principle that you want to be always having in the back of your mind is how does my project connect to the broader goals of the organization.
I think one of the dilemmas with project managers is that they tend to take the projects that they’re given as an absolute – “go break through that wall…. okay I’m going to break through that wall”. They don’t take a step backward and think about how does breaking through that wall connect with the larger goals.
I would encourage project managers to think on something I’ve worked on for a long time, which is the notion of discovery and being discovery driven. In any context, you have a certain ratio of assumptions that you’re making relative to the information that you have; we call it the “assumption to knowledge ratio.”
For example, the implementation of a payroll system or an ERP are projects that you really know an awful lot about. You know who the actors are, what needs to happen, and what are the outcomes you are trying to achieve.
A very different situation is when you have no idea. For example, let’s figure out what 3D printing means for my business, or let’s understand how nanotechnology is going to influence our cost structure. Those are entirely different kinds of projects, and I think one of the failures that I see project managers get stuck. They tend to execute everything as though it was that first category – very low assumption to knowledge ratio – when in fact if you’re in a high assumption to knowledge ratio it’s much more about learning, redirecting and changing the plan, and less about sticking to the plan.
So I think one of the big encouragement I would give your audience is if you’re dealing with a lot of assumptions relative to knowledge your world is really about learning fast and learning at low cost. And it’s a different problem than if your world is about executing something you really understand very well.
Thank you so much, Rita, such a pleasure talking to you. Hope to see you soon again, maybe in Europe. Please say hi to John.