Thought Leadership in Project Management: with Brian Grafsgaard, Consulting Practice Director with Q Consulting

– By Dr. Emad Rahim, PMP, SCM, OMCP

Brian Grafsgaard, PMP, PgMP, PfMP  Consulting Director, Q Consulting

Brian Grafsgaard, CSM, PMP, PgMP, PfMP is a Consulting Practice Director with Q Consulting (formerly Quality Business Solutions [QBS]), a Minneapolis, Minnesota (U.S.A.) based consulting firm specializing in portfolio, program, project, change, and compliance management. Brian has been a practicing Project Management Professional (PMP®) since 1998. Brian is also a proven Program Manager and in 2007 became the first in the world to attain the Program Management Professional (PgMP®) credential. In May 2014, Brian also became one of the first to attain the Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP®) credential.

As a portfolio, program, and project manager, Brian has lead the transformation and delivery of enterprise-class solutions in multiple industries. Over the course of a 30+ year career, he has had the privilege of defining and implementing innovative solutions for several organizations, while managing the change necessary to adopt the solutions. Brian is also an active volunteer for PMI Global and was appointed to the PMI Standards Member Advisory Group (SMAG) in Jan. 2016. He was previously selected to serve on the core team that authored The Standard for Program Management–Third Edition (2013, PMI); Brian led the core team that recently published Requirements Management: A Practice Guide (2016, PMI). Brian is also a contributing author of Program Management: A Life Cycle Approach (2012, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC) with a chapter focused on how portfolio, program, and project management enable innovation.

  1. How did your project management career get started?

Like many others, I was an accidental project manager. I started my career as a programmer/analyst, which allowed me to work with companies to help them define their business and technical requirements, then develop the solution (primarily in assembler language). I often initiated projects from the ground floor and saw them through completion. As was often the case, once I became more proficient as a programmer (but also more skilled as an analyst), I was promoted to Project Manager.

  1. How did you obtain your project management education and training?

Once I adjusted to the fact that I was no longer the “doer”, but the person leading the “doers”, I realized I had to learn a whole new set of skills: project management. The organization I was with at the time provided many opportunities for training and education in both project management as well as the “soft skills”. I took full advantage of their development program, supplemented by external courses, including a PMP exam prep session. I eventually earned the PMP credential—the first in the organization to do so—and became an advocate and mentor for others; the experience had forced me to learn a great deal about the “science” of project management. I have since earned the Program Management Professional (PgMP)® and Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)® through experience and training.

  1. Can you please summarize your industry, and share how organizations are applying project management in the workplace?

It is difficult for me to identify an “industry”. Although I started my career in IT, I have always thought of IT as an “enabler” vs. a distinct industry of its own. Although I started out leading technology projects—primarily software development efforts—as a program and portfolio manager I have become more aligned with the “business”. Any organization, regardless of industry, must create value by continuously enhancing or developing new products, services, or capabilities. And most organizations, regardless of industry, recognize that this happens through project management. I have also seen that many organizations are adopting more adaptive approaches, such as Agile, to develop these products, services, and capabilities. More mature organizations are taking an integrated approach to creating value, leveraging portfolio, program, and project management. Whether the organization takes an adaptive approach or a more traditional approach, it is important to select the right initiatives and maintain alignment of the expected outcomes with the organization’s strategy.

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  1. Do you see any trends in your industry as it relates to project management and other related methodologies?

As discussed above, I am seeing organizations take a more integrated approach to project management, recognizing the need to develop their portfolio and program management capabilities as well. Portfolio management helps ensure that the right projects are initiated to begin with; program management bridges the gap between the organization’s strategy—reflected in the organization’s portfolio—and delivery of the expected benefits and value through related (and often interdependent) projects. I am also seeing the use of more hybrid approaches, applying project management techniques and principles while also applying Agile principles to adapt and deliver value more quickly. I am also seeing more strictly Agile-based organizations extending those capabilities across the organization, scaling and managing dependencies across teams, in a manner very similar to portfolio and program management.

  1. What is your advice to people that are interested in pursuing a career in project management within your industry?

My advice for those interested in pursuing a career in project management (in any industry) would be to learn as much as you can about that industry, but also learn as much as you can about project management itself. I recommend the approach developed by Project Management Institute (PMI)® (http://www.pmi.org/learning/training-development/talent-triangle), which recognizes the need for technical (project management), strategic, business management, and leadership (soft) skills. By learning about the industry you will be able to better understand the strategic and business side of projects, understanding the challenges and opportunities that the organization faces and why the project is being undertaken in the first place. It will allow you to make more sound decisions while leading projects. Learning more about project management will allow you to apply the tools and techniques required to successfully deliver the project. Finally, focusing on leadership and soft skills will better enable you to deliver the project results through others; after all, projects are done through people who must be lead, not managed. Don’t focus on just one area, seek a blend of training and experience across all three dimensions. Start small, leading a small team on a class project or an event and keep learning. Most importantly, learn from your mistakes. Finally, seek out a mentor to help guide you, someone who has experience in the industry you choose. A mentor can help identify your strengths and development needs across these three dimensions and help you tailor your approach.

  1. I noticed you have earned several certifications. What type of value has these certifications provided to you in your career?

Each of these certifications has helped me better understand the “science” behind that particular discipline and provided the baseline knowledge I needed to adapt these disciplines to the organization or a particular situation. Each certification has provided a level of credibility—very important as a consultant, especially—which, coupled with my experience, has opened a lot of doors. Each certification has allowed me to grow and become a more strategic and effective portfolio, program, and project manager. They have also helped me better understand the relationship between these disciplines and how they can be applied together to effectively (and efficiently) execute and deliver results.

  1. Do you think the industry is catching up to better understanding the benefits of program management and portfolio management?

Although project management has become ubiquitous—millions of articles, books, and other resources have been published on the subject—program and portfolio management are still coming of age to some degree. That said, I am seeing more and more awareness of program and portfolio management as complementary disciplines within an overall “strategic execution” ecosystem. More and more articles, books, and resources are available on these subjects than in years past. The introduction of the Portfolio and Program Management Professional credentials by PMI has also increased the visibility of these disciplines. As an example, when I earned the PgMP credential in 2007—I was the first in the world to achieve this certification—there were very few reference materials, outside of federal government publications and the first edition of PMI’s Standard for Program Management, to even study. I am pleased to say that there is now a wealth of material available for both program and portfolio management. Both are becoming much more prevalent in organizations across industries. I am very optimistic that it will only continue to grow as organizations realize the value that program and portfolio management provides.

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  1. What are some of the major gaps you still see in the project management profession and what can industries do to address them?

I think the primary gap is that project management has been viewed as being very “prescriptive”, that project management is the equivalent of “waterfall”. This is a very common misperception because the waterfall approach—especially as a software development life cycle—has often been coupled with a “by the book” project management approach, where scope, schedule, cost, and quality constraints are established up front—at the time of greatest uncertainty—and carefully monitored and “controlled” throughout the life of the project. Waterfall is an approach to developing or enhancing a solution, whether it be a new product, service, or capability; it is not necessarily the approach to managing that development effort. The project manager has traditionally been measured on how well s/he managed to those constraints.

Although it could be argued that “project management” and the resulting project life cycle were dictated more by the development approach—waterfall is a development methodology, not a project management methodology—the two are seen as one. As adaptive approaches become increasingly more prevalent it is imperative that project management as a discipline be viewed as adaptive as well. Project management principles are intended to be applied across the life of the initiative and are not sequential in nature. In my experience, project management has always been intended to be adaptive and iterative in nature. It does no good to stay within the budget and schedule constraints (for example) but deliver something that does not satisfy the need. Although budget and schedule are important, it is also very important to understand how to provide maximum value to the organization and adapt the project to optimize results.

The art of project management is understanding these tradeoffs and knowing which “constraints” are most important; for example, time to market may be the most important so the project should continuously adapt to provide the most value within the timeframe allowed, understanding the impact on budget and scope. In my experience, even “Agile” initiatives have some expectations around schedule, cost, scope, and quality as well as the expectation that risks (both threats and opportunities) will be proactively managed. Organizations must apply the principles of project management in a more adaptive manner, ensuring that the results of the initiative align with the organization’s strategic objectives and provide the benefits intended.

  1. What type of things do you do to stay current in your field (professional development)?

I have always considered myself a lifelong learner. It is a journey, not a destination. There is always something more to learn, new ways to apply my experience and skills, and opportunities to fine tune. For that reason, I dedicate time each day to reading or researching a topic of interest. In addition, I am always willing to take a change and try something new and learn as much as I can about it in the process. For example, although my primary focus has been leading application development initiatives, I have seized the opportunity to take roles in other areas, like IT Services, Compliance Management, or roles on the “business” side. These experiences have broadened and deepened my knowledge and made me a better project, program, and portfolio manager. I have also sought roles where I could learn and leverage more adaptive approaches, such as Scrum and Kanban. These experiences—which I supplemented with reading, training, and research—have given me a broader perspective and the baseline knowledge I need to be able to adapt the approach to an organization or a particular project.

  1. What are your last thoughts or closing remarks to our project manager subscribers?

I would encourage your subscribers to continuously learn and search for opportunities to broaden your knowledge and experience. For example, if you are a project manager but want to be a program manager, learn (through reading, classes, or other means) about program management. Develop a baseline understanding and look for opportunities to apply that knowledge. Start small and grow from there. Seek out a mentor who is knowledgeable in the area that you would like to pursue. I have had a number of mentors—both formal and informal—over the years and each has helped me focus in the right areas and grow.

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