October 16, 2019

The Irreverent Guide to Project Management: J. Scott

As the founder and CEO of 120 VC, J. Scott and his company have been directly responsible for the enterprise-wide change and global transformation efforts of Fortune 100 companies and household brands like Trader Joe’s, Blizzard entertainment, Sony Pictures and Mattel among others. In The Irreverent Guide to Project Management, J. doesn’t dabble in theory. Instead, he shows readers how to aggressively move projects forward and achieve optimal results in ways that can be directly and successfully applied to their own business.

Nikki Van Noy: J., let’s start by giving listeners an idea about your background and 120VC

J. Scott: Okay. So, I joined the navy in 1990 at 17 years old. I volunteered basically for any and everything, it was the coolest thing about the military. If you volunteer, they’ll let you do it. I found early on that I was a veracious learner and after six years, two months and 23 days, I got out of the navy. After having the opportunity to do a ton of things, including jump out of the back of helicopters and save people as a rescue swimmer, I quickly got a job at Universal Studios as an IT technician because my mother was the assistant to the CIO.

Yes, I want to admit publicly that I got my first job out of the navy because my mommy was the assistant to the CIO. However, I am pretty sure that it was my willingness to do any and everything that allowed me to keep the job.

Over the course of the following four years when I worked there, I very quickly went from an IT technician to a director of IT, where I was responsible for domestic projects. And then my last project there was their global Y2K project. I think I gravitated towards projects because there’s just something in my DNA. I’m driven to get things done and projects are interesting in that they’re distinct, they have a beginning and an end, they usually have a fixed budget and there’s variety in projects.

The military’s kind of an interesting place in that you join, you go to boot camp, and after a few months, they send you to do some training and then they send you to your first duty station. Usually, you spend anywhere from a year to two years at the station and they rotate you. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I guess I was predisposed to a need for a variety in what I was doing for a living, so I gravitated toward project management.

Not to make this too long, in my fourth year, I was managing a global Y2K project and I had project managers working for me, from some of the large management consulting firms. They were charging 225 an hour and I was having to help them succeed in their roles as a project manager. I, at the time, no complaints, I was making great money–I was making $85,0000 a year, which for me was mind-blowing.

But I still felt like, “Hey, here are these management consulting firms providing me these people at $225 an hour and they’re really struggling with the job.” I thought it would be really cool to start a project management services firm. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing for the last 19 years. We started out focusing on large global transformation projects, or what we call today enterprise projects, or some people like to call waterfall projects. I hate the term because nobody’s doing waterfall.

Agile came along, and agile was really cool, I immediately embraced it as a servant leadership movement. Agile is a 73-word manifesto with 12 principles all about people and human nature and service. So, we got agile and scrum and change management came on the scene and project and portfolio management were always there.

I really have spent the last 19 years of my life at 120VC, helping organizations in one way or another land large global enterprise projects, optimized product life cycles, stick cultural change initiatives. I would say I’m pretty much a change junkie.

A Certain Kind of Individual

Nikki Van Noy: What do you think it is about project management that means that even experts, like the ones who were coming in and you were showing them how to do things, what is it that makes that elusive to people or where do they fail?

J. Scott: That’s a really tough question.

So, I think first and foremost that like most things, it takes a certain kind of individual to succeed as a project manager. For the last 20 years, it’s been pretty popular from a professional perspective. The vast majority of people get into project management in a non-traditional sort of way. It’s one of the only professions where you can get the job without ever having the job or ever having any training.

The vast majority of project managers get started like this. There is a critical need to start a project and the manager of the project managers looks at their forecast, and all their project managers are already working 40 to 60-hour weeks. There’s no availability on their team.

They call me and they’re like, “Hey J.,” or someone like me, “Do you have any project managers available?” And I laugh. I say, “No, my team is completely utilized, but give me a minute and I’ll find somebody.” They can’t wait. They’re getting this enormous pressure to get this project started and off the ground because the reality of business is if you need to launch a project, it’s because you want to take advantage of some sort of market opportunity or solve a problem.

You really can’t wait. So, there’s this urgency. What happens is, you look around and you think, “Who is here on my team that’s not a project manager that’s been fairly reliable,” and they go to them. And they say “Hey, kid, would you like to be a project manager?”

There are two things that are terrible that happened at this moment. One, this individual has no idea what they’re about to volunteer for. Two, the mere fact that this manager or this executive is asking them implies that they think they can be successful in a role and its promotion. It’s generally speaking a six-figure salary. So, boom, you’re a project manager and you’ve never done the job, and you’ve never had any training. There’s this problem in the United States where we go to school to get our first job and then we kind of wing it the rest of the way. So, basically, they already have the job, so why go get training?

The first problem in the project management community is that even though it’s been pretty popular for the past 20 years, there’s still no real mature stable path to get into the field. I just had somebody tell me this exact same story two weeks ago as one of my clients was signing up their team for our training program. I went around the room and asked people to tell me their stories. Somebody told me the exact story that I just told you here 20 years later.

The other thing about project management is it’s basically a thankless job. So, you really have to be excited about helping other people get stuff done because ultimately, you’re not the decider, but you’re the leader.

Your customers decide what they are going to get done, and the subject matter experts, the smart people that are doing the work, decide how it’s going to get done, and your job is really to help them get it done as efficiently and effectively as possible, leaving no time or money on the table. What you spend your days doing is working with the people that are struggling to complete their commitments on time.

You’re delivering bad news, or what’s often perceived as bad news, to executives and human nature being what it is, there is this tendency to shoot the messenger. People that make good project managers, value strongly achievement, servant leadership, serving other people, helping other people succeed and through their success, you succeed. They value grit and have this unwavering willingness to keep going, to keep pushing when everybody else is freaking out and the odds are against you. And frankly, not everybody is built that way. So, I think that is probably one of the reasons that there is this need.

The other interesting thing is there’s no company in the United States that I’m aware of whose core competency, besides 120 VC’s, is project management. There are two ways that project management is typically consumed. An organization has projects, and they either hire directly or they go to a staffing company to find project managers.

Let’s say you are Nestle, for example, and you’re hiring project managers. You have a project management training program, but project management is not a Nestle core competency.

So, of the wonderful products that Nestle is producing masterfully, it’s probably not project management. And when you get a project manager from a staffing firm, certainly they’re not investing any money in RND in helping project managers learn to be project managers or be masterful project managers.

Then the other way to get a project manager is to buy something really complex or expensive from a management consulting firm like an Accenture or a Deloitte. Maybe you need an ERP system implemented or you need a CRM system implemented. Well, they’re going to have CRM subject matter experts. They’re going to have great access to CRM tools like SalesForce–it’s very likely that they’re all SalesForce partners. So, where are they investing their time and their money? Well, they’re investing their time and their money and their RND in developing the subject matter experts around SalesForce, not project management. It’s this insular product or this service where they’re not really investing time or money in respect to developing mastery in that space. They’re just hiring good people.

Nobody’s really focused on it, so that’s why it’s hard to find a great project manager because there’s no career path in the field. There are very few companies and as far as I know, 120VC is the only company out there whose sole focus is this and we’re tiny. The vast majority of your audience is listening is thinking, “God, I’ve never heard of 120VC before.”

Experts at Leadership

Nikki Van Noy: You know, it strikes me in your answer that there being a bit of an inherent catch 22 here. I would think that if you want a project manager to guide an enterprise-wide rollout that you want them to understand the company and the players who are working there, at least some of them.

If you bring someone in from the outside, you’re losing that knowledge. However, if you bring someone in from the inside who is not trained to be a project manager, you run into all of the issues you’re talking about here. It sounds tricky.

J. Scott: It is exactly a catch 22 like you described and like most things, it’s got its light side and its dark side. So, first, project managers are experts at helping people define things. They’re not experts at anything else.

So, we’re experts at leadership or experts at defining a problem, we’re experts in planning, we’re experts at working with subject matter experts and being able to connect on their level to understand, not necessarily how to do what they do, but understand how what they do solves a problem. We pull that together in a plan and deliver it. So, what’s interesting is that there’s some truth to your point about somebody coming in from the outside, being at a disadvantage, right? Because there’s a learning curve.

People inside also make assumptions that somebody from the outside doesn’t have the luxury to make. Having the least amount of information forces the project manager to really do what they do well and that’s diligence and ask a ton of questions. That also is what makes project management fun, you get to be three years old for the rest of your life. Nobody looks at you stupid when you’re like, “Why? But why, why?

Nikki Van Noy: So, 120VC, your guys’ motto is, “Transformative power of getting shit done.” Let’s talk about how that applies to your new book.

J. Scott: Well, as you’ve mentioned, we believe deeply in the transformative power of getting shit done, it’s what drives us. You know, at the end of the day, it’s people that get things done. And so, this book, The Irreverent Guide to Project Management, was originally created as a training tool for our project leaders. We hire enterprise project managers in your organization and then we train them in the best practices that we’ve developed over the last 19 years that are proven to deliver projects at twice the success rate of the industry average.

What I mean by that is McKinsey did a study a couple of years back and they found that on average, large IT projects come in 45% over budget, 7% over time and deliver 56% less value than originally anticipated. And in the last 19 years, we at 120 VC have delivered 98% of our projects near on time and on budget with near 100% user adoption on day one. That’s simply because we’re focused, we’re disciplined.

This book though has never been published the way that it’s being published through Lioncrest, is in its fifth edition.

I don’t want to give the impression to anybody that it’s proprietary. All we’ve done because it’s our focus and we need to be masterful at getting projects done is look at the best practices espoused by the community. Come up with ways to make them prescriptive to deploy them, we then put them in the hands of our team members, and then measure the outputs. We throw away the things that don’t work very well, and we keep and continue to refine the things that work really well.

What’s really cool is that we often will encounter a client who has got a technique, or they’ve developed something, or they do something a certain way that were obviously not competitive with.

I mean, let’s say we were managing projects for Nestle. They make chocolate, they make ice cream, right? So, if they had a project management practice that was like better than one of our project management practices, we would throw ours out, we would adopt theirs and then we would share it with the world through our training programs and then this guide book, The Irreverent Guide to Project Management.

So, it’s really a compendium of best practices that we’ve proven over the last 19 years. Deliver results at twice the rate of the industry average.

Best Practices

Nikki Van Noy: One of the things I really like about this book is it’s not philosophical. You’re not telling people what they should ideally be doing, you’re showing them how to do it specifically.

J. Scott: Oh, yeah, it is nauseatingly specific. The first edition, I was really against making it as prescriptive because I really believe in the power of thought. Leaders have to think, right? You can’t just follow processes, it’s probably one of the struggles in the project management community. There are so many people out there that just want to follow process. Well, you can’t process a project to completion, because you can’t process people to success. You have to lead people to success.

The idea of project management best practices is that it allows you to define a project in a way that’s measurable, and it allows you to amass a project in a way that’s measurable. It also allows you to cultivate good commitments, it allows you to enable people to establish accountability upfront. The leader then is there to help support them and help them stay accountable, rather than the old paradigm of shaking your finger or your nose at somebody after there’s been an unexpected outcome. That’s not really accountability, that’s just shame.

Nikki Van Noy: 120VC has worked with a ton of companies including some Fortune 100 companies. Can you tell me about some of the projects, people may have seen the results of you guys were behind and, maybe a little insight on what that entailed on your part?

J. Scott: Yeah, absolutely. I would say that the vast majority of our projects for the Fortune 100 really aren’t going to be super interesting to people. We’ve had a couple though with product launches that people would be familiar with. Trader Joe’s being one of them, obviously. They live up to the hype. They’re a really super cool, get it done culture. They came to us, we provided them with a project manager. What we do differently than the other management consulting firms out there is instead of providing the entire team, we just provide the project leadership.

What happens is our project manager would go in and then work with the Trader Joe’s IT team and the four or five other vendors involved, pull them together into a single team, and we delivered their national merchant processing system upgrade or led their national merchant processing system upgrade. We completed it in six months. Visa called it a flawless implementation in record time and with no downtime.

Another project that might be of interest to people would be when North Korea hacked Sony Pictures a couple of years ago because Sony Pictures may even believe that North Korea was unhappy with them because they made fun of Kim. And so, my team went in and worked with Sony Pictures to triage all of the projects necessary to rebuild after that.

You know they are back up and running and everybody is pretty happy. That was pretty interesting and complex, and they would be mad if I said anything more about it.

A Few Examples

Nikki Van Noy: That is a pretty cool one and you are absolutely right, who doesn’t love Trader Joe’s?

J. Scott: Then last, and this one is kind of old like I said, we have been around 19 years. I am sure you remember a time where if you wanted to watch a movie, you have to wait for it to come on to cable or you can even Pay-per-view it, but it played at a certain time. So, let’s say there is a movie that you wanted to pay for because it wasn’t available to you. Otherwise, you had to wait until 8:00. You could pay for it, but you had to wait until 8:00.

But in hotel rooms, we obviously had pay-per-view where you could go in and you could select your movie. This was probably, I don’t know, 10 years ago. I hope not longer than that. Direct TV is a big client of ours and so we actually worked with them to redeploy directtv.com where several things were possible so that you could program your DVR over directtv.com. Remotely, you can make sure that you are programming your DVR. You can capture the shows that you wanted to capture. You weren’t just like, “Oh my god, I am on vacation and I forgot to set that up to record.”  And also, to launch over directtv.com movie on demand.

Nikki Van Noy: I mean that was a milestone moment in all of our lives when that became possible. So, let me thank you on behalf of all of us.

J. Scott: You are very welcome.

Uncovering the Unknown

Nikki Van Noy: Okay, so I know there is a compendium of answers here, a lot of which are in the book, but to give listeners a couple of pro-tips in terms of getting their projects in on budget and on time, do you have any words of wisdom that they might be able to start thinking about right now?

J. Scott: Oh sure. So, I actually believe that the vast majority of my community is going to roll over and groan when I say this, but I think on time and on budget is almost an outmoded concept. No matter how good the plan is that you create and if you follow the instruction in our guide book, you are going to have a really solid, thought through, substantial and substantiated plan with great estimates that are defensible, but you will not have uncovered everything.

There will still be things that aren’t known that are going to get in the way of moving a project forward. So, what we like to say is instead of on time and on budget, we like to say the goal is to move the project forward as aggressively as possible, leaving no time or money out on the table. What that means is whether your project comes in early or late, your customers, the stakeholders will say, “That project couldn’t have been done any sooner for any less money.”

Where that comes in, actually even if the project is late, is through leadership. So, we believe that we communicate to lead. Your only leadership tool is communication and I feel like so many people have this backward. There are a ton of studies out there that say the vast majority of projects fail because of poor communication. Well if why projects fail is poor communication, you are going to focus on improving your communication.

I know a ton of super articulate, clear spoken people that couldn’t lead their way out of a cardboard box. So, the goal isn’t necessarily to speak clearly and articulate. The goal is to get better results.

So again, we believe that we communicate for the sole purpose of leading our project forward as aggressively as possible leaving more time or money on the table. So, the first word of advice I could give aspiring project managers or even seasoned project managers is first and foremost, your job once the project gets started, is to uncover the impediments, the obstacles, and the blockers, which means that you are going to identify the things that are keeping the project from moving forward as aggressively as possible. You are going to have to work with the subject matter experts to develop the best possible approach to mitigating these blockers and you are going to have to communicate that up the chain.

Now a lot of people don’t like to communicate these blockers because of the tendency in human nature to shoot the messenger. What happens is you identify this blocker, you identify a solution, and now you have to go communicate it to your executive stakeholders, and they perceive it as bad news, and nobody likes to deliver bad news.

The problem though is if you work with a team and you come up with the best possible solution, whatever that may be, if the outcome still is impacting the end data of the cost and you didn’t let your executive stakeholders weigh in, they are going to feel like if you had let them weigh in, the outcome would have been different, and there is no argument that you could make.

There is a high degree of likelihood that that’s just not true. You are close to the project–they are not as close to the project. You are working with the smart people, the subject matter experts, and no offense to the executives, I am one of them. You are working with the subject matter experts on the project. But human nature being what it is, they are going to feel like if you didn’t involve them and the outcome wasn’t perfect, that it would have been different if you had involved them. The simple fact is this–It is their name on the line. It is their bonus on the line. So, my advice would be to always remember we communicate to lead.

Obviously, you are going to walk into that situation knowing that it is going to be perceived as bad news. So, prepare yourselves–like be cool, honey bunny, right? Before you go in there think to yourself, “Be cool, honey bunny. You are the leader. You are not the decider.” You are the leader. So be prepared to set the tone, walk in, let them know you have got everything under control. You just want to get them in the loop on the problem that you have the solution for.

You want to make sure that they are happy with what you’re doing to make it go away. You are going to let them way in. They’re going to maybe give you some feedback, maybe approve it, maybe tell you to do something differently. Either way, they are involved every step of the way. You are not making them work hard. You are doing all the work, right? You are identifying the blockers and you are working with the team to identify several best possible solutions.

You are not going to them and asking them what you should do. You are proposing and working through with them, getting their buy-in to the solution. So, at the end of the day, this constant cycle of, you could call it communication, but I like to call it leadership. This constant cycle of leadership involving the stakeholders up, down and across means that no matter where the finish line is, whether it’s early or whether it’s late, your executive stakeholders and your project team members are going to say, “Nobody could have finished this project sooner or for less money.”

That is how you put to bed this notion of on time and on budget because really, no matter how good your plan is you are just guessing. So, when people tell me they always come in on time and on budget I laugh. I’m like, “Really? Is that the truth? Come on, it’s an interview.” You just think that’s the right answer.


Nikki Van Noy: I love it. So, there is tactical information obviously to take into account but there are some mindset shifts that can help here also.

J. Scott: Oh absolutely. The book definitely runs through how to plan, how to assess risk, how to define a project, how to capture commitments, how to track commitments, how to report. But I would say 50% of the book is focused on leadership and the exercise of running the project versus the blocking, tackling of project management. So, it is definitely very rounded.

You get all of the blocking and tackling stuff that espoused by the Project Management Institutes’ framework in the form of how-to, that we have proven works. You get a ton of how to personally exercise, how to approach the people, specifically how to lead under stress, under pressure, we get to fight or flight. We talk about how to work with people that are feeling like being resistant, how to win them over, and ultimately how to play for the team.

Nikki Van Noy: I love that you are talking about that because I feel like fight or flight is such a part of big projects that we just don’t talk about, but there is so much pressure on them. It is really easy to go into a fight or flight mode.

J. Scott: Oh, I would say that fight or flight is what project management is about. There are high stakes, there is a lot of money on the line. The executive stakeholders, their name, their reputation is on the project. If the project fails, they may not just lose their bonus, they could lose their job. You’ve got other people that are doing the work and they’re under pressure. If they don’t do a good job or if they don’t contribute to the success of the project there could be consequences. Not all organizations are safe, I’ll leave it there.

So, what a project manager does is pull a bunch of people together, get them connected to an outcome, work with them to get the information necessary to buy into and to create a plan. And then every single day you are uncovering obstacles and you’ve got to recognize that people are busy, every single person that is working on your project is juggling probably several other projects that they are contributing to.

They might have a day job where they’re responsible for some IT stuff, in addition to working on your project and so when something doesn’t go according to plan, they’re literally like, “Oh my god, I am never going to finish everything that I need to finish this week and somebody is going to yell at me.” That’s their life. I mean it’s the truth, right? You have got to help that be okay.

Sometimes there are political agendas. Sometimes people don’t like each other. I mean we talk about growing up, but we don’t ever actually grow up. I would say I hear a lot that projects fail because of communication and a lack of stakeholder buy-in. Ultimately, I have heard a lot of pragmatic reasons that projects fail, but in my book, there are seven reasons that projects fail. One because they defy the law of physics. Two, because of self-interest. Three, because of confirmation bias. Four, cognitive dissonance. Five, apathy. Six, egos and seven, unreasonable expectations.

It is all about people. So, what you have got to understand is that we all want to be loved. When it comes down to human nature, we all just want to be loved and accepted. If you consider, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what is the one obstacle to that? Nobody wants to look bad, right? Ultimately everybody’s goal in life is to look good. If they can’t look good, they don’t want to look bad. So, when something goes wrong, people don’t want to tell people.

When they think they will get in trouble, they don’t want to share. You’ve got to make it feel safe and you’ve got to understand that there is a high degree of likelihood that they are in fight or flight, that two their brain centers are shut down and they are operating at the emotional level of an eight-year-old.

Now picture your favorite executive and you’ve got to bring them bad news or news that they’re going to see as bad news. For you, it is just “Hey, a thing happened on the project. You’ve got a solution. We’re going to drive it forward.” And you just want to let them know. You want to get their buy into the solution. They are going to go into fight or flight. I like to point out to project managers, especially new project managers if you have ever worked with an executive and you brought them the best possible solution to a problem, and you were excited about it. You brought it to them, you started explaining it and you thought this was a no brainer, they’re going to get it. In fact, they are going to be like, “Great job.” And they argue with you.

Your mind is blown, you’re like, “This is so obvious. I don’t understand why you are arguing with me.” And they argue and they seem frustrated and you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t know why they seem frustrated. This is a great solution.” They basically kick you out of their office. Ultimately what you just witnessed was an executive in fight or flight. Go have a coffee, hang out for a little while, give them some time to think about it.

Circle back, everything will be fine. They will be ready to talk about it.

Ultimately that is just a human being, that at the end of the day, is freaking out and they need a hug.

A Guidebook for All

Nikki Van Noy: All right J. Scott, anything else I haven’t asked you that you want to make sure listeners are in the loop with?

J. Scott: I would say that this guidebook is for beginners. This guidebook is for seasoned project managers. This guidebook is for practice leaders. This book is for executives. I work with a lot of clients who don’t feel like they’re getting the results from project management that they need to be getting from project management, that moving it forward as aggressively as possible and creating value as quickly as possible.

I think that there are so many executives out there that are like, “Well, I could just rely on somebody else to figure it out with the project managers.” But the truth is, if you are an executive and you don’t know at a high level what your project managers should be doing to succeed, how can you set the expectation? How can you ask the right questions?

I am not going to recommend it to you as a Fortune 100’s buy and use this book, it really is a good book, not just for the practitioners of project management, but for program managers or people that project managers work for, because it really sets the expectation. When you are using an external standard and you have all of your project managers following an external standard, you then have the ability to assure their work, because you know what to expect of all of them. If all of your project managers are planning, defining, assessing risk, status reporting differently, you need a secret decoder card to figure out what they are doing.

You just wait until things go wrong, which is all the time, and then you go fight fires, but then you are just chasing your projects. You are not actually there, upfront, with the ability to quality assure and give your project managers the benefit of your years of experience and your ability.

The other thing, even today, I work with clients who want to apply an enterprise project management approach.  Cool, we have it in the toolbox, or they want to apply an agile approach. I’m working with a client in San Diego right now on an agile transformation, helping them really get clear on the results that they are looking for and what model that they want to apply in this case, and they’re using the Spotify model.

What I found ironic is in an agile transformation, we’re uncovering a whole bunch of things that have to happen in a certain order, which means that they have predecessor-successor relationships. Because I am on a consulting engagement and it is not necessarily an enterprise project or an agile project, it is more a change initiative, what I found funny the other day is that it occurred to me, “Wow, I need to put this stuff in a work plan in Microsoft project.”

I can put it in front of them and say, “Okay, we’ve got a deadline that we are coming up on. We’ve got these 30 things that we need to get done. We’ve got this amount of time. This is how long I think it should at least take,” just to show that we do have time, or we don’t have time and we have to go faster. What is funny about that is, that it is an enterprise project management technique–setting up a plan of task with predecessor-successor relationships. I laughed because I was like, “You know what? If this were a project that we’re prescribed as an enterprise project or it is from an agile project, I would just have been able to follow the script and it would have been easy and this would have been obvious to me upfront.”

My point in telling that story is you can save yourself a lot of time and eliminate a lot of stress if you know what it is that you are getting yourself into. What type of project and which technique is going to create the greatest value? Having an approach to follow, something that is documented, because then you don’t have to think about it. Then you can save all of that mental energy for problem solving and leadership, where it is really necessary.

So, I think having a prescriptive approach on hand that your team can apply really eliminates the need for organizations to maintain their own, which is costly. Two, the second an organization builds their own, it is not proven, so you could just use one proven time to market. It really just eliminates chaos and gives the whole team back a whole ton of mental energy that can be used and focused on ensuring that they get shit done.