Interview with Kristel Salesse: Finding the balance between intuition and logic
When you’re hungry for knowledge, one of the big advantages of working for an agency is that you’re surrounded by an impressive number of experts, each more inspiring than the next. I’ll be chatting with them on a regular basis, reporting back on their latest observations and discoveries, and getting a unique perspective on the future of digital.
This month, I met with Kristel Salesse, Practice Lead, Project Management. While she was working as a consultant in the field of engineering, she discovered that she could make a career out of project management. An active member of the Project Management Institute since 2008, Kristel made the leap to the agency side in 2014, where she has been able to make use of her skills, rigor, creativity and passion for important digital projects like the complete redesign of the Deserres e-commerce site, and Lasik MD’s multiservice support.
Kristel, what initially sparked your interest in project management? Why did you choose to make a career of it?
As soon as I entered the job market in 2010, I found there to be something very instinctive about the exchanges I had with my colleagues in engineering consulting, who were working on major transport and infrastructure projects on an international scale. The different components of their projects attracted me enormously, there was a natural fit. These projects, concrete as they were, involved elements of strategic negotiation with funders, communities and various organisations. It was all those pieces of the puzzle that pushed me to explore a career in project management.
Was it the logical side of things that excited you?
Not necessarily. I found that project management corresponded exactly with my way of working and thinking, on top of the energy I knew I could bring to it. It was like being struck by lightning out of the blue, as nerdy as that may sound. (laughs.)
Would you say project management is an art? A philosophy? A discipline? A science?
It’s definitely an art! There is a logical, technical element to it, which can be taught. But there is also the whole aspect of interpersonal skills, understanding business challenges, and interpreting new information and how it will impact your project. In principle, a project has a beginning and an end, and its existence stems from a desire for change.
A bit like how an artist needs to master the techniques involved in painting, but still needs to be able to communicate the message or feeling they want to convey.
Exactly, the creative side is very important. We need to stop thinking of project managers as set in their ways, strictly process-oriented and inflexible. Creativity is essential if you want to successfully juggle the very many constraints involved for each project and client.
What do your friends think you do, and what is the difference between their perception and the reality?
I actually have quite a few friends who are project managers (laughs). The role of a project manager can seem a bit thankless, in the sense that we’re often asked to organize meetings, take notes and generally take charge of administrative elements. In reality though, our role goes well beyond administrative functions – we are knowledge brokers, the intermediaries who convey the client’s expectations to the project team, and communicate the expectations of the team back to the client. This balance is crucial to ensure that we’re delivering the right things at the right times, that the project team is happy and successful in the delivery process, and that the client is satisfied that they’ve gotten the value they expected and had an unparalleled experience. We can deliver it all based on the specifications identified while keeping the whole process enjoyable!
Kristel, I’m curious to know what trends companies should be watching for from an operations-planning and productivity point of view?
I would say that project management trends are mostly focused, as in digital, on personalization and the user’s position in the center of the experience. The whole relationship side definitely needs to be developed.
Today, you can see that the very directive approach to projects is disappearing. Making sure that all parties involved are happy is as important as the results.
As well, benefits management is continuing to pick up steam. Project managers are getting closer and closer to the deciders, because they are seen as strategic agents capable of bringing about change. The implementation, monitoring and performance of strategies rests on their shoulders, as well as any associated changes.
In addition, we are hearing a lot of talk about agility. That said, over time, the gap between the different project management methodologies is tending to diminish. These theories are frameworks, first and foremost. They aren’t laws or rules, they are standards and you have to know how to take inspiration from them and make adjustments depending on context and need.
So would you say that a good project manager is capable of choosing the best framework depending on the project, company, team and goals, rather than just blindly following a particular methodology?
A bit like I mentioned in my last blog post, Rigor and agility: the paradox of good project management?, your best bet is to adopt an agile mindset. That’s how our project team at Adviso is coached. We work in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving. We have no choice but to adapt to changes of all types, coming at us from all sides. On the other hand, there are elements of waterfall frameworks that add rigor and shouldn’t be neglected. The advice I always give is “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.”
Which frameworks are currently the most used, and what stands out about them?
Simply put, the waterfall model is a predictive model, compared to agility which is an adaptive model. (Watch out, in this context a predictive model has nothing to do with artificial intelligence or machine learning models!). With more traditional methods, we expect to gather all the pieces of the puzzle at the very beginning, to get a crystal clear portrait of all the steps required as well as the final result. The scope of the project will never be modified, instead we’ll play with the timeline and costs.
Theoretically, in agile mode, we’re working with uncertainty, which requires more flexibility and ability for us to adapt. We start with a first step, look at the results, and continue to build bit by bit, which limits the risks at each iteration. There is still a vision of an overall goal, but without anything prescriptive about the exact outcome. The scope is negotiable, while time and cost remain more fixed. In application though, there are obviously multiple variations on this.
What place does strategy hold in project management? It’s seen as an operational role, and it is, in part, but at what point does strategy move into your hands?
The best strategy in the world is worthless if it stays on the shelf. And conversely, you can have the best operational capacity, but without strategic direction, you would have nothing to base your decision making on. So, in fact, our role is to reduce the gap between strategy and operations. To do this, we need to constantly ask ourselves what the best decisions are and what impact they might have on the anticipated benefits of the project.
What can project management change for companies, concretely? I’m thinking particularly of companies, like Kodak, who have been unable to adapt their products to digital, for example.
In actuality, one of the reasons Kodak collapsed with the arrival of digital is because it didn’t update its business model. It wasn’t able to adjust to an industry in full flux. So, the main issue was one of business strategy and business model, not necessarily product. The role of project management in this context is to be able to set up and execute these strategic elements. A project manager needs to be able to get up close and personal with the business strategy to be able to ensure that their initiatives are realistic.
Unfortunately it’s far too common to see organizations set up flagship projects for hundreds of thousands of dollars, without thinking about their internal capacity, whether that be human resources, funding or lack of capital. All these elements seriously risk affecting the success of the project if they aren’t taken into account.
The risk, then, is in investing in a major way at the outset of a project, before having a realistic picture of its feasibility.
Exactly. And project management isn’t just about particular projects. It’s much broader. It’s managing the portfolio, the program, the process of continual improvement and change. The term project manager is limiting in this context, because the scope of what it involves is so much bigger.
Does it ever happen that a project has no possible further benefits?
Many ongoing projects should have been stopped somewhere along the way. You need to be able to continually measure a project’s viability and expected results. It sometimes happens that we realize partway through that a project is no longer relevant for the company, either because there’s been a change in market dynamics, in the industry or maybe a reorganization that’s made the project obsolete. But the real issue is knowing whether you are correctly equipped to know when to pull the plug, and why. The factors affecting performance measurement apply to the complete lifecycle of a project, which is why advance planning is justified. With every new piece of information, you need to know how to interpret its impact and decide whether you’ll need to rework your planning to integrate the change.
I read somewhere that nearly 80% of companies are undergoing significant digital transformations, but only 25% of those projects produced tangible results when measured against their initial goals, according to recent research from the Project Management Institute (PMI). How would you explain those numbers?
I could certainly hypothesise. It’s because there is no framework for making the decision to close ongoing projects. We don’t equip ourselves with the tools or the time to analyze our capacity and manage change.
The definition of digital transformation is too often misinterpreted. Some people think that digital transformation can take the form of an e-commerce site, or getting a new CRM. But the essence of transformation isn’t the technology. It’s the people who are affected by this technology, the processes that need to be adapted as a result. It’s all fine and well to have a new site, but if you have insufficient resources or your team doesn’t receive the necessary training, it’s like having a Ferrari that stays in the garage because there’s no one to drive it. It’s practically pointless.
I imagine that the analysis of a project is never 100% black or white, that you need to be able to prioritize certain elements over others. What happens when certain changes could take you in a different direction, or meet a new need?
In risk management, there are what we refer to as positive risks and negative risks. In the case of the former, these are actually opportunities. When things like this happen, it can open some doors and close others.
I see! And in that spirit, what was the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make?
The hardest thing about decisions and recommendations is mostly just having the courage to make the decision – to build the argument, and push forward. Any decision needs to be supported and justified by factual arguments. To err is human, at some point in our lives or careers, we will all make bad decisions. The key is to know why it happened, what the justification was and how you can correct course if you chose the wrong path. A project manager always has a plan B in case plan A falls apart.
The term “stakeholders” is starting to make more and more noise in the industry, but what does it mean, exactly? And how should these various stakeholders be prioritized in a business context? Should the opinions of directors hold more weight than those of employees, or users?
Project management exists within the context of each project, so the answer is almost always “it depends” (laughs). But let’s just say it’s an extremely broad term that includes every person affected by a project, whether directly or indirectly. For example, in digital, there are stakeholders on the client side, on the project team and, in digital marketing, even your personas could be stakeholders, despite the fact that they are fictional.
It looks like the philosophy of inbound, bringing together the interests of both users and companies, is never far away! (laughs.)
Exactly! I was talking earlier about personalization, and it applies equally to project management. For example, if I have a report to put together for a person in operations, like a coordinator, the content would be very different from what I would give to a director. And this adjustment applies not only to professional roles, but also to stakeholders’ personality types and preferred methods of communication. Some people prefer a lot of detail, while others value brevity. Some just want to see the numbers, while others need more context.
How do you determine how to interact with whom?
Are you asking me to divulge my secrets? (laughs.) By listening. There are different sources of information you need to pay attention to: the type of information a person shares, the questions they ask, and their personal and professional motivations, for example.
What gets neglected most often when it comes to stakeholders?
Managing stakeholders can actually be very strategic. Beyond defining who needs to be consulted and informed, it sometimes happens that the state of the relationship is not what you want it to be. It could be too positive, negative or in trouble. So you need to know which strategies to put in place to change that relationship and transform it into a successful one that will create engagement, an essential element in the roll-out of a project.
What advice would you want to give clients who are getting ready to work with the team?
Give us your business case. (laughs.) Honestly, transparency is the key. The more information we have, the better we can anticipate risks, identify opportunities and discern the external benefits of a project.
And finally, if I wanted to learn more on the subject, what would you recommend?
Other than the Adviso blog? (laughs.) The first thing would be the project management bible, the Project Management Body of Knowledge from the PMI. I would also recommend the Scrum Guide, which is a good base for SCRUM-Agile concepts. At this point I’d say that everyone is doing daily scrums, so it’s useful to know where it comes from and what it’s for!
Otherwise, most of the reading I’m doing now is about animation techniques, a bit like the template my colleague Marie shared.
Here are a few texts to consider:
There are also lots of events held in the community, notably the Project Management Institute Symposium, that’s shaping up to be one of the biggest annual project management events in Montreal. Maybe I’ll see you there?
Thank you Kristel for sharing all this knowledge about project management!
Anytime. As long as we plan it! (laughs.)