Innovator Interview: Tony Wong, Founder of Digital Onion
“Point Man: Setting Real Goals and Getting Things Done”
“Get everyone on the same page and use a BIG page.”
In today’s faster, more complex business environment Tony Wong, the founder of Digital Onion, has redefined the role of Project Manager.
His Point Man Leadership method reorders and simplifies tasks for better results.
He started out in software development and moved his way up the chain, transitioning to project management. Along the way he has learned what works, but perhaps more importantly what doesn’t. He will give you some tips on how to better manage your time, by focusing on what is important and simplifying your project system.
To date Tony has managed multi-million dollar projects for several big name companies, including: Nestle, Honda, Lexus, and Motorolla.
Interview between CK Lin and Tony Wong
CK: OK, wonderful. So today I am really really excited to have the founder of Digital Onion with us today. He is really an expert in project management, you know, the new way of doing project management and how do you accelerate the way you accomplish you know results for whatever it is that you do. I think you guys specialize in software development so I’m sure that you can also encompass other areas of technology as well so Tony why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are, how Digital Onion was first founded.
TW: Was first founded. Well I grew up in software development. Started as a project manager, worked my way up the chain and I’ve been in the business for over a dozen years so I’ve done it the hard way so all the project managers who are listening they know that I’ve been through what they’ve been through. Some where along the way you know, during the first bust, and we’re in a much bigger bust now, but during the first Internet boom and bust I actually came out thriving and flourishing through that bust and I ended up running a program for Honda and when I got there the staff was around four people, I reduced it to two and then within nine months built it to forty five. [CK: Wow.] And we delivered on a seven million dollars worth of service revenue, one of the biggest projects was over two and a half million dollars and I did it the old hard way. I did it through blood, sweat and tears. [CK: Right] And through that experience we created a quality product, a quality team, met all our success criteria like time, scope, and cost but at the cost of my personal health and probably some of our team members.
CK: Can you say a little bit more about that?
TW: Uhh, well the way project management and software development used to be done and a lot of companies still is done is done through some sort of promise of time and scope without knowing exactly what its going to take. And in software development, and Fortune Magazine called software development the most complex things humans create, it’s impossible to predict what the level of effort is going to be or how long things take.
TW: So the most complex things human creates, humans create. And so the way software development is done by default is that you promise a certain amount of time and a certain amount of scope and a certain amount of cost and so all three factors are locked right? And so what are the, and so invariably when people get into a project they find out it’s taking much more effort, things aren’t the way they thought it was going to be and so somethings gotta give.[5:00m]
But if you’re contractually bound to that software development triangle of time, scope and cost, what do you think gives? Quality, team satisfaction, client satisfaction, right? [CK: Right.] So those are some of the things that gave and we tried to lock it down and just say, “Hey you know what we will sacrifice ourselves, we’ll work sixteen hours a day, six days a week for thirty six weeks.” And that’s what we did; and we pulled off a great project but at the end I came out with much poorer health, I was stressed, I was drinking, it was just not good. [CK: Wow.] I actually, after I finished the project I ended my, my job there. I quit, and I didn’t work for nine months. And out of that, that time off I decided that you know what? I still love what I do and the industry in which I do it, but there’s got to be a better way and through that time off and that questioning came the genesis of Point Man or Digital Onion’s project management system.
CK: Tell us a little bit more about this Point Man, [TW: Point Man?] the system.
TW: Well the system is used to better our client’s project management so what we do is we transform our client’s project management such that it’s successful, effortless, and fun. If you know anything about project management those are three words that are not associated with project management. [CK: Right.] It’s more like iffy, tedious, and painful right? [CK: Right] So what we’re doing is we’re completely shifting the paradigm, redefining what project management means and we use project management just so others know what we’re talking about but really we don’t manage we lead. So when we think of what we do we think project leadership. How do you be a leader in today’s much much faster business environment?
CK: It’s still kind of vague to me. Very generalized, I totally get the fun part, I’m very much interested in what you have to say, can you give us some concrete examples of what it was like before, what was it like after and you know, walk us through the thought process please.
TW: Well, from a business perspective someone buying our services would be interested in the most concrete factors like time, scope, and cost. I’ll use an example of a project we did last year. It was for the CEO of a company and this CEO had actually run a web services company, an Internet consultancy, for ten years and sold it, sold it to WPP. So it was a big company, he sold it for fifty million dollars. [CK: Good brand.] So he knew what he was doing and he came to us and said, “Hey we have this project, needs to be built, I just want to know how much its going to cost and how long its going to take.” And I told him, “Well we don’t do it in that manner we use a different methodology.” and I said that, he said, “That’s fine I understand just give me some sort of estimate right?” So I did it the old waterfall way and I estimated in time and cost and scope. I started with the scope and I said, “You know for this amount of scope, well it’s going to take about ten thousand man hours right? And ten thousand man hours translated in consultancy rates at say an average of two hundred dollars an hour, that’s two million dollars.” And two million dollars to actually complete or ten thousand man hours to complete takes nine, twelve, fifteen months. So I gave him that information and he said, “OK well that’s great. I certainly, one I certainly don’t have two million dollars to give you, two I don’t have nine months I have eleven weeks, and three I need all the scope I just gave you.” And he asked, “Well can you do that?” and I said, “Honestly, I don’t know.” and that’s the crux of what we’re talking about. You can’t predict what you can do in software development because its to complex, there are to many variables. I did tell him that, “You know what? I’m pretty sure we can do it and I don’t know how long its going to take, but its not going to take twelve months. Maybe it takes six, I don’t know, and its not going to cost you a million dollars, I think we can do it in half, or two million dollars I think we can do it in half.” [CK: Do it in half, right.] So what we did was, we got the project and we completed the project in fifty-five hundred man hours instead of ten thousand, right? So approximately a forty-five percent reduction in budget and we did it in eleven weeks.
CK: Wow, so you actually accomplished what you wanted to do.
TW: Yeah, yeah. So from a business perspective that’s your tangible output. We did it in half the cost, in one third of the time.
CK: And this is consistent from all your clients?
TW: Yeah. So that’s from one side. The other side is from the human side, how do I know we created transformation because when you walked into where the team was working you heard laughter, you heard music, people were actually talking to each other. One discipline from information architecture was talking to front end developer who was talking to a back end developer who was talking to a visual designer. They were actually sitting around the same table and working, with music playing and laughter.
CK: And that’s not the norm?
TW: No. That’s not the norm.
CK: The norm is?
TW: Headphones on, don’t bother me, I’m just doing my job, I’m throwing it over the wall or via email I’m saying, “Hey I’m done with my job there you go.”
CK: I see.
TW: There’s no team work.
CK: Got it.
TW: Here’s another thing. We tracked peoples on timeness, their timeliness. Because from our point of view.
CK: To deliver their milestones.
TW: Well no just to show up to meetings. We had a daily meeting at 10am everyday and our theory is that if you can’t make your time and place commitments how can we count on you to to deliver a critical piece of the application. A design or a user flow or what have you. So we tracked all the on-times during one sprint or one period of time and it came out to: two hundred and eleven opportunities to be on time and there were about eight people on the team, so out of those two hundred and eleven opportunities and based on what you know of business and the way we are how many time do you think people were late? Out of two hundred and eleven opportunities.
CK: Is this before or after?
TW: This is during the process.
CK: I would say the percentage would be very low.
TW: Very low?
CK: Traditionally I would think it would be very high.
TW: OK and what would be very high?
CK: You know like 80% of the time people people would be late and its totally OK etc. etc.
TW: Right, and people would just walk in, not say anything whether they’re fifteen minutes late or half an hour late. They just walk in and don’t say anything. Eighty percent of two hundred and eleven is a hundred and sixty some odd times late. We had five lates. [CK: Nice.] Five. [CK: Yeah.] That is extraordinary, that truly is a transformation in the way people conduct themselves in the American business environment. That is unheard of. So how do I know if the systems I implement are working? People are showing up on time; and when they don’t, they clean it up. It’s no big deal. “Sorry I was late, you know, traffic, whatever, it won’t happen again.” Second time: “Sorry I’m late, I, based on our agreements I owe the team lunch.”
CK: OK, so there is some kind of agreement?
TW: Oh yeah, there is an agreement. Oh yeah, and this isn’t enforced, this is provided as a choice. What happens in our systems is we can see what happens at the end and most project managers or people doing software development can’t see that or people leading teams can’t see the end. We can see the end so we’ll spell it out for them. We’ll say here’s
we have a ten o’clock meeting or an eleven o’clock meeting, whatever it is and I expect you to be there on time
your cellphone which should be the same time as mine
and by the way 10:01 is late. [CK: Yup.] Because if I’m going to meet my agreement, my commitment to you to end the meeting by 10:15, I need you there on time and its disrespectful to your team members. And there are consequences because I know you’re going to be late, I’m going to be late; and here are, typically here are our consequences and we agree to what the consequences are and then I tell ’em how its going to feel. So I tell ’em, you know at first you’re going to think that I’m dominating you, I’m just being a jerk for calling you out but I promise you I’m not, but you’re going to feel like that and I’ll remind you when it does happen that I told you this. [CK: Right.] And they say, “OK.” Most people say, “OK, alright, well I’ll try it out.” Some people are hesitant and to be frank I think they cave to peer pressure [CK: Right], OK, whatever works. Over here we have a sheet that reads lateness tracker ’08. [CK: Yeah.] You can see my name with a whole bunch right there and then you can see its crossed and I have fewer because I paid for lunch. [CK: Ahhh] Team lunches. [CK: Nice.] And even for the owner of a company, you don’t want to do that to often. Seventy-five bucks every time you’re late, you know, not fun.
TW: You see this name right there, Kate? [CK: Yeah.] That is all for all of 2008. That girl has never been late. [CK: That’s awesome.] Never. Impeccable, quite amazing.
CK: Is there a reward for being impeccable?
TW: Being impeccable. [laughs] That’s your reward. Being an extraordinary person.
CK: That’s awesome, very cool. Ummm no this is fantastic. So let me see, so what’s the most rewarding moment for you so far since you started Digital Onion until today. I know you that you just talked about the client relationship that you have, you know results you helped them produce, any other rewarding moments?
TW: Yeah actually, up until this week it had only happened once and after this week it happened twice. I’ve been fortunate enough to conduct workshops or meetings or just be in a group, a room full of a group of people and either providing some content or leading them through a process and at the end, this has now happened twice, the attendees stood up and applauded. OK, now here’s another transformational part of what we do. How many times have you heard of or experienced in a business meeting people standing up without request or ceremony and applause. How many times?
CK: Not many.
TW: No one I know of has experienced that either. Now I have experienced that twice. I was up at Motorola, I was there to, as a consultant and supporting other team members in implementing a new process. I had a vague feeling that they weren’t ready but they said they were fine so I was there just to support them. Twenty minutes before the meeting the person that was supposed to conduct the work session and that persons boss turned to me and said, “You know what? We’re just not quite comfortable doing this yet, do you mind running this session?” So I look at my watch, the meeting starts in twenty minutes and this isn’t an hour meeting, this is a six hour work session. [CK: Oh wow, nice.] [laughs] And so I, I, you know I’m looking around, “Well I haven’t quite prepared.” They’re like, “Well you know it you can do this.” [CK: Nice.] and I said, “Well OK, I need colored notecards, give me some sharpies and whiteboard sheets.” And then I jumped into a meeting with four divisional Vice Presidents of Motorola and their managers and their team, so the room was about twenty people. [laughs]
CK: Talk about under-prepared, a little intimidating, yeah there you go.
TW: So I actually asked the person who was supposed to be running the meeting what the agenda was and I took that and I’m like, “Kay, alright guys here we go!” And I crumpled the agenda and I crumpled all the handouts and I said, “Alright here’s our goal lets just see if we can accomplish the goal in the six hours.” So I went through a whole planning session for a new product they were to develop and at the end I said, “Thank you very much for your time, I think we’re good, we’ve met our goal,” and the people in the room stood up-
CK: You did it in under six hours right?
TW: Yeah. [CK: Nice.] Of course. [Laughs]
CK: Of course.
TW: They stood up and applauded. I had the Vice President of Engineering of this division at Motorola say, “Dude, I’ve been coding for twenty years and I like coding. This is way more fun than coding.” And they were like kids in a candy store and mind you this is a business setting. I wasn’t passing out, handing out beers and watching TV, we were doing work; and just by the process that we taught them, they were much more alive and enthusiastic about doing the work. So that was my greatest reward, the applause.
CK: Thats awesome. Congratulations.
TW: Thank you.
CK: Yeah there’s going to be many more to come.
TW: Yeah, hopefully.
CK: Yeah hopefully, hopefully. So what is the thought process that has changed from the beginning of this journey to today. You know things that you believed that would, weren’t ever going to change or thats just the way it is to new way of thinking. Anything like that?
TW: Yeah, absolutely. We have a point of view on the type of leader needed today in business in general and this really stems from our experience in running software projects. What we found is the type of person that is necessary to lead a group of people to accomplish a goal today is much much different than the type of leader needed in the past and I think the delineation between today and the past happened around the first boom. It’s when the Internet came of age that everything started to shift because of the speed and accessing information that created ripple effects that we’re now seeing today. So today we have almost perfect and immediate access to information. [CK: Yeah.] We get it obviously in our email, through our browser, through chat, through IM, through Twitter, through text, through voice mail, regular telephone, mail, we’re just inundated with information so the type of leader that used to lead in the old world was the type of person who could execute a plan right? [CK: Yeah.] And that leader also had a depth of knowledge right? But today executing a plan and depth of knowledge doesn’t work. Why? Because of the speed of information is constantly changing your plan. So if you spend months creating a plan and you bring it you know, in the old world, and bring it into today’s world how long do you think that plan would last?
CK: Not very long.
TW: Not very long. You know maybe weeks-
CK: It’s a nice guideline.
TW: Well yeah, now there’s the shift, so the new type of leader, this new breed of leader actually uses a guideline, not a detailed plan. But that requires now different, a different skill set in a leader right? The old leader meticulously implemented that plan and shoved reality into that plan, right? Now today you can’t do that. You have to let reality rule and adjust your plan. Now you need not just a plan, you need a system for a plan, right? Because that plan evolves, we call empirical planning. That plan is constantly changing so now this leader doesn’t need depth of knowledge per se because he almost has access to perfect information
TW: So this new type of leader then doesn’t need necessarily that depth of knowledge but that leader needs to be able to see through the mass of data, to know the terrain right, to really be able to see whats going on and then pick out whats most important.
CK: The pattern recognition ability.
TW: Right, well, the pattern recognition and out of all the different things, hundreds and hundreds of different ideas and scenarios and situations; that leader now needs to be able to stand in the midst of that and its almost with that much data, its now, its not the known, its actually the unknown. [CK: Right.] So that leader has to be very very comfortable in the unknown and say, “You know what, that’s most important and we’re going, that’s our target, we’re going to hit that target.” And then block everything out until that target is reached and you reach it quickly. I’m talking weeks, not months, not years. Weeks, you hit the target great. Now you look back up, the landscape has changed again, right? [CK: Right.] “Whoa, we’re off course again.” Reconnect with that goal find a new waypoint, hit that waypoint as a target, knock that down, then you’re incrementally always moving towards your target, right? And its all based on reality, not based on some plan you created months ago.
CK: Hmmm, this is very good. So obviously Digital Onion is run according to this philosophy.
TW: Yeah and that philosophy is poignant.
CK: How are you guys doing, you know talking about in dollars and cents, you know the actual performance wise right? How are you guys doing?
TW: How are we doing?
CK: How are you doing.
TW: Knock on wood, these economic times I’ve seen my companies, my friends companies go down in flames. And that’s not a metaphor. I’ve seen companies that were, in the first half of this year produced eight million dollars in service revenue which is pretty good for a you know, start up consultancy, go to zero. [CK: Wow.] And not just one, multiple. [CK: Multiple, right.] And in this economy we have more work than we can handle, we’re picking up great clients. We’ve picked up clients, the Fortune 100 clients like Disney and Ogle V and Toyota and other premier clients that are much smaller but are very well respected in the VC community here in Los Angeles. People who have launched very venerable brands and only hire the best; and now we’re contracted to execute their project management for each one of their start ups, three to four a year.
CK: Wonderful, congratulations.
TW: Yeah so we’re doing well.
CK: You’re doing pretty good, that’s awesome. Ummm, what was I going to say, maybe I should look at my cheatsheet really quick. So you talked about the philosophy, you know, I really, I’m actually really inspired by the philosophy that involves not only the business process, the results, but also the people involved, right? You know how people within the company actually interacting with each other. That you keep each other accountable which is also awesome too. [TW: Yeah.] So that’s fantastic. Can you walk us through the specific methodology of how that works? So then people have a really clear idea of what the Point Man program is. Does that kind of make sense?
TW: OK, ummm, I’ll start with what the key tenets are and then regress backwards [CK: Perfect.] if you don’t mind. OK ummm the Point Man methodology is based upon four main distinctions. One is plan empirically which would seem like an oxymoron, a paradox, how do you plan empirically, well this is the system that I mentioned before. In today’s world with the amount of change and the speed of information, plans don’t, plans don’t stay together for very long. They just don’t hold their worth very long. So you need a system to be able to adjust and plan based on the changes that reality sets forth. So thats one, plan empirically. Two, you need to lead rather than manage. Management is, is a funny term it justs, it, I think it has connotations of doing all the unnecessary things, the things like, well you tell me. In the project manager what do you think the project manager does?
CK: They manage peoples’ work efforts [???] accomplish certain tasks.
TW: Yeah, they manage peoples’ work effort. So what does that entail?
CK: Are you working enough, oh you’re not working enough you should work more, blah blah blah.
TW: Did you do this, where is this, is it, its late, is it going to be late, right?
TW: [Clears throat] That’s managing, which eats up a lot of time, effort and energy.
CK: Yes, I can attest to that. [laughs]
TW: And what you would rather do is lead, and leave the managing to someone or something else. So we create systems, intellectual systems and they can be either be supported in software or paper systems or a bulletin board but systems do the management for us. [CK: OK.] That frees us up, us up to lead rather than manage. So that’s the second tenet. The third tenet is, in this mass of data and constantly changing [???] you need to be able to see what matters most. [CK: Yeah.] Ummm, ah damnit what, who wrote Getting Things Done?
CK : David…
TW: David Allen.
CK: David Allen, there you go.
TW: David Allen in his book Getting Things Done said that the typical person when they aggregate all their to-do lists typically has about three hundred items on their to-do list. Someone running a company probably has somewhere more like six, seven, to eight hundred. [CK: Right.] I know that I have countless to-dos [CK: Yup.] and-
CK: To-do lists of to-do lists.
TW: Right, and I know from personal experience in trying to prioritize that on a daily basis is just not feasible. It would take me an hour everyday just to prioritize-
CK: At least. Tomorrow you got to do it again.
TW: Right, and then email, which is constantly coming, constant feedback, constant to-dos, requests, sales requests and so whats really necessary is the ability to see what matters most. So that’s the second tenet, or the third tenet. Now the fourth and final is get to the goal no matter what. Nothing matters except the result. [CK: Yup] Given some legal boundaries, right? But other than that nothing else matters, get to the goal no matter what. No I’m not saying in the software development paradigm that you should you know, sacrifice your health and work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week for months on end, I’m not saying that. I’m saying within the constraints, the rule boundaries that we gave you, maybe you work a little more, but maybe not. Maybe you find a better way there, maybe instead of going around the mountain, maybe there’s a tunnel right through the mountain, or maybe going over the mountain is easier, maybe there’s a bridge, I don’t know, there are countless options so those four tenets are what make up Point Man.
CK: Very cool.
CK: Umm, OK. Do you have any…
TW: The history of the Point Man…
CK: You can talk about the history of Point Man [TW clears throat] because you, you’re breaking it down a little bit more now, right, but I’m thinking say, if somebody who don’t understand what your company actually does if you can tell them like if we have a problems this is what we do, we get the right people together in a room then we do a process called Scrum or whatever it is, when you kind of talk about it so demonstrative of the thought process versus talking about it, does that make sense?
TW: Demonstrate the thought process…
CK: So assuming I have technology, I have a company coming to you and you know, we give you X, Y, and Z data and you said, “Oh that’s irrelevant you just got to keep people together.” I don’t know what you guys do that’s why I’m asking.
TW: Right, OK. Here’s an example of what we do. We were hired by a local consultancy that Toyota as client. Now they had had had Toyota as a client for approximately eight months. They were doing an owners website for one of the Toyota product lines. And they’d been working on it for eight months and it was already two months late. So the launch was supposed to happen after six months, they’re now into eight months with no launch in sight, right? So now the CEO of that company, who I’ve known for five years, comes to me and says, “You know what? We’re in a mess. We have a great client, Toyota, and we’re late, we’re two months late. Help. We need- We can’t lose this client, we can’t screw this project up.” So when we come in, in a matter of two weeks it was live. So the question was: what-
CK: What’s the magic?
TW: Yeah, what was the magic? Well they were focusing on the eighty percent that didn’t matter. What they didn’t, what they couldn’t see was the twenty percent that would get them to their goal no matter what. That’s what they were missing. And our ability to see whats most important is core to our systems and teaching and our way of thinking; and our way of thinking is based upon creating space in the mass of data, just a little bit of space such that you can see really whats important, right? So the way project managers typically umm fix problems is we like to describe it through what we call leak stopping. Like a leak stopping analogy; if you think about the bottom of a hull of a ship with all these leaks, you hire a good project manager, good project managers cost anywhere from seventy to, oh I don’t know, a hundred and forty thousand dollars. So lets say its a hundred thousand dollar project manager right? You hire a hundred thousand dollar project manager, they are excellent leak stoppers, they will come into the bottom of that hole and they will plug ever leak they see, right? But they’ll be plugging it with their own hands. They may have some Duct Tape, maybe some epoxy but they’re plugging all the leaks. New leaks are springing up, plugging leaks. [CK: Right.] That’s an expensive leak stopper, right?
CK: Right. A hundred and forty thousand dollar or whatever it is.
TW: A hundred and forty thousand dollars a year and what happens when that person leaves? All the leaks spring back, right?
CK: Everything comes back, yeah.
TW: When we come in, we step into the home, we’re there with that, you know, with the company’s project management staff and they’re saying, “Look at all these leaks, help us plug ’em.” And we say, “Well OK, let’s just a moment here and see whats really going on, see whats most important,” and we take a look at the leaks and “That’s a big one, that’s a really big one, that’s a small one, got a lot of leaks.” And they’re like, “Hurry up, come on, let’s start stopping leaks.” “But wait a second, what about your buddy over there with the pick-axe, don’t you think we should take that pick-axe out of his hand because he keeps on punching these leaks.” So we work from the causational factors. And then most of the reaction from the companies and the staff that work with us is, “Ohhhh, yeah, the guy with the pick-axe. He’s creating new leaks.” He or she or whomever. [CK: Right.] So first we take the pick-axe out of the guy’s hand. Great. Now we have a finite number of leaks, now let’s start patching them up.
CK: I see. Does that create any kind of ill will between the staff person and you?
TW: Person in charge?
CK: Not in charge but the person with the pick-axe.
TW: Ummm, sometimes.
TW: Yeah. Uhhh but that’s also our challenge, right?
CK: And that’s also your expertise to manage relationships and be able to word it diplomatically and… [TW: Well, yeah.] Or not. [laughs]
TW: Yeah, I mean sure, it’s, it really, the stance, the place that we come from is, its not what you do, its how you do it, [CK: Right.] right? And how we do it is not for our benefit [CK: Right.], we are there to help and serve these people, [CK: Right.] so when we come from a place of service most people recognize that and say, “Oh, you know what,” it clicks and they realize that, “these people aren’t coming in to tell me how to do my job, or even to take my job, they’re just here to help.” And once that, once they see it, and I think they see it very rapidly because we just come from a place of service they realize that, “Oh, yeah, sorry. Here’s the pick-axe, I didn’t even know I was using the pick-axe. Let’s stop all these leaks.” Does that give you a better sense?
CK: Yeah, it definitely, ummmmm, definitely. How, so where I’m coming from these questions, this probably won’t be on camera is that, if I were interested, taking your methodology [TW: Right.], just listening to this tape or watching this clip, right? I like to some kind of benefit out of this so all these philosophy for Digital Onion, great. But I can’t take it and run with something, does that kind of make sense?
TW: Right, there’s nothing like a tangible like technique-
CK: Right, something like a, like a technique or you know something that I could take it and say, “Oh wow I’m really inspired, this is great.” Then this is the following steps I can actually take to transform whatever my organization is, and then this, where I’m coming from is, if we can actually teach ’em a little bit, a little of content; and they will then try it out, you know they fail, they will succeed, whatever. And then they will be interested in coming back to you ultimately and saying, “I would like to learn more about this, can you teach our employees to do this, whatever.”
TW: Right. Alright, well then this part can maybe fill that, that void. [clears throat] The Project Management Institute which is our defacto standard, our governing body for project management, says that, “A project manager spends eighty percent of his or her time communicating.” Eighty percent. Why do you think that is?
CK: Communication don’t work well, very well.
TW: Right, there’s something inefficient in the communication. [CK: Right.] Communication is highly valuable, but there’s something inefficient. [CK: Right.] Now here’s something that someone watching this video can tangibly take away. How is communication primarily done in business today?
TW: Emails, right? And how many email do you get a day?
CK: Jeez, about a hundred plus.
TW: Yeah, same here. Highly-
CK: And I’m not even a business owner, [TW: Right.] right.
TW: Yeah and how much did you actually take in, reading, glancing over your email.
CK: They get about, you know, ten seconds.
TW: Right, and your really just eager to hit that delete button, right? Because you just want to clear that-
CK: Often times that’s what I do, yeah.
TW: Right, and that’s one of the main reasons that project managers spend so much of their time communicating. Is because their message is connecting with the person they intend it to connect to. And they’re using email for a purpose that it wasn’t intended for. It was intended for things that needed to be documented, for legal purposes, or for, as a means to communicate to multiple people at once. But it was, it’s a one way communication. It wasn’t meant for discussion, and people try to have discussions with email and hit reply all and you get these threads, and you’re looking at all these threads and you hit your shift button from top to bottom and delete all.
CK: That’s right, that’s right.
TW: Here’s a simple way to get your communication straight and really cut down on the time and effort you spend on communications. Get everyone on the same page and use a big page, right? What does that look like? It looks like one of these project boards. We have four by eight foot project boards that have the core information necessary, right? What’s necessary in a project? When does it start, when does it end, what are we supposed to do, where are we, right? And if there’s a core piece of communication that something big changed you either have an in-person meeting or you stick it on the board, right? Now how much time did you spend communicating?
CK: A lot less.
TW: A lot less. You just stuck it on the board and you set up a system such that that board, you ensure, ensure that the communications on that board are always communicated to the team. So we have daily meetings with our team members, and where do you think we have that daily meeting?
CK: Well, not only personally in the conference room but also through the board-
TW: In front of the board, right?
CK: Yeah, that’s right.
TW: And they’re only fifteen minutes a day so now I just really cut down my communications because I’m speaking to everyone at once, its two or three way, its interactive and its short. You got any questions, its on the board. If we can’t solve it in this meeting time we’ll set up another meeting. I didn’t email once.
CK: That’s excellent. Wow.
CK: Simplistic and very powerful.
TW: It’s very similar to why sales boards are used in companies, right? That’s one of the few disciplines in a, in a, or departments in a company that still uses a physical board, right? All the time if you walk into any sort of sales organization they will have the sales leader: how much they’re at, where in time they’re at, like is it half way through the month, what the end goal is, and they track it. It seems like a very simple communication tool, but its, its simplicity doesn’t speak to the impact it has, [CK: Right.] right. It seems like a just simple whiteboard and numbers but automatically there is built in accountability in that board because if I, if we’re both sales people I know that you’re looking at that board and I know that you see how I’m the last one on that board [CK: Right.], right? [CK: Right.] So now all of sudden there is accountability [CK: Right.], I’m not pulling my weight and not, obviously we probably aren’t the only two sales people [CK: Right.], there’s five or six other people and you know, I know that you know that everyone else knows where I am on that board. [CK: Yes.] Because we are walking past that board everyday [CK: Everyday.], right? Now that its already, that just in and of itself is a pull system, is a motivator for people, right? Because people don’t want to be last on the board; and how much management did that take? [CK: Right.] It took none. All the management or leadership it took was going to Staples, buying a whiteboard, drawing some lines across it, putting the month and the people names and their, where they are in the sales process.
CK: So do you have a board for all the projects you have?
CK: So you have five projects, you have five boards?
CK: Oh ok, got it. Because I only see one so…
TW: Yeah we don’t run our, we don’t have our project boards here because our clients are the companies that have the projects, therefore the boards are at their companies.
CK: Over there, got it.
TW: And we go there, stand in front of their board and conduct-
CK: Facilitating the meetings, got it. That’s great, fantastic. Ummm, you got a interesting story about the name Point Man, where did that come from?
TW: Point Man harkens back to umm the co-author of my book. His name is Richard Machowicz, he’s a ten year veteran of the Navy SEALS and the reason why it’s called Point Man is because a lot of the philosophies, the core fundamentals of the system, trace back to his experiences in the Navy SEALS. Things like, and you can see it in, in the way we conduct ourselves, our personality attributes. We often talk about personal responsibility, integrity, agreements, workablity, right? And in our general business culture those things are all but non-existent.
CK: Is that right?
TW: In my, in my experience. There isn’t a whole lot of integrity out there. Personal responsibility, hmmm not really. Agreements, in our simple agreements, “Hey we had a ten o’clock meeting, you’re late.” “Oh, I was only five minutes late.” right. And one of the few places in America where that sort of level of integrity and responsibility is still highly present is in the military, and that’s where we pull a lot of our fundamental attributes from. It also happens to work nicely with the leadership aspect of our system. Its called Point Man because in small special forces like the Navy SEALS there is one person out in front, one person, and that person is called the Point Man. That person is finding where we need to get to and tracking how we’re getting there and is always on the lookout for the rest of the team ensuring that we all get to the goal. Now that isn’t to say that that’s the only person looking after the goal, the whole team is, but there is one person in charge and that’s the Point Man.
CK: The person accountable.
TW: The persona accountable, exactly.
CK: Got it, that’s excellent. Now, shift of direction really quick [TW: Yeah.], you talked about how this applies to software development. There’s many other issues; in the area of technology, innovation, other than software. Software is great, don’t get me wrong. Could this kind of thinking/philosophy be applied to other areas of research and development?
TW: Absolutely. We just worked with Opportunity Green who put on a conference just days ago, last week, last weekend.
CK: I was there.
TW: Yeah. They came to us and said, “Hey, we’re trying to put on this massive conference, we’ve put it on before brute we did it just through brute force, through our blood, sweat, and tears. We didn’t sleep for weeks and we burned people out, there’s got to be a better way.” And there wasn’t much time, they were just in chaos mode, just get it done, we’re working twenty hours a day. But we took four hours out of one of their days and gave them some of the tools that we teach, some of the big paradigm shifts of lead versus manage. Focus on what really matters and how to determine what really matters. And what really matters is getting to the goal, right? And forget your plan that you created in Excel that’s ten pages long, that plan is out of date. You have to have a simple plan that can adapt to reality. So we gave them some of these tools and a four hour work session, and they took those tools and the pulled off their second successful conference.
CK: It was very successful. And what was the main things that they took away?
TW: I think they just, they took away the distinctions of leading versus manging, and that there are important things to do and not important things to do.
CK: Right, urgent and important.
TW: Yeah, and they also took away the distinction that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and a lot of people, especially in business, confuse complexity with sophistication. So they’ll, a lot of client will first come to me and ask me about tools, “What tools do I use?” And one of the most complex and robust collaboration tools out there is Microsoft SharePoint. I happen to use SharePoint because I think it’s the geek in me, I just know how to make it sing and dance and I think it’s cool, but I never recommend it to clients because it is way to complex; and that complexity in the tool breeds complexity in your process. And when you have a complex situation and you add more complexity to it, what do you have?
CK: More complexity.
TW: More complexity.
CK: More complexity, that’s right.
TW: One of our principles is: the whole world needs to be in balance. Its a Ying and Yang. So when you have a complex situation we recommend simple tools. Tools like Microsoft Excel, everyone knows how to use Excel. Create a simple list and share it. Put it on Google Docs, its free, simple to use. Forget the SharePoint, even forget BaseCamp. Google Docs, Excel.
CK: Excellent. Ummm Actually I think I’ve asked all the questions I wanted to ask. Is there anything that I should be asking but I’m not asking?
TW: Ummm I don’t know.
CK: Or anything that you wanted to say, last thoughts.[5s wait]
TW: You know the ummm, the title of this is [CK: Art of Speed.] the Art of Speed. Tell me about the Art of Speed, why is it called the Art of Speed?
CK: You know one of the things that I’m really passionate about is technology and what technology can do for the good of mankind, so on, so forth, right? But, quite often times that I see, often times that I see is that people have great technology, they have great know how, they’re really frustrated by this process of innovation, get to the point where its actually sustainable, financially sustainable. Not only you built the product but financially sustainable. The business plus the innovation, right? [TW: Yeah.] It takes a long time. Traditionally-
TW: It can take a long time, yes.
CK: Traditionally, you’re right, traditionally its, the innovation process from university to outside world is about twenty years, through diffusion model. Twenty years. That’s a long, long time. So that means there is a lot of great technology within the University right now, not being used because people don’t know about it. The Art of Speed, what I like to do and what really part of this interview series is to really understand how can we actually speed up that innovation process.
TW: Correct. Speeding up the innovation process; so I, you know when I read that without your context I got the sense of speed, right, and I see speed a lot in business and it looks like flurry. [CK: Flurry.] It looks like panic. It looks like someone just swinging, right. Throwing punches, haymakers, jabs, not hitting a thing, but just doing everything really fast and not getting anywhere, right, and that’s why I asked you what you meant by Art of Speed because our notion of speed is really based on accuracy. We have a saying that reads, “Speed impresses, accuracy kills.” And when we relate it back to project management, its the shotgun approach [CK: Right.] of project management which most project managers do, just do everything see what sticks. Or the sniper approach, right, a sniper rifle. One shot, one kill. Now that’s accuracy, right? Now our assertion is that if you are accurate and you are consistently accurate in hitting your targets you will be much faster than if you are speedily trying to hit all your targets at once. So I think that’s the key to speed is to produce results quickly, not your end mission, but knock targets down one by one, planning empirically and getting closer and closer to your end mission and making sure you hit your targets all along the way. That’s what we think of as speed.
CK: So Tony, really, so first of all really appreciate it that you spent the time, you know available afternoon with us, Friday afternoon [TW: Yes.] in particularly and dressed up for everything. What, how should people contact you if they’re interested in your service or the training? You know if they are interested in being trained to be more effective as a project manager. How should they contact you?
TW: They have two primary means. You can contact us, you can look us up on the web at DigitalOnionInc, I-N-C, dot com. And you can find descriptions of our services, case studies. We also have a site for our Point Man system, its called BeThePointMan.com, actually those are two ways; and then the third way is you can attend the LA Project Management Meetup.
CK: Oh, nice.
TW: We are sponsors of that meet up, we organize it, and we have monthly meetings here at our offices every month and so if you want to learn about project management free of charge, no pressure, come hang out with a community of project managers, sign up for the meet up.
Transcribed by Quinn Duffy