Speaker Spotlight: A Conversation with Donna Fitzgerald

Donna Fitzgerald Headshot.jpg

As we prepare for the upcoming Resource Planning Summit, we’ll be offering a series of guest blogs and interviews to further promote thought leadership in the field of resource planning as it relates to PPM, demand management, and strategy execution.

In this blog, Jerry Manas, author of The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, interviews Donna Fitzgerald, executive director of Nimble PM and former research VP at Gartner on what she views as the three key drivers of strategy execution.

Both Manas and Fitzgerald will be presenting at the 2019 Resource Planning Summit.


JM: Donna, I’m looking forward to your presentation at the upcoming Resource Planning Summit. Your presentation talks about the role of resources, products and spontaneous projects in driving strategy, and particularly digital transformation. Could you expand on that a little?

DF: Sure. It’s no secret that companies have been struggling with their digital transformation efforts. The reason for the struggle is simple. Digital transformation was never primarily about technology. It is and has always been about building companies that are equipped to deal with the continuous disruptive change most of us foresee for the next 20 years.

JM: I’m glad you mentioned that it’s not just about technology. A lot of people hear the term digital transformation and assume it’s just an IT issue. It’s really an all-encompassing paradigm shift that’s not only consuming resources, but impacting all parts of a business as organizations try to keep up with the pace of disruption.

DF: Exactly. And how do you build a culture that thrives on disruption? Rethink resource management across your enterprise; adopt product thinking to keep decisions focused on enterprise value; and encourage a culture of spontaneous projects where people feel they have the time to leap on potentially great possibilities without putting day to day operations in jeopardy.

JM: It seems quite a holistic approach that includes value-focus and adaptability. Would you say culture plays a role in driving this?

DF: Absolutely. The key I’ll be speaking about is that these three elements all work together to create a completely different culture than is common today. What’s wonderful about these three levers is that we can embrace them now. We have resource management tools that can help us model how many of the right people we need to do the right work. We have an emerging culture of product thinking present in the business world today that will help us increase our focus on value, and finally by creating the space for spontaneous projects, we can solve our employee disengagement problem by giving people interesting problems that will add depth and breadth to working lives. I won’t say it can all happen with the snap of the fingers but as far as change efforts go, this one should be comparatively easy.

JM: It also enables a balanced approach to innovation and sustaining work, something people are talking a lot about these days. Changing gears for a moment, how does the growing shift toward Agile play into the new culture?

DF: One of the biggest problems surrounding software development in IT and occasionally in R&D environments, is a widespread misunderstanding of agility. Some things in life are naturally anchored in time. One thing must happen before another can be started. Adjusting to that inherent linearity, where it is required, does not negate the ability to be agile. I was reading an article the other day and they quoted a CIO as saying that agile has no place in an Infrastructure and Operations group. I understand why he would make that comment, even if I disagree with it.

I&O has a lot of work that is necessarily sequential. It’s like building a house. You can’t put the roof on if the walls aren’t there to support it. Agile thinking can be applied to any discipline, but some areas require more agility than others and software development is one of those areas.  It’s always been a balancing act between what is known, what is knowable and can only be discovered through something agile calls emergence. 

Agile is not the opposite of waterfall. Waterfall works wherever scope is knowable and reality enforces a fixed way that things come together. Waterfall never made any sense for custom software where, no matter what people say they want, there are multiple ways the actual value/outcome can be delivered. 

JM: Agreed, hence the push toward bimodal project management, where Agile and Waterfall coexist, using the right tool for the right job as it were. People often mistake Agile as meaning “no planning” or a free for all, which we know isn’t the case at all. On the other hand, some companies go to the other extreme and make their Agile process so rigid that it becomes the very thing it was meant to avoid.

DF: They need to understand: Agile is a mindset. Agile is knowing what can be fixed and locked down and what can’t. Agile is understanding that all creative endeavors operate in the zone of uncertainty and even though by the time the endeavor is theoretically done it may not be complete. This is a true statement that most developers misunderstand. True agility is knowing that you can’t know the future so at some point you need to stop coding and let the future unfold (what I called emergence a moment ago). You might need to add things, take things out or do it all over again, but saying “I’ll let you know when we’re done” is the anthesis of agile because it creates an overinvestment in features that won’t end up being needed.

JM: It reminds me of the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Rex Harrison as the Pope kept pestering Michelangelo while he was painting the Sistine Chapel, saying, “When will you make it end?” And Michelangelo, played by Charlton Heston, would repeatedly respond, “When I’m finished.” I think that’s a frequent fear of management, that Agile is a black hole. Of course, that’s where timeboxing can help as well.

DF: I’m currently involved in building a community of people who are interested in helping their entire enterprise become more agile, so I know agile isn’t an either-or proposition. With that said, would I have let someone tell me that they would ship a product whenever they thought it was right, or close the books when they thought they were done?  No. When I managed finance, my staff and I took our close process from 5 days to 3 days without any loss of quality. We did it by rethinking our process and eliminating unnecessary work, without ever causing our auditors the slightest concern. I’m using a financial example because finance is clearly a time-oriented discipline that can still be made agile through agile thinking.

Back to your bimodal point, eventually companies will need to be fully agile, but that only means they do the right things at the right time for optimum value. If they still need a waterfall approach for some projects, that is fine and appropriate.

JM: I think that’s good advice, embracing lean methods, knowing when to proceed in a linear fashion or not, and focusing more intently on delivering value. You mentioned resource management as one of the three pillars of driving strategy and digital transformation, which I certainly agree with. What trends do you see with regard to better resource management helping drive strategy?

DF: I think the future is very bright for resource management. I recently spoke to a group of resource managers and told them that I believe they have a pivotal role in their company’s success in becoming a digital enterprise. Originally, PPM was assumed to be inclusive of resource management functions, but like many things it’s turned out it isn’t a comfortable fit for many project managers, who are focused so heavily on delivery of their project. When project management shifted away from managing people who did project work to managing progress on tasks, it caused a schism in what was once a holistic model.

JM: Are you referring to the strong matrix organizations, where the project managers would own their resources? 

DF: Yes, models have become more distributed, with resource managers actually paying attention to their staff’s workloads and career growth, whereas project managers tended not to.

JM: That makes sense. Also, in today’s distributed organizations, it’s important for project and resource managers to talk, which they so often fail to do. Project managers can no longer afford to be schedule jockeys, and they’re not in the best position to know the resource’s overall workload, nor would they typically care.

DF: Exactly, which is why resource managers are the new glue that will help us solve our employee disengagement problem. They will be the ones that focus on both real workload and perceived workload. In the past, project managers could just crack the whip to get their project done, regardless of the long-term impact on the people.

JM: Some organizations are even questioning the role of the project manager, especially in Agile circles. Should project managers be concerned?

DF: Even with the engagement problem solved, project managers will always have jobs even if most of those jobs are no longer found in IT. No company can be successful without people who are very good at managing unstructured work (the spontaneous projects I described earlier) and despite the plethora of PPM methodology that exists, true project management will always be about coping with minimal structure and maximum uncertainty. 

JM: Yes, and managing milestones, risks and issues. Plus there’s program management for the more strategic and large-scale items, though the focus is at a higher level and on business benefits.

DF: Absolutely. On the strategy execution front, as mentioned, digital business is going to force a complete paradigm shift. In the future, strategies will be treated like large-scale programs and will have program managers assigned to them. Program management is a poorly understood discipline in most companies, which has limited the career growth of many a top notch Project Manager. That won’t be the situation in the future. As I said people who can herd cats, manage unstructured work, and get people to make decisions on a timely basis are worth their weight in gold and I expect bright things for anyone willing to take up the challenge.

JM: Project managers, take heed! Well, Donna, I thank you for an enlightening conversation and look forward to seeing you in February at the Resource Planning Summit in Nashville. I think attendees will really benefit from hearing how to build a culture that embraces resources management, product focus, and innovation.

DF: Thank you, and I look forward to sharing it with them!