Is everything a project? Interview with Ben Synder

Today I am interviewing Ben Snyder, author of Everything is a Project: 60 Lessons from Successful Project-Driven Organisations. I spoke to Ben about his book, starting with the idea behind the title.

Hello Ben. Let’s get straight into it. Surely not everything is a project? What about routine repetitive tasks like manning a customer service help desk?

You’re right, everything’s not a project. The title of the book was meant to grab the attention of the reader, it’s definitely an exaggeration. I do believe though that we have many more projects within organisations today than ever, and if people looked at their work more as projects and took advantage of the disciplines related to projects, they would be more successful in delivering results in their jobs.

Manning a customer service help desk isn’t typically project work, but launching an effort to improve the customer service in an organisation is. It’s all about the big picture. Most knowledge workers today have projects they work with even if they do not recognise them as such.

Your book is made up of short lessons from your experience. How did you gather all the lessons?

The lessons are a product of over 27 years of working within or consulting with organisations that organised their work around projects. These organisations operated differently and had unique skills. Lots of industries and lines of business within companies have made the transition to using a project framework over the years. I got to witness this first hand and note what was learned. All of the lessons were witnessed multiple times in different companies – that was actually the fun part. I would start guessing when they were going to encounter a lesson as they progressed.

I hope you pointed them out early enough! What’s your favourite lesson from the book?

Whats the Profile of a Good Project Manager? This lesson did not come easy and was contrary to what we expected at Systemation. We built the assessment for evaluating project managers based on the project management process and the aptitudes, skills, and knowledge needed to be successful at each phase of the process.

What we found is that people who scored well on all portions of the assessment were great project managers but did not stay in the position long, they tended to climb the corporate ladder very quickly. Whereas good project managers did not score well in all portions of the assessment, but tended to get the job done with a few predictable struggles. That’s where the majority of project managers are: not great but good enough.

My favourite was the one about haunting deadlines and I thought the project manager in that example was brave. He deliberately changed the project deadlines to give his over-stretched team a break so that they could refocus on the project with more energy afterwards. And it worked, although I imagine he had a hard time negotiating that with his manager. What’s your advice for dealing with deadlines?

All deadlines aren’t equal. Some are hard and can‘t be missed. Others are soft and can afford to be missed. Management needs to recognise that all deadlines aren’t equal; if they treat all deadlines the same then there is no priority between them. This can lead to the hard deadlines being slipped and the soft ones being accomplished on time. Life isn’t perfect and priorities help us deal with our imperfect world. A good way to gauge a deadline is determining if it is on the critical path or not.

I find organisational leaders are not very good at saying no, either to their management or their own desires. As a result, their organisations initiate too many projects within a given period and experience massive schedule delays.

Your book has a distinctive image on the cover: toast. Where did the idea for that come from?

It was the best way to take a provocative statement like “Everything’s a Project” and give it some humour. Lots of life encounters can be considered projects if having them turn out right is important enough to you. We also considered a martini in a glass, wedding cake, and vacation brochure.

Thanks, Ben!

Ben Snyder is CEO of project management training and consultancy firm Systemation. He believes that project management’s influence on company success in the future will come from organizations that do not yet see their work as projects. That is why Systemation has developed a course called Got Projects? that specifically addresses these organisations.