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Inside the Mind of a Project Manager – Agile for Modern Challenges

By Cliff Berg 08 Sep 2023
Inside the Mind of a Project Manager – Agile for Modern Challenges

Cliff Berg has built a prominent career as a consultant, specialising in integrating Agile and DevOps methodologies. He has steered over ten transformative Agile or DevOps projects to success. As a recognized expert in the field, Cliff wears many hats, including that of a seasoned DevOps trainer and a respected subject matter authority. Cliff’s insights and strategies were instrumental in the creation of the Agile 2 framework, where he served as a core team member. This experience paved the way for him to become the lead author of the well-received "Agile 2" book, in addition to penning five other notable publications in the field.

Discover his expert insights and benefit from his extensive experience in the project management domain by reading this interview.

Q: Could you provide some insight into your background and what specifically motivated your interest in project management? 

Well, you can’t not be interested in project management if you want to get anything done. I started as a nuclear engineer, and then I was an electrical engineer, and I started an IT company in 1995 that grew to 200 people, and as CTO I had to understand project management. I got deeply involved with the Agile movement, but from the beginning I have been a lot more concerned with things like reliability and security than most of the Agile community.

Q: Throughout your career, what project are you most proud of, and why? 

There are a few things. One is our creation of Agile 2. I feel that we did something really positive, even though a lot of people in the Agile community think that it is just another Agile framework, which it is not, not at all. 

I am also proud of helping companies to develop strategy around agility. For example, recently we helped a new research institute get off the ground and be nimble and agile from the beginning. I should say that we don’t use so-called Agile methods. Instead, we use behavioural psychology, leadership theory, and other well researched fields.

Q: Could you share some of the key challenges in project management and how you've navigated through them in your career? 

I never view a project as a project. When you create something today, it is a living thing. You can’t view it as a project, where you do it and you are done. Things change too fast today: by the time you finish something, you need to change it. And you can’t put something into maintenance mode: if you do, you will find soon that you need to enhance it or adjust it, because your competitors have adjusted their things. And you have to trade off fixing things versus adding new features, so it no longer makes sense to differentiate between fixes and new stuff. It’s all a mix of things to do. And you have to prioritise them equally. 

But with respect to challenges, the biggest challenge is always helping people to learn what they don’t know. It’s all about getting ideas into people’s heads and helping them to understand things. You have to connect the dots for them. It is always a learning journey. 

When a company builds things, which today is almost always done digitally, managing that is a matter of managing what people know, and managing issues that come up. And when issues come up, the challenge is to get the right people into a discussion and make an expeditious decision about what to try, and see if that will solve the problem. And you have to think both short term and long term, but not confuse the two. 

Q: What strategies do you use to maintain project quality standards while also keeping an eye on the budget and timeline? 

There are two metrics that are central to almost every project: quality and lead time. That is, how good is the stuff you are making, and how long does it take, end-to-end, to make improvements to it. Those two metrics tend to daylight everything else, because those two metrics will show a problem until you identify a root cause and fix that. You can’t conceal quality and lead time. 

Beyond that, it’s all about having a culture of solving problems. You have to be problem-focused: give people problems to solve, not tasks to do. And you have to create a culture of no one wins unless we all win. People need to feel they are all on the same team, no matter how many teams you have. And you have to know what’s really going on. If you only read reports, you don’t know what’s going on. You have to go around and talk to people, at all levels.

Q: Receiving feedback is crucial in project management. What strategies do you use to gather and integrate your team's feedback into your project management methodology? 

I never use a methodology. I use behavioural psychology and leadership models. Managing things is not a cookbook repeatable process. With regard to feedback, I ask questions. I want to know not only what’s happening, but why, and how it works. I try to find the areas that need my attention, and the areas that I can leave alone. But I think that you might be asking about leadership style feedback. People have different approaches for that. I personally try to sense when someone is feeling unhappy about something, and then I ask them, and I show concern. I know I do, because I am concerned. I care about people.

Q: It's often perceived that a career in project management can be quite stressful. How do you handle the pressure and stress associated with managing high-stakes projects? 

People vary in this, but I personally don’t feel much pressure. I don’t feel anxiety about dates, or outcomes. It might be a personality flaw. But I just don’t worry much. But I think that a lot of people feel anxiety because they set things up for failure. To succeed, you have to have the customer on your side. They have to trust that you will make their problem your problem if something goes wrong. If they see you as a supplier, forget it – they won’t be happy no matter how well you do. But if they see you as someone who will make it right no matter what, they are a lot more forgiving if you need more time or things need adjustment.

Q: How do you handle a situation when a project fails or doesn't deliver the expected results?

The only times that things did not turn out well were when customer stakeholders did not do what I had asked them to do. In that case, there is not much you can do. You probably have to bow out.

Q: As an accomplished educator, how do you incorporate real-world project scenarios into your lectures to enhance student learning and understanding? 

People learn differently. In our company we have a very extensive training suite that encompasses leadership, collaboration, and other topics. I tend to be very cognitive – I learn best by reading, so I maintain a lot of the online content. But the training includes role-play workshops and the people who conduct those sessions are more emotion-centric, if I might describe them that way. So, you have to fit the facilitator or trainer to the activity. And while having real world scenarios as examples is important, and we do, it is also important to give people a chance to actually apply what they have learned in a safe setting in which you can help them to interpret what happened.

Q: What are some of the common misconceptions about project management that you often encounter? 

That you can task things out. You can for some things, like building a house. But for product development, you absolutely cannot task things out, except at a very high level. I find that a much better perspective is to think in terms of capabilities that you are working to develop, and to set milestones for those. But you can’t define tasks for the creative steps, the steps that involve design and engineering. If you do, the tasks will be wrong, or you will have to repeat them a few times, or you will not think of things that you don’t know that you need to do until you get into it and make a design decision that you did not realise that you would make.

Q: From your perspective, how important is project management certification, and what value does it add to a professional's career? 

I think it might be helpful if one also learns other paradigms. Too much of project management certification is about a process of completing documents. That’s not what good project management is. Good project management is about getting away from documents, and finding out what is going on. It's about good leadership. And traditional tools like work breakdown structure are only effective at the top level – as I said, at least for product development – you can’t task it out except at a very high level. But a lot of project management frameworks focus on that work breakdown structure. 

The best project manager that I ever had, when I was a team member, was a fellow who had a PhD in linguistics, but no training in project management. He was a natural leader, in the sense that he was inquisitive, thoughtful, considerate, and knew when to make a decision and when to let others decide.

Q: Could you share your insights on how technological advancements, especially with regards to AI, have influenced project management recently? How do you foresee the evolution of the project manager's role with advancements in machine learning and predictive analytics? 

I think that many people do not understand what AI is. They think that it is software, but it is not. Today it runs as software because of various reasons, but over the next decade it will transition to what are called neuromorphic systems, and they are not software systems. We are actually at the end of the digital era. We are transitioning to the AI era. Digital is, frankly, yesterday. And this is a big challenge for managers. Managers will need to understand what the AI systems of the day can do, and what they cannot do. And that changes monthly.

Q: In what ways do you think the educational landscape for project management will evolve in the next decade? 

Managers need to have a better understanding of cognitive science, sociology, and behavioural psychology. And leadership.

Q: Many of our readers are aspiring project managers. What advice would you give them for a successful career in project management? 

Study leadership. There has been a lot of research about leadership. So don’t just read pop culture books. Read about the research. That’s the real stuff.