How to Lead During the Shift from Project Management to Work Management: A Conversation with Greg Stine
Greg Stine, whose career has taken him from companies ranging from Comcast to Equifax, started his career at NASA.
He had studied biomedical engineering in college, but shortly after starting at NASA he realized that as much as he loved the agency, he didn’t love engineering. “I realized I’m just not the typical type of person that normally becomes an engineer,” Stine says. “I prefer to plan and manage projects.”
He decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in project management from George Washington University. Stine says, “It turns out that the guy who headed up the program was a project manager during Apollo. I went and talked to him, and he totally sold me on it. It’s been a perfect fit.”
Since that time, Stine has worked in a variety of roles, balancing his knowledge of management theory with effective practice.
In this interview, Greg Stine shares his advice on project management and work management, and he explains the difference between the two. He also tells what he’s learned over the course of his career and illustrates how to best use project management skills in the new world of work management.
What soft skills do leaders need to manage teams?
I’ve always viewed my role as essentially being the Pied Piper — the person who goes into town and says, “I’ve got a great opportunity for you. I’m going to encourage you, make sure we’re all working together as a team, and get something done.”
It’s a very collaborative management philosophy, one that centers on soft skills. It’s about motivating, reducing conflict, and negotiating so that everybody sees we’re going to finish this project as a team.
What advice do you have for motivating team members?
I’ve found that people don’t like to work for a drill sergeant. They’re always nervous when he comes around, like he’s going to figure out something they haven’t done and belittle them or call them out in meetings.
I’ve always felt that if you help people have a vision and see how awesome that vision is, the motivation part is pretty easy.
The hard part is when you hit a roadblock and everybody gets bummed. That’s when you have put things into perspective.
I faced this recently. Someone came to me frustrated because they had been given an impossible due date, and they had a barrier related to senior executives. It’s out of their control. I said, “You know what? Forget the date. Forget the date. It’s their date, and it’s their barrier. Focus on moving your team forward, and the date will be resolved by your executives.”
The person realized they couldn’t do anything about the date, but they could stay motivated to keep their team working. Sometimes management is about finding the right way to motivate.
What do you do to successfully launch a new project or process?
For me, a successful launch is about starting a conversation with the team more than it’s about giving a presentation.
I’m not the norm on this front. Instead of starting a conversation, a lot of project managers will launch with a PowerPoint presentation and a three-hour meeting. They’ll outline what everyone has to do and what the timelines are.
To me that’s a very dry approach. It takes up a lot of time, and it’s not focused on reality. It’s better to say, “We’re here to do X. Here’s how I would like us to work together, and I need everyone’s help.” And then ask for everyone’s views and input.
My primary skill is to be a collaborative team builder. That’s the way I view it.
How do you manage a team when things aren’t going according to plan?
Above all, don’t be scared. Don’t be nervous, because unless you personally did something to sabotage your project,you’re just the messenger.
You may capture heat for being the messenger, but if you come with solutions of how your team can solve it, you can open a conversation and reduce the heat.
I once had a project where I reported to the CEO every week. I had 15 minutes total. He wanted to know whether we were on track and whether we had any roadblocks. The first time I went in, I had an hour-long presentation prepared, and he cut me off right away.
He said, “This is not how you do it. Come back when you have it figured out.” So I went and talked to some other people, and they told me to quickly give the status along with one to three issues — issues that he needs to act upon — and tell him exactly what you need him to do. Be that concise.
Do you recommend that direct and concise approach?
Absolutely. It doesn’t matter how senior the person is, you do not want to drop your problems on someone else and hope they solve them.
You have to be clear and concise about what you’re asking people to do. You can tell the IT guy that you’re having a problem with the marketing team, and he’s not going care because he can’t do anything about it. So keep the conversation focused.
How have team members responded to this approach?
What they tell me is that they appreciate not feeling like “resources.” They feel like people who have minds and are helping to accomplish a task and solve problems along the way.
My mantra is: we succeed together as a team and we fail together. I hope the people who work on my projects feel that.
What gets you excited to drive major changes where you work?
I love the challenge. The bigger, the hairier the mandate for change, the more exciting it is.
When I came into Equifax, they needed help with their processes standards. There were about 20 PMPs out of a company of 10,000. It was definitely an underdeveloped role at the company.
Within six months of joining Equifax, our COO set up an enterprise program management round table. It consisted of five or six VPs and directors from around the company, including me. It was exciting to see how we could work together to have a movement within Equifax, and it laid the groundwork for change.
Since then, Workfront has provided a platform that helps us collaborate across departments. It’s selling itself. We have people coming all the time and saying, “How can we get involved in this?” We’ve become a process-oriented company.
What have you seen change over the course of your career?
The way that we go about work within organizations has completely changed.
A lot of people now work remotely. It used to be you had to have a project team that was very co-located, and they did everything together. Now your team could be scattered across the country or beyond.
We also don’t necessarily talk about projects at Equifax anymore. Instead, we talk about customer journeys and product road maps. You can break that down into projects, or sprints, or whatever, but the way that we are working is a lot less structured and a lot more fluid. That’s why we need something like Workfront, a platform that’s fluid enough to adjust to changing methods. It can still help you track your work, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be “a project.”
Would you say you’ve seen a shift from project management to work management?
How would you define this shift?
Work management is all about identifying your goals and how to get there. And the way to get there isn’t necessarily a project. It could be a series of different methods.
For instance, at Equifax we do everything from acquisitions to development to hack-a-thons. We also have a lot of boomers leaving the workforce and a lot of millennials coming in. Their expectations for work are completely different, and people kinda want to get their stuff done on their own terms rather than being told to come in 9-5 and do A, B, and C.
By contrast, project management is a structured way to get from point A to point B.
What advice would you give people who are interested in work management?
Some fundamentals aren’t going to go away.
You still need to identify your objectives, and you still need to measure your progress towards those objectives. You also still need to be less focused on attaining a certain title and more focused on what kind of work do you want to do.
You also need to be comfortable with change. Recently, we eliminated all scrum masters at Equifax, and I’m convinced that very soon project manager and program manager roles will not exist.
For a guy like me, what does that mean? Where will I go? The answer is that I do have subject matter expertise in Equifax, in our products. And so I will take on a role that allows me to leverage that expertise but also apply some of these project management skills as needed to get things done.
I recently had a conversation with an executive who told me that the days of the traditional project manager are gone. He said I needed to figure out what my next role is, which can be kind of scary. He said, “You’ve got a lot of valuable experience and knowledge. So there are many places that you can contribute.”
Personally, I have a feeling that I will be involved on our digital transformation in some way. I think if I were to go to another organization, it would be to help them transition their thinking away from projects to work management.
Why the move away from scrum masters and project management?
We're moving toward what's called the Spotify Model, which takes three or four different matrix organizations and layers them on top of each other. These matrices are centered around a type of work. They're self-led and self-directing. From the IT perspective, we don’t need somebody being the cheerleader. Instead we need everybody engaged in doing the work and letting the group itself make all the decisions together.
It’s going to be a challenge to pull that off, but it will be interesting to see it work.
The problem is that project managers are often times seen as overhead — that they’re not really contributing to the project, or doing work on the project. They just happen to be hosting calls, hosting meetings, taking notes, and all that.
The funny thing is that I tell people right up front, that if they want that kind of a person, they should get a project coordinator, not a project leader.
Ultimately, I think the change is just a matter of wanting to be more efficient and cost effective, and keep people closer to doing the actual work.
Does Workfront play a role in that process?
Yes. I’ve actually created a diagram that shows Workfront as a hub with a lot of other systems — Salesforce, Jira, Aha!, and the G Suite. None of those other systems are being set up with the objective of connecting and sharing information the way Workfront is. We view Workfront as the hub for work management.
What do you think is the biggest thing about work management that people outside of work management get wrong?
I find that people don’t often understand the differences between a work management platform and a project management platform.
To give just one example, we’ve found a special niche that Workfront can fill in capturing all sorts of data. Anything that we want to report on, we’ll throw it in Workfront. We have some users who use Workfront to enter metadata, manage that metadata, and report on the metadata that they have.
That’s extremely powerful because it’s stuff that would’ve been in spreadsheets or in people’s heads in years past. So now we have four years worth of data from since we implemented Workfront. We can see how we work across the company, which is far beyond project management.
Because of those benefits, we’ve embedded Workfront throughout our entire organization.
What are you doing to drive adoption throughout your organization?
We’ve created something called Workfront Nation, which is a community of power users in Workfront. Their role is to coach and mentor the folks in their departments, as well as bring back challenges and ideas to the rest of the community so we can figure out how to solve those together, and roll out those changes in a way that isn’t disruptive.
We have big plans for the future of work management at Equifax, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Any final advice for someone who’s wondering if work management is right for them?
Ask yourself whether your level of interest in things waxes and wanes on a frequent cycle. If not — if you like to focus on one thing repeatedly day in and day out — management might not be the best fit. On the other hand, if your level of interest waxes and wanes, you might consider this field.
If you enjoy being the “Pied Piper” and getting people excited about accomplishing something in a relatively short period of time, it may be the right kind of role for you.
One nice thing about this field is that it’s really easy to pivot into IT, or go into business, or whatever. The possibilities are massive.
This is the third piece in our series where we interview experts of modern work. Also see our interview with Scott Shippy, PMO Sr. Director at Viasat as well as our interview with Josh Blackwood, Principal Technology Solutions Consultant at ADP.
Subscribe to our blog (below) for future interviews. Thanks for reading!