Brightline Project Management Institute (PMI)
Interview with Ricardo Viana Vargas – Brightline Project Management Institute (PMI) – Project Management & Strategy Implementation
Joshua: Hi, Ricardo. Thank you for being a guest on the SystemsMatter Podcast. The purpose of the interview is to offer guidance and encouragement to those interested in careers in designing, making, and producing systems from people who’ve already had a successful career in the industry. Normally, we talk to systems engineering people, but I like to try and expand it to related fields, including project management. And given you’re a project management and strategy implementation expert, I think the advice that you could give would be greatly received by the audience and given that you have such a large amount of credentials in the field of project management, including authored 15 books, I thought that you would be a very interesting guest.
Ricardo: Thank you. Thank you, Joshua. It’s a pleasure for me to talk to you and it’s always great to have opportunity to share what we have in mind and what do I believe, in terms of the use and the adoption of project management to improve business, in general. I’m glad to be here.
Joshua: Great, thank you. Could you introduce your current mission and how it’s linked to your past career activities?
Ricardo: Yeah. Just to give you a very quick background, I am a chemical engineer with a master in industrial engineering and I’m a PhD candidate right now in civil engineering. My background is about engineering and what I do in my whole career is towards project management. I have different experience in my professional life, but all of them related on transforming ideas into reality, so doing things.
I started my career on the technology side. I did a lot of the millennium bug works at the beginning of my career; internet, some of the preliminary internet work. After that, I moved directly to infrastructure projects where I did a lot of construction projects, most of them on the capital projects. I did the opportunity to build oil platforms, oil refineries, and power plants, hydro electrical power plants, airports, and this kind of major infrastructure. I did this most of the time for the private sector.
After that, I was invited in 2012 to become director for project management at the United Nations Office for Project Services where I shifted a lot of my work through humanitarian. The essence of the work is basically the same. How do you finish things on time, on schedule? How do you frame properties, scope and manage the risks? But at this time, only humanitarian projects. I’m saying building schools, building roads, refugee camps. This was the idea behind that, and today, I work on the think tank, called Brightline Initiative, where we advocate and we produce knowledge and thought leadership on the how do you bring ideas to life? Means how do you connect the design and the desired strategies with the results? How you can bridge this gap, how you can make your ideas and your strategy work.
Joshua: Wow, that’s incredible. I imagine there are probably a lot of people working on the strategy side, but you’re quite unique in doing this bridge, right? If there seems to be a need for it that maybe not enough people are working on that, turning the idea into reality on time and on budget.
Ricardo: I agree completely. What we see today is that it’s more … I don’t know if I would say that, but it’s more fancy, it’s more interesting, to think about designing the strategy, than the quite painful process of making it happen. Because, at the end, it’s more fun, probably, it’s more interesting to see how the future will look like four years from now, three years from now. Then, in reality, build this future. I don’t want that you interpret me wrongly. I don’t want to say that it’s easy to envision the future. It’s a very, very hard task, but I have a belief that the really, really big task is how you can take this idea from paper and transform them into reality. And this is for me, is where the very painful process comes in place, and if you’re not prepared, you cannot do that.
For example, imagine for you that you believe it’s important to send a man to Mars. Okay, so there is a lot of background, a lot of investigation about the value of doing that. And let’s suppose that you decided this is extremely valuable, both for your organization, for your government, or for this site. Imagine how we stop. Transform this statement, send the man to Mars, into in reality, send man to Mars. Imagine the cultural challenges, the human challenges, the technology challenges, the risk challenge. There’s challenge everywhere.
How you can breach and move from that idea into reality. There is a lot of things happening and most of the time it’s very hard because it’s a very complex and volatile environment. This is exactly where we want to develop knowledge and we want to develop awareness, because not so many people are dedicated on that specific area.
Joshua: Yeah, I think that’s incredible. I think that’s an incredible mission for you to be on. I imagine when you enter a organization, or a team, there could be some people who are skeptical of project management, or sort of formal approaches, how do you go about convincing them of your ideas? Or almost selling the idea of using project management?
Ricardo: That’s a great question because, for me, my strategy is always you convince by pain or by gain. If people do not realize what is in there for them, people don’t get motivated. I know that you will say, “People are very altruistic,” and I truly believe on that in most of the people, but even the altruist is in some ways a matter of self-interest. You are altruist because you believe it’s good for you, it make you feel better. For some people, this motivation can be money, can be career improvement, can be doing something for the society, but at the end, it’s based on self-interest. Even to help the others, it’s a self-interest of yourself on your well-being.
So what do we need? You need to touch on what is in there for the people. I’m saying, maybe, what is in there for them of moving forward, in terms of gain, saying, “Look, if you move forward, there is a big gain for you based on your aspirational values or of your life value proposition.” But on the other side, there is also the convincement by the pain and saying, “Look, you can stay where you are. You cannot participate on this transformational journey. But remember, the price tag will come with tax, and maybe in the future, you will pay the price for not adapting yourself to that new environment.”
I think that these are very important triggers and I use this in my own life because, honestly speaking, I have a belief that we do not like very much change. We love talking about change. We love saying, “Change is needed, we need to change, we need to do,” but at the very, very end, we are very uncomfortable with change. And why? Because we don’t know if we will be successful on this new environment. Because, for the worst the current environment is, you know it. You know how you are able to fit on that, but on the new, you really don’t know. And what you don’t know scares you.
This is how you need to balance this. Balance this feeling and create this energy. Of course, the energy towards the positive side of moving, it’s driven by the positive psychology. That is a very big topic, now, on the human behavior. Thinking in a positive way is always greater than thinking on the negative way, but some people will only be motivated when they see themselves being challenged. It’s human nature and it’s something that we need to work on.
Joshua: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that’s a very intelligent way to put it and this idea that we like talking about change but, really, we’re actually very frightened about the uncertainty that entails is … I think we don’t think about that too much.
What made you become a project manager? Why did you decide to enter this profession?
Ricardo: Look, I honestly … You know, when things sometimes happen … First, since I was very, very young, I always had a great interest on creating things. For example, most of the time I spent during my childhood playing, I was creating toys. Not necessarily playing with the toys. I used to love this building toys, you know? And doing things. I didn’t want it to, for example, to take a car and just drive the car. No, I wanted to create the car, you know? And I want to build things and do that, and this is the essence of the concept of project because you build things. I’m not saying not necessarily a car, but you build ideas. You create things from scratch or you polish things, and this was something that was part of my DNA since very young.
And, also, I saw an opportunity, because of this desire, of seeing that this could be extremely beneficial for the organizations I used to work with. And this is how I started working on that. I started saying how I can help organizations? How I can help my boss, or the company I work with, to cope with developing new things? And this was when I started my career, 20, 25 years ago, this was something quite restrict to product development or marketing development. And then, what happened with the volatility of the world, this became completely mainstream and this was what allowed me to boost dramatically my career because that kind of ability became mainstream in most organizations because all the routine work was replaced by machines, but the project work was not. I saw a massive opportunity to apply the skills I have to benefit my customers, my clients, and to succeed professionally.
Joshua: How incredible. So, it was very good timing where the world got more complicated, problems got more complicated as the machines did the routine work and you could step in there and aid. Thank you for describing that.
Ricardo: Yes. Yes, I think it’s hard to say because everything is so complex when we think about career. But, of course, to be on the right place on the right track, is something that creates a huge positive environment for you to move.
Ricardo: Another thing that I truly believe is also behavior because, no matter what you do, there is a component of your own behavior that drives your success. It doesn’t matter if you are a musician or if you are a painter or if you are project manager. So you have much more ability to drive your career than you think. Most of the people think that they only … it’s a passive thing. You study, you do something, and you wait someone to invite you, and it’s not so. You need to be smart enough to adapt yourself and to reinvent yourself.
And, maybe because of my roots, I don’t want to make a generic statement here, but I am Brazilian. When people talk about crisis, okay? Financial crisis, employment crisis, and everything. I’m 45 years old. I live it in the crisis since ever, since ever. If you look Brazilian, economy Brazilian, job market, and every, it’s like a rollercoaster. Things are good. Things are bad. Things are good. Things are bad. And with that, maybe, you develop very early a behavior of adapting yourself extremely fast to different and challenging conditions.
And, for me, with my behavior on project management and my ability, a lot of this entrepreneurial spirit, this was a perfect mix to drive and to boost my work, you know? Because, sometimes when you have stability, stability’s a dream for me. I would love to have a completely stable life and this, but the stability sometimes puts you in such a comfort zone that you have some challenges to see where opportunities are. The stability does not hurt you enough for you to start moving. But this, also, is a very personal statement and it’s based on my own experience. It’s not based on any formal research of that.
Joshua: No, I think that’s a very interesting way to put it. And I think this idea of being stuck in a comfort zone and not … You’re kind of riding the bus, rather than driving the car and I think that you put it very well.
Ricardo: Yeah, and I believe, Joshua, that people have much more power to drive their professional behavior than they think. They many times rely on the organizations that they work for on the government or whatever, on the university, than on themselves. And this is very different from my insurance plan, okay? Like my professional insurance plan. I’m not saying insurance, but just a metaphor. I provide to myself through study, through behavior, and this is the way I protect myself. I don’t protect myself behind a contract or an employment contract.
It’s not the company that needs to want me. It’s the opposite. It’s do I want this company or not? If I don’t, I will just find another job because I believe I have qualifications that are interesting for many companies and they will benefit from that. So just to give you perspective on that.
Joshua: Yes, I think that’s a really … particularly as the world becomes more dynamic, your approach, I think, that becomes only more valuable and I thank you very much for sharing that with us. As you mentioned, there’s been ups and downs, however, in the Brazilian economy or, I imagine, any career. Would you be able to share maybe one very important high point and maybe one very important low point and what you learned from them?
Ricardo: Yeah, I can give you two important points on Brazilian economy. It’s if we go back to 2009, Brazil was selected to hosted the World Cup, the Olympic Games, and Brazil discovered the oil fields. If you remember the cover the British magazine, The Economist, it was the Christ the Redeemer, a very important monument in Rio in Brazil, was like an airplane or a shuttle, a space shuttle, saying, “Brazil takes off.”
At that time, Brazil was dominated by an extremely high sense of optimist. We said, “Brazil will take off. Now is the time of Brazil.” And at that time, I sat on a very important congress on project management. I said, “Look, we have the strategy on paper. Now, it’s our job to transform what is in paper into reality. We won a proxy of hosting an Olympic and the World Cup. We identify that five kilometers under the sea in the rocks, in one of the most challenging exploration areas for oil, we have a lot of oil, but it’s not very easy to remove. We need, now, to transform this into reality.”
Then, the second point was in 2013 when for political, economic reasons, what happened? Brazil started to collapse and then the same Economist put, “What happened to Brazil?”, when the Christ the Redeemer was like a plane in flame crashing, you know? So what happened?
Our inability to cope with the change and to cope with the volatility made Brazil basically lose everything. The World Cup, when it happened, the Olympic Games happened, and now, for example, we are facing one of the biggest crisis in Rio because of finance, because of violence. I’m just saying one high moment and one low moment, and this is a split by five, six years, and that’s it.
Just to see how volatility happens. And this, I can give you hundreds of different examples of that.
Joshua: Wow. Yeah, that’s incredible and it really shows the importance of your work, where your strategy has been identified and then, how do we bring it to fruition and how … It sounds like that … I mean, I’ve never been to Brazil, but the Olympics did happen and the World Cup did happen and I believe oil is coming out of the ground, but it is a shame that maybe it didn’t go as well it maybe could have.
Ricardo: Yeah, Joshua, it’s absolutely perfect what you said. The World Cup happened, the Olympic happened, but imagine you as a citizen when you know that your country will invest billions in something and you decide to host the Olympic or to host-
Ricardo: … you have an expectation that this will … after these events, that region or that city or that country will benefit from the infrastructure that was put in place from the marketing and everything. This was the model of what happened in Barcelona in 1992. What happened? And this is what drove all the crisis is that the money was spent, the 20 day competition, 25 days, whatever, competition happened, but the legacy is not there. What is the legacy we received?
You know, was it a good investment? We did one piece, but it does not necessarily represent the full investment on that.
Joshua: Thank you. If you were gonna give yourself a advice or a novice in the field advice, what would it be? And, if there was some bad advice you’d tell them to ignore, what would it be?
Ricardo: Yeah, I think that a good advice that I would share is, as Steve Jobs said, “You need to stay hungry.” You need to have inside yourself this sense of urgency, this sense of responsibility, and this is something you cannot delegate. You need to feel the ownership of your own destiny, of your own career. You need to feel that. This is the advice. This is something that you cannot outsource.
And one bad advice that I would suggest is many times people say that the results is what matter most. I would just reframe that and I would say that the journey matters a lot. Okay? The journey. How you do things and how you enjoy and how you learn, because even in experience where the result was not exactly what you expected, just the path to get to this unwanted or unexpected reality was a very great learning opportunity. Don’t be obsessed only by results. It’s not like that. There is a lot of things during the journey that can benefit yourself, your career, and your society a lot. Don’t think about all that matters are the results, okay? Because this is just a fool’s statement and this does not drive to the reality of the facts.
Joshua: Great, I think that’s really good advice. A learning journey, I think that’s a really nice phrase. I think we’re running out of time, now. It was wonderful for you to speak to us today, Ricardo, and for giving all this advice. Thank you very much for coming on.
Ricardo: Thank you. I’m very, very happy to participate. Thanks for your time and your questions. I hope I was useful for the community.
Joshua: Yes, great. Thank you so much, Ricardo.Ricardo: Thank you.