Michael O'Connor, PhD, PMP, PgMP, Director, Strategy and Project Management, Medtronic
ILLUSTRATION BY YOLANDA GALVAN
MICHAEL O'CONNOR, PhD, PMP, PgMP
TITLE: Director, strategy and project management
ORGANIZATION: Medtronic, a PMI Global Executive Council member
LOCATION: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Growth drives change and introduces risk. When medical tech company Medtronic doubled in size to 86,000 employees after acquiring Covidien in 2015, the organization had to double down on its efforts to ensure all team members were fluent in both strategy and execution—and understand the interplay between the two.
As the chief of staff to the vice president of the corporate science, technology and innovation group, Michael O'Connor is responsible for helping standardize the organization's project management processes. One primary way of achieving such crucial alignment is to coach and mentor junior project managers across the enterprise.
How do you marry strategy and project management in your role?
Medtronic focuses on three key strategic priorities: therapy innovation, globalization and economic value. Therapy innovation means providing offerings to improve patient outcomes. Globalization involves addressing challenges in both developed and developing countries. And for economic value, we create value-based healthcare solutions. I help align our group's strategy and projects with those three enterprise imperatives.
How do you help ensure alignment?
We meet and collaborate with the executive members and our various councils, such as the research and development council, the public-private partnerships council and the project management office council. With both the leadership team and the councils, we look at the strategy for the next year and the next five years, then we prioritize the projects we need to focus on going forward. While the company typically focuses on a five-year plan, our group looks further out, to the 10-year space and beyond. We come up with innovative product ideas down the line while supporting innovative products now.
How have you helped standardize project management at Medtronic since it acquired Covidien?
Soon after the acquisition, I was at the airport with a colleague, and we were talking about how to improve project management in the company. I was getting on my soapbox, and this person said, “Put your money where your mouth is.” So we created a project charter in the airport. Then we came back to the company, put it on paper and put it into motion. We met with my boss and another executive. It took one meeting, and they were both in. We started planning the project, which we called the Project Management Rigor for Innovation, in 2016, creating the vision in 2017 and executing it in 2018 and 2019. We'll be in the execution stage for another two or three years.
What does the project involve?
We're developing our project management training, tools, frameworks and processes, and communicating them out across Medtronic globally to help the organization be more successful with its projects. For instance, we're looking at how to get people Project Management Professional (PMP)® certified across the globe. In addition to training, we're coaching and mentoring both formally and informally. I mentor mostly junior project managers about, for example, how to improve their people skills and how to network.
In a nutshell, we're creating a project management toolbox and adding different information inside it, so that people across the organization can pick and choose what works best for them. We're not saying everyone has to use all these things. We're saying these are some of the best practices, and by following them you'll get your projects done faster, cheaper and with higher quality.
How have you gained buy-in for this across the organization?
It would have been easy to just do it all here in Minneapolis, where we have more than 10,000 employees, but it was key that we had global representation with someone in China and someone in Europe so we could understand their needs. We have a small volunteer team working on this: one person in China, one in Europe and roughly three to five people in the United States. We went to internal company conferences globally, and we had a booth where we laid out what we were doing and asked employees to write their thoughts about it on Post-it notes and put them on a poster. So we had the voice of our customer along the way.
What's the toughest challenge you face in your role?
Time. On any given day, I'm in meetings most of the day, then I need to catch up on email, then I go home and catch up on email again—while trying to figure out how to get things done. There are a couple of ways I manage my time. With each email, I act on it, delegate it, delete it or file it, and I do that quickly so I always clear out my inbox. With meetings, I look at my calendar the night before and decide if I need to go to each meeting or not, if I can send someone else or listen to a recording.
What one skill should every project manager have?
People skills. You can teach project management, but people skills typically require on-the-job experience and usually some failures along the way.
What inspires you?
Education. I'm fascinated with how people learn, and I learn from the people I teach.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
Getting too much detail when I ask a simple question.
The art of taking time, like handwriting a thank-you note.
PMI is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
What has been the biggest change in project management over the past half-century, and what's the biggest challenge for the future?
“We've been moving past traditional project management, and project managers now have to be more flexible and adaptable. But the biggest challenge for the future will be training and maybe even certifying project professionals in people skills and leadership.”