Make Reality: Questions with Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah Headshot

Largely unknown to American television audiences before taking over The Daily Show, South African comedian Trevor Noah has become an iconic figure who we turn to for commentary on the important issues of the day.

Speaking to PMI during the Virtual Experience Series (VES), Noah described how he has adapted to the challenge of producing his show from home and the project he would most like to make reality in this exclusive interview for PM Network®.

PMI: When did you first realize the importance of managing projects?

Noah: I think project management is something that is taught to you―if you’re lucky enough―all through your life. From a really young age, we had to learn how to manage projects. We were given tasks and projects to complete in our classrooms. You’d have groups of five or six people, and they would say somebody is the manager of this project, and you were responsible for the deliverables—for who is doing what with the project. If the project didn't come through, then every student would get a fail, but as the project manager, you would get an even bigger fail because they would go, “you’re the person who dropped the ball.” Strangely enough, I never thought of it as a profession. I just thought of it as a life skill. 

PMI: What is the most challenging project you’re managing right now?

Noah: Doing The Daily Show. Doing a full television show from my apartment, but still having a staff of 100+ people. We still have a deliverable every single day. The key aspect is you have deadlines that you have to hit. You have your network, who’s waiting for you and the advertisers who have their blocks laid out. You really have many people who are relying on you to hit all of your marks, regardless of the situation you’re in. So, managing that project is probably the most difficult thing that I’ve been doing.

PMI: What is the most significant project you’ve ever worked on?

Noah: That’s an interesting one. I think it was working on getting South African comedy festivals up and running, starting up an industry that really didn’t exist 10 to 15 years before I started doing comedy. I wasn’t in charge, but I was really lucky to be part of some of the teams who set up some of the bigger festivals in South Africa. It’s a lot harder than people may think—trying to convince international acts to perform and expand their base in South Africa, a market that many people don’t consider, to be honest. And really trying to say to them, “Hey, come and invest in this country with who you are. You’re still gonna make money, but you may not make as much as you would in the rest of the world. What you are doing is fostering a new base of consumers and fans who may become one of your revenue streams and people who are gonna love and support you later on in life.” 

PMI: When you were organizing the festivals, what was the key lesson that you learned?

Noah: I think the key lesson I learned—and I’ve learned this in every single project—has always been: Understand what your goal is, understand what you’re trying to do, and don’t get distracted by additional goals that you might want to put on top of it. Sometimes you have a core goal, and then there are a few lofty ideas that come into your head as you’re moving along. I don’t think you should ever not try to hit those goals, but you shouldn’t forget the main thing you’re trying to do. 

PMI: Do you have a piece of advice to help the project management community manage projects better?

Noah: I think this is a moment where there are no rules. As much as coronavirus has stopped everything and blocked everything, it has also opened up a new avenue of opportunity for people to rewrite the rules for things that we thought were written in stone. And so, I think now’s an opportunity for us to relook at how we do everything, why we have the systems we have in place. I think oftentimes corporations or businesses or projects define people’s worth by how many meetings they’re in, as opposed to how much work they’re doing. Sometimes people don’t need to be in that meeting, and them not being in the meeting doesn’t mean that they’re not participating in the project. It means that they’re getting something done. So, for any project manager who’s out there thinking about this moment, try to apply yourself to thinking of how you would like an ideal system to be, as opposed to trying to apply an old system to this new world.

PMI: What is your moonshot idea that you’d love to assemble a team around and make reality?

Noah: My dream has always been to find a way to reignite the conversation around education. I think, all over the world, we somehow have allowed ourselves to be tricked into the idea that governments cannot handle education, or public education is not an effective way to teach people. What I find ironic about this argument is that all the really intelligent, smart people who are making this argument are often products of a public school system. They’re often products themselves of a government-run system. And so, you find people who are billionaires or millionaires, CEOs of companies, running organizations saying, “Oh, public schools are horrible. We need to get charter schools. We need to get this. We need to privatize the system.” And I’m like, “But how did you get so smart? What system were you a part of?” And so, I think that my dream is to design a crack team that is going to look at how we can reinvigorate a school system that really gives everybody equity―a school system that’s really trying to educate everybody, a school system that gives every child, no matter where they’re from, no matter what their economic status is, an equal opportunity and an equal access to education.

PMI: What is the one word that you would use right now to describe how you’re feeling about your work today? 

Noah: Inspired. For me right now, what I’m inspired by in my work is the opportunity to rethink how I do everything. The “whys” are infinite right now. Why do I do it like this? And I realize that there are no answers sometimes. It’s just: That’s because that’s the way it’s been done. And so, for me, I’m trying constantly to be inspired by the limitless possibilities of “disaster,” really, and going, “Okay, from this disaster, how can I rebuild from the rubble and try and reimagine what I’m trying to do?”