POWERING THE PROJECT ECONOMY
Identifying New Ways of Working

Helping Organizations Transform | Ricardo Vargas | PMI Center Stage Podcast

Center Stage podcast: The Voice of the Project Economy

With Ricardo Vargas and Joseph Cahill - Season 1 Episode 8

According to numerous studies transformation risk is the greatest concern for leaders. The ability to connect ideas with results is the focus of Brightline.

In this podcast, Ricardo Vargas shares insight on how to execute strategic intent for moving ideas into outcomes. The strategy to outcome gap is an issue that every leader must address. Dr Vargas discusses how Brightline conducts research, sponsors events, and creates content around organization transformation. The transformation compass is a system for focusing on building employee commitment and empathy with customers. It is a systematic way for “putting people at the center of the process” and for increasing workforce engagement.

CAHILL:

Hi everyone, it’s my pleasure to be here today with Ricardo Vargas. Ricardo is Executive Director of the Brightline Initiative. Brightline Initiative is a PMI think tank bringing together leading organizations in a global coalition dedicated to helping executives bridge the gap between strategy and execution. Dr. Vargas holds a doctorate in civil engineering and has two decades of experience as a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur in areas such as artificial intelligence, block chain, big data, chat bots and machine learning. 

So, welcome to Center Stage, Ricardo.

VARGAS:

Hi, Joe. Very nice to be with you today. 

CAHILL:

It’s our pleasure. Let’s just get into it. Why don’t you give us a quick update on what is the Brightline Initiative, what are the foundational principles of Brightline?

VARGAS:

Yeah no, that’s perfect. So as you said, Brightline is a PMI initiative that aims to help a very specific group of stakeholders, the senior executives, on how they can connect their ideas with the results. So it’s all about the ability to execute this strategic intent. So basically what we do, we produce a lot of thought and practice leadership. So we produce research. We do events. So we produce content related to this topic. And what we want, we want to improve these executives’ capability of transforming organizations and bringing ideas to life. 

Because what we see today, Joe, is that the world is full… And please, I’m not saying ideas are not great, ideas are really relevant in the society, but if you are not able to take that idea from paper and transform them into reality it becomes very challenging for you to succeed. And Brightline is exactly about filling and giving insight and capabilities to fulfill this gap. 

CAHILL:

It’s a very well-known issue for years and years and it continues to be a challenge. So in this regard, how does the Brightline Initiative help organizations face the biggest challenges in the coming years and how can Brightline prepare these organizations for the future?

VARGAS:

Perfect question. So we are facing an avalanche of challenges from everywhere. So we can see that we are living today in an absolutely volatile environment. And this comes from technology to Covid-19. And organizations, they need quickly to be able to reinvent themselves and deliver the results of this intention. So Brightline provides exactly this bridge.

For example, just to give you an idea, this year, we did 17 webinars. And we invite thought leaders in different fields and we had almost 6,000 participants just discussing specific challenges. So we have seminars about how you improve engagement of people to be prepared for change, how you handle crisis, how you handle, for example, stress and management and anger and all these related motivational areas and psychological areas. So we are trying to get the content out as fast as we can and as relevant as we can.

So just to give you an idea, in the past three years, we published four researches that were cited by pretty much everybody on this topic. So trying to increase the awareness about how relevant and how complex is the gap and what some companies are doing to bridge this gap, to transform themselves in a more permanent way.

CAHILL:

Right, so it’s more than just academics, it’s more about who is doing this thing successfully and using them as examples?

VARGAS:

Oh, absolutely. It’s thought and practice leadership. So just to give you an idea, we published last year 11 case studies, all concrete, actual, real case studies from the UAE government to Saudi Telecom Corporation to American Red Cross on how they prepare. 

For example, one of the most interesting things, for example, we saw from Save the Children, for example, it’s how they prepare for a surge on demand for their service, for example, when there is a disaster or something. So, how they can mobilize thousands of people that are not on their payroll quick and fast. So they created a full process of that, of having these groups of people pre-screened and ready to go when it’s needed. So this is just a simple example. 

So we are trying every single day to understand what are the biggest challenges and how we can provide the tools, the techniques that would help them to do that. One example, the first product we developed was called the Guiding Principles where we underlined 10 principles to bridge this gap. Just this document had close to 50,000 downloads. So just to give an example, the Federal Reserve banks are using this as an underlining principle for their own transformation in the U.S. This is just an example to start with. So this is exactly how we are helping organizations. 

So also, we are now helping organizations by creating more capability around the project manager and the project management professional to help deliver. Because one of the key aspects of delivering transformation is your ability to deliver the programs and the projects you have in place. If you don’t have this ability you cannot transform, it’s just an idea. So this is exactly what we are bringing more are bring more close to the PMI universe today.

Transformation risk is the #1 risk.

CAHILL:

So Brightline has been quite successful. Maybe you can take us back to the beginning - why was Brightline Initiative started in the first place?

VARGAS:

Yeah this goes back to 2016 and the idea coming from the PMI Board of Directors and the executive leadership team was that what we can do to leverage the relevance of project management delivery capabilities among very senior leaders. So the idea of Brightline was exactly to go to a new stakeholder group. Brightline Initiative was not searching for a target audience of project managers, project professionals but the decision makers and how we can connect them to the practice of project management. 

CAHILL:

Right.

VARGAS:

So this was exactly why the name was called Brightline and we had some steps to bring Brightline more close to PMI over the years because we wanted exactly to start phrasing to them and putting in their mind that delivery capability, project management, project delivery is as strategic as having the idea. And most of them, they only thought that oh, we need to figure out the idea and then they think that there is just a machine inside their corporations that just delivers that.

CAHILL:

Magic.

VARGAS:

And it’s not like that.

CAHILL:

Right.

VARGAS:

It’s not like that. So this was the idea. So it was created with that. So we created a task team, like I would say in this very concept of startups, so a very fast group, a small group where everything is starting to building the relationships we built and trying to position Brightline and PMI in this space. And I need to tell you, in terms of I would say awareness on this area, we became extremely relevant. I would say that most of the content on this area today has some touches and the presence of Brightline after these four years. Yeah.

CAHILL:

That’s fantastic. So Brightline is the bright line from the idea and the strategy and its pure visibility down to the execution and the reality?

VARGAS:

Yes.

CAHILL:

That’s great, that’s fantastic. So tell us about how Brightline is unique from other programs that are focused on transformation and strategy execution leadership.

VARGAS:

Yeah, this is absolutely... and when people talk about that... And first, we need to go back to Brightline’s DNA and PMI’s DNA. So Brightline is part, is an arm of PMI. And PMI is an association with a very strong social purpose. So it is not a company. So Brightline is not a company or PMI trying... So we have a strong desire of making a better society. 

And why am I telling you this? Because we are not just talking about transformation for the sake of transformation. When you see, for example, our last product called the Transformation Compass, we are taking a very strong stake on saying if you do not manage your transformation together with your current workforce you will not succeed. It’s not just bringing consultants or external people that will make this happen. And this for us today, every time we speak, we have a very strong traction because of the nature of Brightline and the nature of PMI. 

So this is something that we are leveraging a lot because it’s not something that we want, I would say, come in and buy or hire our consulting service. It’s not that. 

CAHILL:

Not that.

VARGAS:

Yeah, exactly. And this nature is what brings the credibility on what we do.

CAHILL:

I like just the two words - improving society - and the focus on that as a differentiator. I often look at the UN sustainable development goals and when I look at those 17 goals I think of projects and I think how the only way to achieve those goals is to... There’s always a project manager in between that idea and getting that reality to happen, along with all the other people that are needed, the content experts and the subject matter experts. So it’s fantastic that you guys have that focus.

So on a related topic, it’s very topical right now, do you see the need for transformation increasing or decreasing because of Covid-19?

VARGAS:

Oh my god, this I would say it’s a very easy answer. I don’t see the need for transformation only increasing. It’s increasing in a dramatic way. Because let me tell you how I see what is happening with Covid-19 is that things that we expect to be transformed in four years, they transformed in four weeks. I’m not saying even four months. 

So look at the technology today, look at the prices, look for example at the concept of working from home. That, in the universe of PMI as you know and I know, it was more natural. 

CAHILL:

Right.

VARGAS:

But for many, many companies they have to move home to work from home. It’s something like you change or you stop working. There is no other way of doing it.

CAHILL:

Yeah, I learned very quickly. I think it took two weeks for me to learn. I always went to the office, myself, it was just a habit for years and years and years. But I’ll tell ya, just like everybody else, two or three weeks into it, I was right on it.

VARGAS:

Yeah.

CAHILL:

I had everything figured out.

VARGAS:

And look at e-commerce, Joe. Joe, e-commerce. E-commerce grew 267 precent of groceries on e-commerce. So you know just imagine the amount of transformation. And this I’m saying for good things and also for more challenging. For example, if your business was with a strong need to transform, now it became imperative because if you don’t transform quickly, you don’t survive. So this is why I think transformation is on the top of the agenda of every single organization on this planet now.

CAHILL:

There’s no doubt.

VARGAS:

You know, everybody is thinking about that.

70% of large-scale transformations fail.

CAHILL:

So, transformation. I go to your website and I see the Transformation Compass. It’s something that jumps out at you. Maybe you can tell the audience a little bit about that. So one of your critical goals is to transform the way we transform. And I think the compass is right in the heart of that. So can you describe what you mean by that?

VARGAS:

Absolutely. One thing, the idea of the Transformation Compass was not to say, oh you need to transform your organization. No. Everybody is doing that. The problem is that we need to revisit the way we are transforming organizations. So what is happening is that when we started developing this we worked with Professor Behnam Tabrizi from Stanford University. And he has a very clear approach that is pretty much aligned with all the social aspects I just told you, Joe. It’s exactly this alignment of putting people at the center of the process.

So what is important is that let’s suppose a company wants to transform itself. The first thing is that how I can have a volunteer army, a group of volunteers that will do from their heart and support me on that journey? And second, how I can combine the personal interest of the individuals working inside my organization with the direction of journey I’m taking? Because, you know, most of the organizations… 

Let me tell you one absolutely scary thing that Gallup just released in October of last year... 85 percent of the employees globally are not engaged in their work. It means that every - 

CAHILL:

85 percent?

VARGAS:

85, not 8.5. 

CAHILL:

Wow.

VARGAS:

And when I saw that I said, oh my god, imagine every hundred employees, 85 of them are actively trying to find a way to leave your organization. Then I ask you a question... How on earth you can move, innovate, with this amount of disengagement? 

CAHILL:

Yes.

VARGAS:

This was Gallup and this was one of the most scary... And we can see that, the level of stress. And why… And then with Professor Tabrizi we said, why this is happening? It’s because first, human beings, they are afraid. They see the change as something that could challenge their current position. They don’t feel that their opinion is considered on that. And this becomes, Joe, a massive, a really massive challenge.

So what we did... When you see the compass, the visual of the compass, it looks like an actual compass. But it’s the pointer is what we call inside-out transformation. 

CAHILL:

Inside out, okay.

VARGAS:

Inside out. How I can combine the interest of the organization with my own interest. I’m not saying that it must be perfect but how you can align these two interests. Let me give you an example for the young generations. So my daughter... Of course they want to make money, they want to work, but they want to do something that fulfills their personal interest. They want to work with something they want... They want to work for companies that they identify themselves with. And this is exactly something that we need.

So when we talk about a transformation, there is a massive work... and you will see on the Transformation Compass about who must change. So when we talk about the transformation we are talking about a frog leap improvement in performance with changing mindsets in the cultural environment of the organization. So you change the mindset of people so people change their own behavior. So you create a set of incentives to make people to react to that. 

And let me tell you, this is not easy. And this is why, for example, many transformations, they decide to rely much more on external people. And what we want, and I think that is our mission, is that how we can realign more and more in our own internal competence to bring everybody together. This is exactly, I would say, the DNA of the Compass. 

CAHILL:

So this is where the statistic about 85 percent of the folks are disengaged, part of the solution there is to recruit these volunteers, right, through the lens of a shared interest, right? 

VARGAS:

Absolutely.

CAHILL:

That’s what makes it tricky, it’s an important thing to do, to move that 85 percent number down in order to really succeed, right?

VARGAS:

Oh, absolutely. Because let me tell you, it’s not only to succeed, Joe, for me, it’s to survive.

CAHILL:

Survive, yes.

VARGAS:

Because imagine you are in a boat where 85 percent of the people don’t want to make the boat move. So the 15 will have to carry all the 85 plus everything else. So it doesn’t work, it doesn’t.

CAHILL:

No, it does not.

VARGAS:

And let me tell you, our research shows that. That companies with high engagement of professionals, they move faster, they adapt better and they are more willing and able to pivot, to change direction, to learn and change. And this is exactly what is a key piece now. 

$900 billion is wasted in digital transformation. We cannot afford this kind of loss.

CAHILL:

What else can you tell us about the research that’s behind the Compass? What else did you find?

VARGAS:

Yes, I have some other very... I would say, Joe, very nice and scary numbers. So let me give you a couple of them. So, first, transformation risk is the number one risk in 2019 with a recent survey promoted by the Wall Street Journal. So the Wall Street Journal spoke to thousands of CEOs and asked what is your biggest risk? And they said, transformation. 

Second, 70 percent of large-scale transformations fail. 

CAHILL:

70 percent?

VARGAS:

Seventy. And this is HBR research last year. And this means - by Forbes - it’s $900 billion wasted just... and this is just in digital transformation. So you know, it’s something that the society cannot afford. You know, that society cannot afford.

CAHILL:

No.

VARGAS:

We cannot afford this kind of loss. And this is exactly because, for example, sometimes the idea of transformation and the need for transformation exists but you don’t have the ability to execute it. You don’t have the ability to go to the ground and make it happen. And this for me is where the challenge is.

CAHILL:

Yeah, that’s the connection back to the purpose of Brightline in the first place, right?

VARGAS:

Absolutely, absolutely. 

CAHILL:

To make that execution, to succeed.

VARGAS:

Yeah, absolutely. And now transformation is about pretty much everything. Because every single organization today, let me tell you, every single board of directors of every single company is trying to figure out what went wrong with Covid-19 and how they can protect themselves. 

Because, let me tell you, what is my concern now? Covid-19 is affecting everybody but let’s suppose that two years from now or next year we have another pandemic. Imagine those who did not even learn with this one. 

CAHILL:

Right. 

VARGAS:

They will have a second hit that could be just as dramatic one. So it’s now the time that everybody… You are doing that, Joe, I am doing that.

CAHILL:

Absolutely.

VARGAS:

So how we can avoid that something like that happens again, right? This is the learning piece that we want to do. 

CAHILL:

We are all doing it. And to your point, those that are not doing it may not make it on the second time around if they get out of this one.

VARGAS:

I agree.

CAHILL:

Man, what a different challenge that everybody... Actually, it’s a shared challenge, right? This is a very unique situation where everybody has the same challenge.

VARGAS:

Joe, before you go, I want just to talk about one thing that is a little bit... that concerns me a little bit. It’s about the concept of digital. When we talk about transformation with the Compass and Brightline, we are not just talking about digital transformation. Digital transformation is a subset of what transformation is about. And for me, what is very important for the audience that is listening to this podcast is that transformation goes above and beyond implementing new technology. It’s all about implementing new ways of working, new products and service lines, changing the culture of the organization. So it goes above and beyond just simply using a technology or implementing a technology process that could streamline but it’s all this process of learning, retraining people, understanding the need on your society. For example, now there are a lot of opportunities in the market but a lot of services became just irrelevant now because of the changes. So this, it goes above. 

And I want to finish, there is one article I suggest everybody to read. There is an article from Professor Tabrizi, our partner on the Compass, called “Digital Transformation is Not About Technology”. And this was at the top of HBR for many weeks. It’s all about human behavior. For you to take Microsoft Teams or Zoom or WebEx and buy a subscription, this is easy, the problem is to make people use in the proper way.

CAHILL:

To use it, yeah.

VARGAS:

Yeah, this is where the challenge is. I just wanted to point out that. 

CAHILL:

It seems clear that there’s different components of transformation. There’s different ways to conduct transformation. So what can the audience look to see from Brightline in terms of products and services that they can learn more about the compass, more about transformations and more about what you’re talking about?

VARGAS:

Absolutely. What I can tell you is that if people visit Brightline.org and check... So you can download hundreds - hundreds - of relevant papers and articles and in a very practical and pragmatic way that you can benefit from that. We have the Transformation Compass, we have available for you the Guiding Principles and the People Manifesto, so, three really powerful concepts that you can use almost immediately. We have hundreds of interviews and we are now starting to develop some products that will help the project management community to step up on this ladder towards transformation.

CAHILL:

Okay.

VARGAS:

And this is something that the market will see very soon in terms of creating this capability for project managers to understand more what transformation is about. Because many people think that transformation is the same as project management. It’s not. Transformation is implemented through projects but transformation has a massive, massive component of this frog leap jump and this cultural transformation. 

For example, all transformations are handled through projects but not every project is a transformation. For example, if you are building a house, it’s not necessarily a transformation. You are not redefining a new way of working or operating, you know? So it’s very, very important to understand that. And we are creating this product to help. 

Because what at the end we want? We want to create in the future more and more competent people to handle transformations and we truly believe that project managers can be a very strong candidate to fulfill this role in the future. 

CAHILL:

No, there’s no doubt. We’ve been seeing for years the intersection of what you are saying. Certainly project managers bring technical skills but more and more over the last five years we’ve been talking about how the softer skills, or the power skills, the people skills, are much more important in getting things done, taking ideas to reality. So this is a big component of that, right? Some serious power skills involved in understanding transformation and what makes transformations succeed. 

VARGAS:

Absolutely. Perfect, perfect what you just said. Yeah.

Transformation goes above and beyond implementing new technology. It's all about implementing new ways of working.

CAHILL:

I’m going to switch gears a little bit and ask you a personal question. What has been your greatest source of inspiration when you were a young professional or even a youth? What do you remember really guided you and helped you get to where you are today?

VARGAS:

Yeah this is not a very easy question, but I would say that I was very inspired by transforming things. And I don’t want to use this as... But for example, I was a boy that created the toys. I was not the one to play with the car but to build the car. So I was always looking for building things, doing new things, you know? 

CAHILL:

Yeah.

VARGAS:

And not just using what I did but to create that. And this was a source of inspiration for me because, for example, I am not a big fan of routine. I’m not. I like doing new things, I like challenges. 

CAHILL:

New challenges, yeah. 

VARGAS:

Yeah. And for example, I came from an entrepreneur to working five years for the U.N. as a Global Director for Infrastructure and PM. You know, trying to apply... and this was one... Joe, I need to tell you, one of the most rewarding moments of my life was to be able to put in place project management practice that would not only lead to a financial result but that will improve people’s lives. So I’m talking in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Haiti. We built homes, we did all sorts of projects. 

And this is something that is for me very rewarding. And this reward is the journey. This is exactly what I just said. It’s the concept of bringing your own transformation with the companies you are working for and the job you are doing. For example, I am very fortunate because I love what I do and this helps me a lot to do what I’m doing.

CAHILL:

For sure, yeah.

VARGAS:

Because, you know, it’s something that... it comes back… for example, Brightline for me, all the value of Brightline, it’s something that brings me a very true sense of purpose. We need to find ways of improving the society. And this is for me the way I feel inspired by that.

CAHILL:

When you look back on your experience and your work with Brightline, what have been the most important lessons or applications that stand out for you?

VARGAS:

Everything is possible, you just need to try hard. It’s something like, there is always road blocks but you know... and this is what makes things, I would say, quite fun. And why I’m saying this? Because many times... Let me tell you, I had so many doors closed to me when we started Brightline. People don’t give attention. And you just insist and you open another door and they close again and you do... So you need to be this... It’s like... I don’t want to say a game but it is something that you really need to make happen. For example - 

CAHILL:

Resilience. Is it resilience?

VARGAS:

Yeah, resilience. And let me give you... I love to use this example, is PMI and Brightline’s relationship with TED. A lot of people think, ohh we reach out to TED this way and that way. Let me tell you. I wrote an email to [email protected] and I said, hi, my name is Ricardo, I am doing this, I would love that someone… I sent that and let me tell you they did not answer. I sent it again three days later, someone answered. You know? Everything. So you don’t need to say ohh, I need to have a relationship with Chris Anderson. No, it’s something that you just need to be persistent to make things happen. You know? 

And this is something that I am very proud and I am extremely proud also of all the team that supported Brightline because they are amazing. And I can see on every single one of them this same drive, Joe, this same personal intention and desire to succeed. And I think this is what was very rewarding for me looking back.

CAHILL:

That’s fantastic. If you look forward in terms of outcomes, what kind of outcomes are you expecting from the Brightline Initiative as it moves forward, as it matures, as it grows in terms of specific case examples or measures?

VARGAS:

Yeah. For me - for me - the biggest outcome is that we could increase dramatically the relevance of project management discipline. I am not saying a method. I am talking about the discipline, all this holistic environment that includes methods and behaviors that connect ideas to reality. And this becomes on the top of the agenda in terms of outcomes. What I want honestly, Joe, it’s that Davos, talking about how we stop only dreaming and how we can transform this dream into reality, you know?

CAHILL:

Yes.

VARGAS:

Because since I was born, people talk about poverty, people talk about diseases and now we just had Covid. When will people really put the grips on transforming these brilliant ideas into reality? And this for me is the main outcome. Because if we do that, we improve society, we improve, for example - I’m talking on PMI - the value for the members, the value for… It’s the whole value chain of this delivery capability. 

And we are in the position the we can do that. You know? That we can do. Because the world wants that. 

CAHILL:

Interesting thing on the project management side or the PMI side, which what makes this really exciting, everything you’ve said, what makes it even more exciting is that the definition of the project management profession continues to grow and broaden into other ways of working and in such a way that the project managers are much more highly skilled than they were in the past. And in the future they’re going to be even more so with more tools in their toolbox and different and new ways of working, and we are looking forward to helping them with that. 

VARGAS:

Absolutely. Joe, for me, operations of organizations will be through projects, no matter how you want to call that, you know?

CAHILL:

Right.

VARGAS:

If you want to call that projects, initiative, whatever, it’s about that competence on connecting these two dots. And this is what becomes really relevant now.

CAHILL:

Yeah, we call it the project economy, that’s the backdrop.

VARGAS:

Absolutely, could not agree more.

CAHILL:

So, Dr. Ricardo Vargas, thank you so very much for joining us today, particularly to share the Brightline story and to talk to our audience. I can’t thank you enough.

VARGAS:

Oh thank you, thank you, okay, thank you all.