Project Manager Profiles: Michael Illsley

Rather than a technical article, this time I have interviewed Michael, co-founder of this blog with me. Sometimes we overlook the personal part of project management and I wanted to see what I might learn by asking Michael a few questions about his experiences, some serious, some not so serious.

Talents and Superpowers

What is the most useless talent you have for project management?

Painting. I like it a lot. But I don’t think anything that I can take from it teaches me in project manager.

If you could have a superpower as a project manager, which superpower would you like to have?

Perfect memory, just imagine: no need to make meeting minutes, no investing so much time looking things up, with the latest version of the project plan in your mind. No more discussions on what happened in the meeting and what was said back then.

Which superhero would you like to be as a project manager?

The incredible hulk clearly! Then everyone would be too afraid to give me bad news, although I have to admit that doesn’t sound like a great working environment for everyone else. Maybe superman then, I could fly everywhere and spend less time commuting and going between meetings.

Which mistake should you make to improve your knowledge as a project manager?

The question is tricky. We often can’t tell whether we’re making mistakes until afterwards.

On managing projects

If you could change the name of the discipline “project management”, what would that new name be, and why would you choose that name?

Project is a good word. I like it. People know what it means: something with a beginning and with an end. But I don’t like the management part of it. Management can be almost anything. I don’t know a better word for it, but maybe it should be project synthesis or project negotiation.

Which celebrity would you like to have as a sponsor? 

As a sponsor? If dead people are allowed: Kelly Johnson. During his time at Lockheed, he led the development of a number of incredible aircraft such as the U-2 and F-104, among many others. I think I could learn a lot from him. Creating airplanes is a really complicated project that normally takes thousands of people for several years. Yet, he not only lead development from a technical point of view, but he also led the project management and created rules that often lead them to deliver ahead of time and under budget. The development of the SR-71 required the development of (then) new manufacturing techniques for titanium, some stealth technology, and new engines and new fuel. It was completed in two and a half years. The P-80 was prototype flew less than five months after development started.

Would you try to manage a project without using an email service? What would you use instead?

No. I really like emails. I like written communication. It can be more efficient than having a meeting. Everybody reads the email in their own time, and it’s automatically documented. You can re-read an email whenever you want and need it. It has a lot of benefits. So if I couldn’t use an email service, I would use messenger pigeons. I’m just joking.

What is the silliest quote about project management that you have ever heard?

Project managers are the type of people who believe nine women can make one baby in a month. It shows how some people see us. As if we were entirely disconnected from reality, and we would believe that we can apply schedule crashing to human biology. But I have to recognize that there is an element of truth in the quote. Sometimes we are like this, those moments where we blindly following KPIs and are obsessed with hitting milestones. 

What is the closest thing in project management to real magic?

Real magic is when you have the pleasure to work with an experienced team who have worked together before.

What is the best excuse you ever heard? 

I have heard this in different forms many times, it goes something like “we can’t achieve the plan/the plan is unrealistic” even though we agreed on the plan as a team. It usually happens when a team does not buy into the plan, which I think is ultimately the project manager’s fault.

How do you know if you are overengineering a plan?

Easy, either if the plan does not get used or if people start making “simpler” versions of it. If nobody looks at the 5000+ lines plan, why did we make it in the first place?

If you had a wish and could get the answer for one question about a project, what would be your question?

“When is the real delivery date going to be?” I had so many projects where things changed so much, imagine the effort going into re-planning. If you already knew the real delivery date, you could do things properly right from the beginning.

Tricks of the Trade

The worst piece of advice you’ve ever received as a project manager?

Try to be likable. I worried too much about it in my early years, but never tried to live upon it.

The best piece of advice that you use every day?

Give priorities after asking yourself: “what will happen if I don’t do this today?” “Will this block somebody else if I don’t get it done?”

What is the most common piece of advice that you give, but never follow yourself?

Plan in a lot of detail before starting anything.

 Try to imagine what you need to do on the project beforehand. It is important. Certain things cannot be done quickly. I encourage people to plan first and in detail, yet never seem to manage it myself to my satisfaction.

More information about…

Kelly Johnson:  The Original Skunk Works

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