Host | Rebecca Bennett
Guest | Marcel Thompson
Rebecca Bennett: Today, we’re talking with Marcel Thompson, who has led a varied career through project management and scheduling, and he is currently the key consulting scheduler. Welcome to Quay Conversations Marcel.
Marcel Thompson: Rebecca, it’s really good to be here with you today. And thank you so much for the invitation.
Rebecca Bennett: It’s great to have you here. In this conversation, we’re going to explore the importance of the upcoming project teams and your journeys through project delivery, not only as a mass scheduler but also in numerous project roles and ultimately as a distiller of notes. And I think it would be safe to call you something of a raconteur Marcel.
Marcel Thompson: Yes, I’ve been accused of many things, but raconteur is strangely enough not one of them, so I’m happy to be with you here. Thank you.
Rebecca Bennett: Well, for a guy that was born and raised in Auckland and who has chosen a quite wide ranging career path, how does a young Kiwi go from studying mathematics and chemistry to the various paths through supply chain, logistics, IT and back to one of your first loves, which is gin.
Marcel Thompson: It’s a great question. And as a young kid, when I was growing up in Auckland with a very strong sense of curiosity, where I was really trying to understand my environment, the things that were around me, things around nature, and really posing a lot of those questions to lots of people, whom I thought would probably have the answers. What I found is that they did have answers, but they weren’t necessarily the answers I was looking for. So there’s been always been that inherent sense of curiosity and interest in determining how things actually worked.
Now, in terms of some of the things I looked at, it really was a case of not only understanding how things worked, but what makes them change. And so I was always inquisitive and enquiring, also had an inherent interest in things like music and art to a certain extent as well. But this curiosity about looking to see how things actually worked, I think was probably the key. And one of the things around change also had this fascination with the night sky.
So at a very early age, I was really looking at constellations and that to me they were essentially like an exercise in joining the dots. And there was this inherent curiosity about things that were otherworldly, want of a better term. And I’ve always had a genuine interest in possibilities, not necessarily understanding the how or even the why, just the fact that certain things could actually exist. I found that there was a connexion between this level of curiosity and numbers, and I had this inordinate interest in numbers, the ways in which numbers are grouped.
So usually thing, get a primary school year in, say two one is a two, two two is a four, that sort of thing. And I remember distinctly remembering that they were on these really big tables that were put around a classroom. But what I noticed is they all seem to have patterns and it was the patterns in the numbers that interested me as well. So I started looking at ways in which you could do mental arithmetic faster, for example, because it all seemed to follow a pattern.
So although the times tables went up to 12 and each number then up to the number 12, and then I was looking at things like, well, the number 12 was actually represented by things like a six and a two or three and a four, as well as the one at all. When I started to see all these relationships, the numbers …. that absolutely fascinated me. When I well, actually it didn’t go unnoticed. Teacher actually had this that the system of mathematics tuition, which was quite radical, I recall at the time.
And the way it actually worked is, and I had a manual, now in this particular tool, there were 20 tiles numbered one to 20.
And on the back of the tile was a picture of some description or portion of a picture, like a triangle or a circle or square of a certain colour. And there was a manual that went with this system, I think it was called a tutor system. And every time you answered a question, so you tack the tile, which matched the question, when you actually emptied out this tray, there were all these numbers.
So all these answers to questions. And so you could put those onto those squares and there is your answer. And what would happen is that once you went through all the 20 questions, it was like a five by four matrix. You’d close the lid, turn this thing over, open the lid up again, and there would be this pattern on the reverse side of the tiles. And if the pattern that you generated in your tiles matched the solution of the pattern that was in the book, then you got all the questions right.
But if it didn’t, all we needed to do was turn those tiles over to try and then answer the questions. That was really interesting. I thought, well, it’s an interesting way to learn about mathematics. So what it actually meant was I was combining things like patterns, colours, numbers all together, and it seemed to catalyse and accelerate my interest in mathematics to the extent, where I have this box that was given to me in 1978.
And it’s a book called Figuring, and it was a book that was given to me before I went to college. And it’s by Shakuntala Devi, so I hope I pronounce the name correctly. And it’s called Figuring: the Joy of Numbers. And on the cover of this book, six figures, one, four, two, eight, five, seven. And what one, four, two, eight, five, seven is it’s what’s called the revolving number, because it’s actually the equivalent of one-seventh. An interesting thing about a seventh is that multiplied by two or three or four or five or six, you get the same number, it’s just reordered.
So this formation of patterns that had come through as well.
And that’s really where the whole mathematics thing started to [inaudible 00:05:30], as I said, it was in 1978. I’ve still got it. And the fact that it’s traveled around the world with me, I think probably cements the interest that I’ve had in numbers, change patterns, music, colours, art. And I think it’s all been encapsulated in the small book. [inaudible 00:05:46]
Rebecca Bennett: Interesting, though, because when you think of most people’s journey through mathematics, it’s a slog. For you to have such an understanding of it and also possibly the translation of that into your fascination with the natural world around you and with the changing nature of things and recognising patterns in nature and then in sky — that correlation would have made a lot more sense to you.
Marcel Thompson: It did. And the reason being is that I didn’t look at the numbers for the numbers. I was looking at the whole notion of numbers and digits and patterns, as applied to different areas as well. So the night sky, for example, is just a series of dots to me. So I might be able to map out the night sky. And so there was all this level of curiosity around the laws that govern nature, the laws that describe, why all these things are interconnected. So that’s where it all came from.
Also it was very profound for someone who’s barely at college, but that are sorts of things that actually triggered me.
Rebecca Bennett: I’d imagine, though, that when you have that level of curiosity you had as a child by making sense of those patterns, gave you an avenue to explore how mathematics founded other sciences. So, for example, you mentioned you studied chemistry when you got to University. How do you find a path into a chemistry?
Marcel Thompson: Yes, well, from my viewpoint, it is kind of interesting. Chemistry was one of my worst subjects in high school. So for some reason, it just didn’t quite gel until one, not so much one fateful night. But probably there is an occasion in New Zealand which, well there was, I think the laws are changed now, which is Guy Fawkes Night, which is November the 5th in New Zealand. And that was a celebration with fireworks. That interested me. I thought “wow, isn’t that amazing, you get these little things and things that blow up in your hands”.
So I had some fireworks and started dismantling them to see it all coming together.
Rebecca Bennett: I think you and many people of your and my vintage have had similar experiences. Some of us were on the receiving end of the experiments, not necessarily doing them.
Marcel Thompson: Exactly. Which probably wasn’t the safest thing to do, but it piqued the curiosity. And what intrigued me about that was that “is that it?”, it was just this black powder and these shiny things in it and this whole notion of looking at change.
How do these things work? For years I ignited them, watched them turn to colours, saw them explode, that kind of thing, but didn’t really understand how it all worked. And so I started looking at, it. Gee it was such a different time, there was… So I started looking at how explosives worked. So I started to taking a bit of an interest in that. And interestingly enough, that helped with the extra tuition I needed to understand chemistry. Until I realised that stoichiometric equations and change in chemistry are in fact an application of mathematics.
It’s essentially basically algebra. But instead of having Xs and Ys, you have genuine elements like Al for aluminium, or sulphur, or oxygen. And so that started to bring together more interest in numbers and mathematics into chemistry. And then I just through probably sheer growing and a genuine interest to understand it, I essentially got better, I guess it is the best way to describe it. So chemistry and mathematics. And I’ve found that the concept of change was actually common between the two of those things.
Chemistry ultimately really is the science of change. You’ll have something in one state and under certain conditions it will change. You can have something, which combines with something else and there will be a reaction, which creates a change. Some of those changes can be desirable. Some of them can be undesirable. But either way, chemistry really is a science that’s built around change, observing change and trying to understand it. By the time I went to university, I felt I was pretty well equipped to put those two attributes to good use, which is why I went into engineering, which has absolutely nothing to do really with mathematics and chemistry at all. And so my foray into chemical engineering was intense and brief.
And is that the inherent qualities about mathematics and chemistry that I really enjoyed, I didn’t really get the same kind of enjoyment out of chemical materials engineering as such. And I think in hindsight it was solely because by its nature, it’s so incredibly industrial. It’s operational because it needs to be profitable. It needs to be efficient. It needs to be safe. It needs to be boring as bet, whereas pure chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry is around a science of discovery, and it’s around something that picture imagination.
It’s around finding pathways which otherwise might not have been found. It’s around looking at the way things change in unexpected ways, as opposed to operationalising something so we will control the change to get a single result. And I think, philosophically, that’s where the difference in viewpoint, actually pour out. But there wasn’t quite that same interest, purely because of its operational nature, which is partly why I tend to favour looking at project work as such and fixed sets of problems to solve and looking for solutions to those problems.
Rebecca Bennett: So how did you shift from your chemical engineering into project delivery? You’ve worked through supply chain logistics, It projects. There’s been quite a diversity of your project history.
Marcel Thompson: It is interesting, isn’t it? And this isn’t like advice for anyone to go to university or anything like that. I guess it’s probably more my experience and observations. What university does, is it gives you the tools to learn. It also exposes you to possibilities and other opportunities. What I found was that in terms of industry, while you learn a lot of skills at university, because to a certain extent, you’re preparing people for different roles in their career.
So you’re preparing them to go into the workforce. So you need to have a structure or a pathway within the educational system to satisfy those two types of route, which to a certain extent are actually in conflict. So what I found is that just through peers, there were all these opportunities.
For example, one of my people, he was a peer, he was actually a supervisor in a laboratory where I was working. So he was interested in wine. Now, at that time, I had absolutely no idea that there was anything related, barely related to chemistry in wine. So immediately you get this kind of “oh, that’s an interesting thing. I hadn’t really thought of chemistry and wine”. So what we actually did is it started to open up a whole swag of different possibilities. And so what happened was once I graduated, I was very [inaudible 00:11:57].
I had three job opportunities. They were all quite different, although related. One was to make pharmaceuticals. The one that was really appealing was looking at explosives. So given what I’ve just talked about…
And the third opportunity was still in how to make gin. Now, the role I initially had was as an assistant distiller and that had a very strong chemistry mathematics requirement or prerequisites.
And so if put yourself into a 21 year old set shoes…. I mean, you can look at pharmaceuticals, it was incredibly responsible, potentially a matter of life or death, if you get things wrong. If you go into explosives, that could potentially be a matter of life or death, particularly if there’s a chain reaction. There’s lots of examples around that. Frankly, it’s quite frickin dangerous. And the third one was gin, and it paid the least money, looked like the most fun and was five minutes on the train.
And I thought, I actually don’t know anyone else, who knows how to make it. So that was the reason, why I went into that. Going back to your original question, I got exposed to all sorts of business functions and that was the whole key. So when I first joined United Distillers in New Zealand, I’ve been exposed to logistics right off the bat. So I learnt about warehousing, picking orders, packing boxes, palletising, understanding customer fulfilment, understanding orders, understanding transport.
So I understood how things shifted from A to B. So I was actually working my way backwards. So then I went into production. So how do we make the things that ultimately end up in the boxes that go to the customers, what have you? Oh, right. And it’s interesting. So how do you work out things like what goes into a bottle, how much goes into a bottle? The labels that go to bottle, well that’s understandable, but how do you get all the things to dress up the bottle?
So I learnt about procurement, I learnt about quality as well. So for example, the engineering machinery that we had was quite exacting. So therefore the quality of the raw materials that came in had to be of a certain quality. Otherwise it would be rejected. And the brand was involved with had a long history that goes back to 18th and 19th century.
So it was really important that the quality side of things was brought to bear. But the stuff that’s in the bottles, how get that bit and so I was working backwards again. Now the common theme amongst all of those, all of those operations, all those functions is change and numbers, all the way through, every single part of it.
So for example, if someone orders a pellet of Gordon’s gin, how many boxes is that? How many bottles is that? That’s great. So therefore, when you’re producing it, you need X number of bottles, you need X number of labels, you need X number of cartons, you need X number of barcodes. Fantastic. The stuff that goes in the bottle while you need X litres of gin available to go into that. Well that’s great. So then we make the gin, so how much should we put into a still to make the gin that goes into the bottle that gets labelled, and ends up in the box.
And so each and every one of those processes just played really strongly into the genuine interest I had in the way things worked, the way things were pieced together, the sequence of events, the whole notion of time, cost and quality was drilled into me. And the thing that really grabbed me is that I started to learn well, if we start looking at ways to plan all the stuff, knowing that we need to produce something on a particular day, suddenly I found myself working on something, which is called materials requirements planning, and had absolutely no idea that’s what it was called at the top, and so that’s really how it started.
And so all of those skills, if you like, around defining activities, estimating activity, resources, estimating durations, developing a schedule, looking at critical points in your schedule and managing, controlling that schedule, which are all the basics around time management and project management, the things that were drilled into me day after day at a really early age, which bore, if you think about it, absolutely no resemblance to what I started off doing as an undergraduate at all.
What I also discovered was that that set of skills that I had developed, which really were playing to my strengths, were transportable and they were in demand. I was offered an opportunity to come to Australia to do similar things. The difference was there was no distilling, but there was new product development, research and development and the whole chemistry side of things again. So that’s how I ended up here.
Rebecca Bennett: And given the curious 21 year old, I imagine you were quite a sponge in terms of how these elements came together and how they formed and shaped different types of projects.
Marcel Thompson: You’re exactly right. And let’s face it, you’re making alcohol. And the environment was conducive to that, incredibly supportive crew, great mentors, great leadership, provided totally constructive feedback.
All of these elements, which at the time probably don’t fully appreciate at that time, but they leave a lasting impression here on and that was probably one of the, obviously I we’ll never know, but I would struggle to think if there was possibly anything that could have given me a better grounding in terms of that transition from the academia learning situation to actually taking that same thirst for knowledge and applying it in a business functional and operational sense. It really was a wonderful opportunity and one I hold very highly and very deeply.
To a certain extent it did shape a lot of things that were to come thereafter.
Rebecca Bennett: What have you learnt about how teams form either before or around projects and how they function individually versus functioning as a unit? Given that you have paid so much attention and such in-depth attention to how those operations were running, how does that influenced your understanding of how those people work together, the alchemy of a team?
Marcel Thompson: It’s a great question. Based on my operational experience, there are a series of common factors all the way through and a diversity of skills help. So you’ll always get subject matter experts who understand the what?
They can tell you exactly what they do day in, day out. So they are very much in that what space. But then you’ve got other people, who will describe how you do it. So I do this. That’s great. But this is how you actually do it. So there is that skill set in there as well that can articulate describe how things actually happen. And then there is other people like “so. Well, that’s great. But does anyone actually understand why on earth we’re doing this?”
So, for example, at a corporate level, you might have people who say, well, we make computers or something and there’d be a reason why you do it and everyone to understand how you do it and whatever the case might be. So there’s always a reason why, and it’s never from my view and I’m happy to be challenged on this, it ought never to be solely about profit. Profit’s like a bit of an outcome. And you’re either make it or you won’t.
So that’s an outcome, but there needs to be an underlying purpose or driver to deliver something of value.
That in itself helps to determine the kind of characters that you need in a project team that’ll help deliver that, because they need to buy into the whole idea that at a project level there is something beyond turning up to do your job. Now, it could well be really pragmatic things like improve quality, improve customer service, improve profitability, reduce costs, whatever that is. But whatever it is, it needs to be packaged in a way that motivates people to understand, why they’re doing it.
And everybody gets to that point differently, because people are interesting, irrational beasts. They will look at the same thing and you’ll get half a dozen people doing exactly the same situation and they will interpret it differently. And so when you’ve got that situation, you need a common anchor that people can focus on.
An example of that is when I was in Papua New Guinea, I took up a role there in 1996. Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Papua New Guinea, the country north of Australia, but more significantly, it’s the home to 850 unique languages. So one in every three languages on the planet are spoken in Papua New Guinea. So you can imagine the communication challenges and trying to explain, why people are doing things, when you’ve got so many different languages available.
So my crew, for example, everyone spoke a minimum of five languages. It would to be the mother’s language, their dad’s language, the local language, the tribal language, and any one or two of Pidgin and English.
You’ve got a situation, where people may be speaking English as a fourth language. So therefore, it was incumbent upon me to bridge that gap by making one of the other languages my fourth language. So I took up Pidgin and as soon as I did that, I was able to express and convey why we did the things we do in language that was easy to understand. I used a lot of pictures, because language is so nuanced, different words can have different meanings.
But a clear picture of what we’re expected to do and what the outcome would look like, is the way in which you express, why you’re actually doing the things that you’re doing. There’s a degree of recruitment and there’s criteria in these sorts of things you are looking for skill sets. But then there’s the next level up from that. And then trying to orchestrate this team that you got into a coherent whole. And that takes time. But more often than not, it’s around communication style and buying into what you’re actually doing and to get people excited about it.
And certainly that was a case of fast moving consumer goods in a place like Papua New Guinea where, interestingly enough, alcohol advertising is illegal and there are four provinces in that country, where there are bans on alcohol. So we’ve got all these sorts of other challenges as well. So we had to frame our purpose as a project team, when we’re releasing new products in that context. And those principles, are as applicable today as they were then. I think that helps. But having said that, make it sound simple, but it’s not easy.
Rebecca Bennett: I can’t imagine if you’ve got a team, each of whom speak a minimum of four to five languages, and a consumer base or a regulatory base, where similar challenges would apply.
Marcel Thompson: It certainly picks your imagination. But how on earth do I solve this problem? In a place like Papua New Guinea where you don’t have a lot of resources at your disposal, you need to think like an entrepreneur. You need to take the position where there is no problem we cannot solve, I just haven’t worked out how to solve it. The downside to that is with entrepreneurs, there’s no such thing as a bad idea.
And this is where I think project management and project delivery discipline sets it apart, because as part of the project delivery framework, there are plenty of ideas that are bad, so they don’t get up. But if you’re an entrepreneur in a place where you need to make something happen and hustle, there is no such thing as a bad idea. And consequently, what that meant is that when I came into a more formal environment on my return to Australia, there were a lot of things, a lot of problem solving tools and techniques that I’d learnt, money around communication, forming relationships and the like, which were so useful.
Knowledge is useful and valuable, but that needed to be tempered by the fact the conditions you’re working in are very, very different. And it took a little while for me to adjust to that.
Rebecca Bennett: I could imagine that would be quite different [inaudible] from a fairly, as you say, entrepreneurial environment to one driven by frameworks and driven by particular principles. How did you find that navigating the personalities, the politics, the priorities and the competing demands that exist, when you have different approaches to project delivery?
Marcel Thompson: One of the advantages of had over the years is I’m actually the youngest in a rather large family. So the whole notion of politics and understanding of different personalities work, it’s been drilled into me to that extent. I guess the challenge for me is the fact that despite that kind of grounding and understanding, when you are related the people are easy to understand.
So it’s not quite so difficult, but when you’ve got incredibly talented, intelligent, motivated people, who have a real thirst to deliver. It can be challenging not only to lead and manage teams like that, but also within the team members themselves, particularly if you’ve got certain personalities, they want to do this better. That did great. But we actually just need to get stuff done now and we can look at the improvement bit later. So it’s difficult.
I don’t think there is a single standard answer other than often organisations that have values, operating principles that they’ve worked through. And if people are inconsistent with its operating principles, then that triggers some counselling or training loop, as far as that’s concerned. That can be effective or could actually be detrimental, because people are people. So people respond to different stimuli and different types of feedback and different one. And I suppose to a certain extent [inaudible 00:24:57] to a large extent is probably being somewhat empathetic about things. But over the years, I’ve learnt not own people monkeys.
To the extent where I’ll listen and I’ll empathise, and in the end, I’ll just probably say, “you know what? I’m confident that you’ll figure it out.” And some of them actually say “this is so; I understand; or hear and I get that, but it’s not my monkey to solve”. And so that is probably one of the greatest skills people can actually learn. Certainly lend the ear, but don’t own the monkey, someone else’s monkey, and certainly be supportive and help them resolve that along the way.
Rebecca Bennett: So how does scheduling, based on your experience anchor a team?
Marcel Thompson: What scheduling does is factual. It’s also built on mathematics. So, hence the reason. Well, one of the reasons I went into scheduling is all to do with logic and numbers. What scheduling also does is that it is impartial. It really does look at the assumptions that you’ve made around sequences. Certain things need to happen in a certain order. The catch with scheduling though, and this is where some people sort of fall into a trap, is that there’s an inherent belief or desire or hope that once you’ve created a schedule and baselined it, then it will just kind of run.
Well, life doesn’t kind of work like that. That’s your best estimate based on the best information you have at that time. And as you got more information and more roadblocks pop up, you have to replan and reschedule. And this is another thing that people often conflate is that planning and scheduling are two different things. So they’re related, but they are quite different. Planning is around understanding, understanding what outcome you’re after and the scheduling side of things takes those inputs, describing how you’re going to do it and puts it into a time frame. And so consequently, they are related but different.
Rebecca Bennett: If the plan is the focus on the outcomes of the schedulers, the mechanisms you using to deliver, what will this change and change management play in managing those different personalities and in managing how those teams can adapt around, say, unexpected?
Marcel Thompson: Change management, I think is absolutely crucial, because what we’re actually expecting people to do in most big projects, there’s some form of behavioural change that needs to take place.
So to me, the project management side of things and the change management side of things, probably like two people occupying the front seat of a car, they need to be working in tandem. Often change management is either understated, underestimated, uninvolved, or in some cases around delivery, seemingly unimportant. I would challenge that and contend that. Change management is absolutely crucial, because what you’re actually asking people to do, and it’s like a campaign, we’re going to bring a change.
So we need to make people aware of what this change is going to be. We need to instil a sense of desire to buy into the change. We need to ensure that they have knowledge of what this change is going to mean for them. We need to ensure that actually adopt what the changes are, you’re looking for more hoping that they’ll realise what the change aspects are. The product delivery side of things is around the more tangible, concrete hard deliverables for want of a better term.
The change management side of things is around getting people’s behaviour to work in harmony with all these changes. And that’s difficult. You can only do that one person at a time. So resistance is a natural thing. That’s something that’s in biology. We’ve all heard about three brains, most people heard that all three brain thing. So you’ve got a sage brain, a monkey brain and a robot brain.
So your robot brain keeps you alive. So that keeps you breathing and make sure your heart rate is running and all that stuff. So that’s a robot brain. It’s also part of the fight or flight mechanism. Your monkey brain is the thing that keeps you amused and distracted. So if you want to, you’re going to do something different. So it’s shiny new things, that stuff. And your sage brain is the one which is always competing for the remaining capacity of your brain, which is thinking about what a future might look like or certain situation that you’re in.
If someone is confronted by change, they’re immediately going to resist it, until they understand it. The issue is that, the understanding part, which is in your sage brain, has very little capacity, because it’s been taken up by the robot brain and the other brain. That’s why change management is so important, because you’re actually working to convey a message to the part of your biology, which is currently under-resourced, is probably the best way to describe it, because the rest of your brain capacity is being consumed by these other resources.
And so what that means is this whole simple idea of I’ll tell you what I’m going to tell you, then I’ll tell you, then I’ll tell you what I’ve told you. And then it’s repetition and it’s really mastering the mundane and so incredibly important. Because people will feel threatened. You can come up with the best Whiz-Bang ERP system on the planet. But the first thing people are going to ask is, “oh, that’s great. But what does it mean for me?” All everyone’s interested in is me. And that’s described in biology, that surrounds survival.
It’s a natural thing. So you need to appease the monkey brain, to make the monkey brain feel comfortable about what these changes are.
And that is difficult. And the role that change managers play around managing resistance, getting people to buy into the messages. And it’s got to be one person at a time. You can’t change an entire tribe of people in one fell swoop. And so to me, project management, change management and an active visible sponsor are really important at the start of a project. Because what change managers can do is, oh, they’ll look at the people side of things and they will identify what project managers recall or will refer to as risks to delivery.
And they will be able to identify what they are. And the two of these need to work in concept to the best outcome. Because delivering the best thing, when people don’t want to use it really does mean there is a whole of life proposition, they haven’t delivered the outcome that you’re after. So that’s what change managers, go change managers.
Things that they do around, in my view, somewhat undervalued in it. And could well be underappreciated. But it’s the things that need to get done to get really good project success. On top of all the other project management, technical things around the various knowledge areas that, we’re expecting project managers to be competent. Ironically, I think about this right. The PMI framework, one of the shortest knowledge areas or the base knowledge areas in the PMI framework is communication. It’s really short.
Cycle time management isn’t particularly long either. And to a certain extent, that kind of makes sense, because from a project management viewpoint, those two things, they’re important, but they really are specialist things, which is the realm of the change management side of things. So I imagine if there was an equivalent and change management, it probably doesn’t have a lot around time, scope, quality, HR or whatever the case may be.
Rebecca Bennett: And yet, those things are critical for success and delivery, and continued learning within an organisation?
Marcel Thompson: Exactly right. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be on a few projects where that was done really, really well. And to me that were the deciding factors around what I believe is project success. There’s obviously the hard numbers around benefits, realisation and the like that comes through there. But what it does tend to do is it tends to put other important knowledge areas into context. So things like on time delivery, on budget delivery, if you deliver something on time and on budget, but it’s a rubber solution that nobody wants to use. And it’s pretty hard claiming victory in that circumstance. It’s like having ashes in your mouth, really. It’s just not quite the same.
Rebecca Bennett: So this is where, going back to the early discussion around the alchemy of a team and how a team works together, how critical is it to really as a leader or as a sponsor or even in the various roles that sit in the project team knowledge transfer and how you can understand your own role, but also explain and communicate in each of those roles. How do you navigate that in these teams?
Marcel Thompson: What I think really helps is, if you can clearly articulate what you’re after in language that people can understand, that they can identify with and then craft a message, pitch to that type of audience, that helps enormously. But it really starts with being very clear in simple terms about what the outcome is and really reiterating that and setting some clear guidelines around their own behaviour as well. So I’ve always been a firm believer, I would never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself.
And it’s really around showing the way, so that others will follow. And not only that. Rounding up that point behind, people as well to make sure that they’re not lagging behind. So it is a constant loop of reinforcement, reiteration, encouragement, motivating people. And really, to a certain extent, one of the areas I think from my experience that isn’t really explored to the extent it could be, is at the start people need to become something they’re not at that point.
Quite often the delivery roles are things that people grow into.
They’ll have a great skill set, for example, technically competent. They could be any number of other softer skills that they’re very good at. But every single project in itself is something that you need to grow into, particularly if, for example, you’re expecting people to do something that they want to do, but they’ve never done before. And so if a leader can convey that type of view, as well in a way that people can understand and also articulate the fact that the value they’re bringing by being part of this team will help bridge that gap. That takes time and it’s really around building good relationships amongst everyone, and everyone’s different.
So even amongst peers, having support from above team. So in any projects, if you’ve got a visible and active sponsor with a clear message and who’s involved in that regard, absolutely vital. I think project success is directly related to the level of sponsor’s involvement. So and that consistent message will then filter through the teams as well. What I’ve seen is quite often there can be a degree of competition between teams too. If you’ve got big projects with dozens of people involved.
So that can be interesting and you’ll get different leadership styles. So leaders of teams themselves have got their own team to work through. But then as they peers across different functional groups, that’s really important as well. So the relationships are being built at that level. It can really make or break with the latest single crash landed. So it’s really an investment in building relationships and understanding how people function and how they tick.
Rebecca Bennett: Which brings us to an interesting shift for you, which has been moving out of necessary a team and project environment into developing your own teams in a gin business, which is coming back to your first passions of chemistry, mathematics, alchemy, gin. It’s quite a shift in some ways, but at the same time, it’s pulling all of the expertise and experience together in a very different way.
Marcel Thompson: It is. It’s one of those funny things, isn’t it? I mean, so making gin was the first job I had, as I alluded to earlier, is probably being the most pivotal career experience that I’ve had. I learnt a lot from that in terms of functional side of things, business, project delivery and the like, with some great people and some tremendous mentors as such. Then I spent a large amount, next 20 years looking solely at a project delivery, and there was always something missing through all of that and can’t quite work out what it was.
But when the opportunity came to really start with my involvement with a fledgling gin distillery, with a couple of young, ambitious blokes, who really just needed some direction, to certain extent. In a lot of our Zooms I am looking at my former self at the same age, so much younger and full of hope.
Rebecca Bennett: And as I understand it, the old joke of a banker, after the business owner walking into a bar and meeting with a former gin distiller, mathematic heaven.
Marcel Thompson: Oh, well, I hope so, because. Well, if it were held in heaven must be pretty good.
So yes, it really was like that. And it was at a time too, when I was coming to the end of a contract and a very big project, which is pretty demanding, in IT of putting in the IP system. And it came at a really opportune time, I think, which seems to be, I don’t know if it’s the luck thing or maybe it’s just a case of seeing opportunities, when they present themselves. But even that was fairly serendipitous and really a function of happenstance. It wasn’t really planned in that regard.
The venture had been operating for a little while and it had a few issues to solve, one of which was creating a product. So how hard can it be to find a project management, project managing scheduling gin maker? It can’t be that hard. It must be dozens of them out there. No, there’s not.
Rebecca Bennett: And the one with a chemistry background and understanding of the distillation process.
Marcel Thompson: Yeah, I mean, really how hard can it be? So it was it was really quite a remarkable set of circumstances that led to that first meeting. And it gave me an insight into the thing, the itch, the whatever it was, guess that had, not so much been missing, but which I missed. So it’s one of those things, isn’t it? It’s not until you find that thing, that you might have taken for granted and it’s no longer there. And you say, maybe that’s what it was.
So yes. I had a different motivation. And in that sense it really did hark back to really going full circle to a certain extent. And that’s a tremendous opportunity and a great experience and one where there’s a whole raft of different experiences I could bring to the table, experiences I did not have in 1987. So it just meant that I was able to pinpoint areas to focus upon faster, than someone who was a bumbling along and trying to stumble their way through it, trying to find answers to questions that they didn’t fully understand and then finding other questions that they didn’t even know existed.
And so I think that helped, certainly helped accelerate the concept to commercialisation process, which is obviously over the years I’ve done a lot of particularly in the adult beverage industry. And so it was a lot of fun to be able to do that. But again, there was a lot of project management principles, scheduling principles, new product development principles, a lot a whole raft of things that I’d developed over a number of years and fine tuned and honed and I was able to help solve the problem. That’s ultimately what people are looking for. So people don’t buy drill bits or drill bits.
I actually buy them to create the whole that they need to actually do the job that they want done. And so it’s really solving a problem.
Rebecca Bennett: That shift from being a curious student to being a still curious master and passing on that knowledge. Has that really helped you take the lessons of building and leading your team to building and leading the business and at the same time still instilling the same level of curiosity into the process?
Marcel Thompson: I think so. I think probably one of the greatest skills that people can pick up and that took me 30 odd years of work this out, is for many years I was a producer. So the way I solved a problem was being a producer. So I produce a result, deliver result, produce something. Here’s a problem. What do we need to produce to solve a problem? If there were difficulties solving a problem, what they generally meant was that there was some asset shortfall.
So the asset could be a process, or procedure, or people. But typically it means if there’s some difficulty to produce a result, there’s some asset that’s missing. So it’s really a case of developing an asset to fill that gap. And some of those assets could be through automation, or technology, or more people, whatever it is, it could well be that.
What I actually learnt, I think particularly with setting of a gin business or indeed a business in general, is that you have to stop thinking like a producer. You have to start thinking about being a wicked delegator, someone who can articulate an outcome, broadish kind of outcome and really allow people to cut loose. So if you’ve got a set of outcomes, it’s really a case of it’s very much a team sport. It’s taken me a long time to recognise that.
I was actually working in a team sport for a long, long time, but when you’re the captain of a team, you take on a slightly different responsibility. You’re part of the team is a certain level of responsibility that goes with that and a degree of accountability as well. Projects, by their nature are chockablock full of producers. So you’ve got subject matter experts that produce, so they know what you’ve got, technical experts that produce.
So they’ll produce things like, data vision programmes or mapping tables or some other thing. They produce stuff. Change managers are the same, they’ll have a change management strategy, a training strategy, a training schedule. They’ll have collateral. They’ll have assets so they produce, produce, produce, produce. And when you’re a producer that’s constantly producing things for delivery, that transition to take a more holistic view over the top of an enterprise can be a little bit challenging.
You delegate things out, but you don’t lose accountability for things. So that means your selection of the people that you instil the responsibility on is really important. And so what you need to do then is trust them to do the things they do and also trust that they will ask you for help. That’s the hardest part. Producers are probably some of the worst people to ask for help, because I produce. That’s what I do. So that’s the thing I like to do. And so I think that’s probably the key skill that people can pick up, it’s as invaluable today, as it ever has been.
For example, when I wrote a book that I didn’t actually really fully appreciate, just how big a team you need to write a book, you write a book, it’s got a title and your name is on the front and you’re the author. But it belies the number of different things that you need to delegate out, trust people to deliver and insist that they have your best interests in there in terms of the outcome as well. So you hire people to do the things you cannot do, seize to be a producer and then really become someone who is almost like a sponsor, to ensure that the outcome that you’re after is being realised and you jaroff the benefit from it.
Still Magic it’s probably another pivotal chapter in my project delivery career today, mainly because it was so personal. The motivation to do it was a very personal journey that I needed to take. And I’ve derived a lot of satisfaction from delivering that outcome. And the team I had were just phenomenal, absolutely epic.
Rebecca Bennett: Still Magic is actually a really fascinating journey through what we were talking about earlier, which was not just what you’re trying to produce, but the how. And reading through the four chapters of the different stages of how do you leverage an understanding of how gin is made understanding the alchemy of what you call the three Bs, thet botanicals, the basis, and the blending, understanding the importance of applying first principles. What’s the journey been like for you to explore that process, understand the history, bringing together your knowledge of both the industry, but bringing your project [inaudible 00:44:34] into that journey?
Marcel Thompson: So if you look at, get a wee bit academic, if we start looking at, for example, the PMI project delivery framework, where you look at scope, cost risk communications, HR, I would say and quality, stakeholder management and the like, the key with it, it was around the communication side of things and how communication as far as the PMI framework is concerned is probably the smallest knowledge here in terms of content.
What I found was and this particularly case, when I was working with the Lads of Paul Thom’s, is that alcohol manufacturing does have a language, does have a lexicon. Suffice to say, it doesn’t have a lot of three little acronyms like you have in MIT, but it does have a language.
And so what I needed to do was to convey and express that language in ways that were readily and easily understood. And so what that meant was having had a grounding in the technical, scientific, analytical, traditional ways of delivering a gin outcome or indeed an adult beverage outcome, because the audience is different, I had to choose language in a way will present language in the terms in a way that people could use an analogy to make it more readily understood. So in Still Magic.
The whole idea was really to not so much to take the veil away from making gin, but to demonstrate how accessible making gin actually is by simply leveraging the skills that you already have. And so by taking that approach, the message I was conveying is that, yes, you can do this. You can, you seriously can do this. What you choose to do after you’ve learnt how to do this is the subject of my second book in such, which is around commercialising your concept and ideas and creating a business.
So that was probably the biggest learning that I had and had some great mentors to help me out with this. Part of the process of writing a book in the process I was following, which is actually called the writing process, believe it or not. So WRITER. What was it write, read, improved, test. That’s right. Test is an interesting part of the whole writing process as well. If I was to illustrate a really graphic example of what test is, when you’ve got a manuscript and you send it out into the wild blue yonder for people to critique, it’s probably on a par with standing naked on a weighing scale, holding a copy of your bank statement. You are so incredibly exposed there is nowhere to hide.
I had some tremendous feedback from a published author, which was just brutal but helpful and useful, and it made the difference. And so it really is a case of, in that particular case, it really is around crafting the messages, so people can understand.
I think it’s probably a key lesson I’ve learnt over the years and is often, probably in terms of IT delivery projects and other projects, I’ve really been on both sides of the desk. Of listen to people get all enamoured of the technology and business people’s eyes glaze over, avincing sponsors and business leaders describe things like, EBITDA and growth in segments and what have you, see the IT people eyes glaze over. And it’s because the there’s a communication gap. The technology is one thing.
But seriously, ultimately, unless it makes lives better for people and helps you sell one more widget, unless the technology has a sense of empathy associated with it, because ultimately software as a service, it’s all about people, really is. So that’s why business people aren’t terribly enamoured about new whiz bang things in technology. That all I want to know is will I get the things I want, when I want it. Will I get the reports I need? Will get the information that I need in simple to understand language, so that I can make some considered great decisions now for the benefit of the business.
That’s really what they’re after.
I think a little bit that gets lost in my views is having looked at something as esoteric as gin making, it taught me that for all of the exposure training and experience that I’ve got ultimately comes down to expressing a simple message, so that people have confidence that they can actually achieve small things. So it’s really a case, little micro wins along the way.
Rebecca Bennett: I think that what’s really interesting is your current project, is actually a podcast where you explore those journeys with other disciplines and how they’ve experienced going into the industry, what things work for them from an alchemy perspective, from a people perspective, from a really interesting story around how that process has evolved for them.
Marcel Thompson: To a certain extent, the podcast series, The Distiller’s Voice, was simply something that needed to be made. And I am saying to myself, well, it was similar to the book Still Magic. It was along the lines of, well, if no one’s going to do it I’ll do it. So I just decided to do it to a certain extent and specifically called The Distiller’s Voice, because the distiller’s voice is often not heard, it just isn’t, despite some great products out there and people will know the product that they’ll even know the organisation that sells a product.
But chances are they know very little about the people on the backend to actually bring the product to big. And so I specifically wanted to give people that opportunity to add and to explore their own journeys and to compare and contrast it with my own. And what I found is that this notion of alchemy is redhot through each and every one of these distiller’s voices, this whole notion of managing change and differences and the like, all of them are creative, all of them have had a genuine interest in doing something for themselves.
Very few of them actually knew how to do whatever it was.
All I knew is I had a really strong sense of purpose to do this thing. So their reasoning for doing what they wanted to do was really clear, absolutely rock solid in every single case. They just had to work out the how on the what. And that’s where people like myself and other distiller’s across Australia or indeed around the world, we’re happy to help [inaudible 00:50:38] people have very clear articulated reasoning or sense of purpose to do that. And one of the other things, too, that I not so much discovered, I think probably just merely confirmed as a suspicion I’ve always had, is that each and every one of these people have changed and have grown into the role.
These stories have a lot of common threads, but they bring their own nuances to them as well. I think we’ve spoken about it even in my own upbringing, where this whole notion of alchemy has been a consistent theme in my own career be it through education, be it through delivery, be it through creativity that was spoken about today as well. And it’s very much alive and well. And so long as everyone goes into the right spirit, as it were, pun intended, I think the future is assured. Certainly exciting times.
Rebecca Bennett: This has been a really fascinating conversation, actually, and I’m sure for anyone who’s listening. Thanks so much for your time myself. It’s been really. Really interesting journey through your understanding of the world, but also the understanding of alchemy.
Marcel Thompson: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the invitation to share this conversation with you today. So thank you very much for the conversation.