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Interview with Donnie MacNicol

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After 10 years as Chairman of APMs People SIG, Donnie MacNicol has decided to step down. Richard Galley and Jane Royden (People SIGs new Chairman) took an opportunity to ask Donnie to share some of his thoughts and reflections just before he headed off for a date with Kings of Leon in Hyde Park.

My doctor friends tell me to take care. They seem to think that Im doing too well, too soon! 

Only a matter of weeks after the physical trauma of major surgery following a serious accident, Donnie MacNicol is the picture of gently tanned good health and bright eyed vitality. Where many people who have undergone a similar experience would still be easing themselves back onto their feet, Donnies already well past that point of recovery. He is well and truly back in the saddle, being busy at work, fatherhood and play. Almost immediately on meeting him one senses that this is a man on the move; a man with just two speeds - fast and stop.

But this is no bull in a china shop. Donnies energy has a natural modulation, revealing itself in a considered and level headed approach which allows him to hold and express strong opinions without being arrogant and to speak with honesty without appearing insensitive.

Donnie has been an APM member for longer than he cares to (or can) remember. He has been Chairman of the APMs People Specific Interest Group (SIG) since 2002 and has decided that it is now time to make way for a new hand on the tiller. 

In the 10 years as Chairman, he has seen the people agenda become more widely accepted within the world of project management and he has been in the vanguard of this move to alter mindsets.

Ten years ago, project management was all about process and tools / techniques. In 2011 were seeing a growing recognition that project management is actually about a third key element, people. The challenge now is to consider the implications on the profession and its constituent parts the way processes are deployed and used, the ways in which people are developed and so on.

The process of evolution through the course of the decade has been steady and whilst Donnie is a man on a mission, hes acutely aware of the idiom, slowly, slowly catchy monkey; appreciating that in certain situations such as this one it doesnt pay to be too radical, too quickly as you need to allow people time to accept new thinking and make it their own.

In an ideal world, people would not be a separate discussion point in project management circles. Effective emotional and human interaction would simply be part and parcel of the accepted norm. But this is not an ideal world and there is much still to do in terms of moving the people agenda forward.

The people aspect of project management is based on what is really a straightforward enough principle, but one that many in the profession still seem to find difficulty in grasping. As Donnie explains, 

Good appreciation of people will help and improve results. Being a capable project manager is as much about managing human relationships, as it is about getting the technical disciplines right.   

Donnie observes that despite the many academic studies and intellectual debates generated on the subject, failure is still the number-one bane of the project management world.  

As a science, project management is relatively new and the project failure rate is still high. Not enough time is spent ensuring that the basics are done properly and this is further compounded by the fact that the technical side of project management is actually becoming increasingly uncertain; as soon as youve mastered and understood one technique a new one has come along to displace it. Everyone is hoping to find a silver bullet!" 

As the conversation develops, the message comes across loud and clear. Much of the problem lies with the inability, or unwillingness of the profession to learn lessons from past mistakes, including a reluctance to acknowledge and address those issues which are rooted in human psychology and emotional intelligence. As a consequence, failure is invariably allowed to breed failure and more unforgivable still, there lingers a tacit acceptance of conscious incompetence throughout the world of project management generally. The reasons for failure are manifold,  complex and so entwined that time needs to be invested in understanding them properly; however, time always seems to be the commodity in shortest supply.  

Most people in the project management community are perfectly comfortable with process; its unemotional, objective and defineable. However, many are not inclined to move beyond this comfort zone. Yet the issues faced by project managers really need to be viewed holistically and this means introducing the emotional and subjective into the mix as well. Uncertainty and complexity are the new norm.  

People is the third, critical and most complex dimension in the art of project management. A proper and consistent appreciation of the vitally important part that people play in success and failure is essential for a professional discipline which is aiming for Chartered status in the foreseeable future. The People SIG has set out to champion this cause, taking as its motto: Inspiring project managers to be inspiring.

So, what of the future? When asked this question, the MacNicol eyes light-up even more. He sees massive opportunities for the profession through embracing the latest thinking in areas such as neuroscience and leadership development, whilst broadening the use of communication technology and social media in the project management process. The capability of humans to understand each other more effectively, build relationships and interact over large distances in real time, will help to reinforce the point that the People agenda is one that needs to be taken seriously by everyone.

In the work I do I am finding that business leaders and project professionals have a growing appreciation of the importance of the people aspects in project delivery but do not know how to take action to improve this; a challenge to all in the profession. Applying the latest thinking in a simple and pragmatic way that organisations can use is critical. The People SIG has an important role in providing the insights and interventions to meet this need the Lenses were a good example of what can be achieved." 

Social media is starting to have an impact although we have no clear understanding of what this might be and how it may shape the profession. My gut feel is that it will be a positive influence on the people agenda. Google+ Circles is one tool that could impact how knowledge is shared in real time across the profession we all know the huge difficulty in projects of sharing not only knowledge but also the learning derived from experience. If you dont know what Google+ is, you soon will!

When asked what advice hed offer to someone considering project management as a career, Donnies reply is typically forthright,

Most project managers are expected to have a broad range of capabilities and knowledge (rightly or wrongly), not only being an expert in managing the pure project management aspects but also having an understanding of context, commercial issues and the technical aspects of the projects to allow them to challenge, make informed decisions and ensure that the delivery approach fits the project and organisation. I would therefore advise new PMs to consider how they can combine their technical knowledge of managing projects with life experience and a solid grounding in commercial and operational environments. This will provide them with the foundation to build trusting relationships with their team, sponsor and stakeholders. 

And the People SIG?

Im proud of the way its evolved and that it has become such an important part of our profession and APM. It has a good, strong, vibrant future, due in large part to the committee that is now in place. The fact that other SIGs have built people into their own agendas probably is a good indication that weve succeeded in raising the profile over the years.  I like to think that weve influenced some peoples thinking in that time and helped them to appreciate the importance of the subject.


Donnie in a nutshell
Cat or dog?Dog
APM or Prince?APM
Full English or continental?Full English (with lots of fruit)
Run or walk?Run
Suit or shorts?Shorts
Charles Dickens or Jackie Collins?Charles Dickens
Biffy Clyro or Take That?Biffy!
Lanzarote or The Himalayas?The Himalayas


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