** This article was posted on the IPMA newsletter in ‘Leden in het zonnetje’, where IPMA-members are interviewed by other IPMA-members. The original post can be found here. **

We meet up at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. Roel comes riding in on his bike. We’ve barely taken our first sips of coffee before he starts talking excitedly. A big ball of energy, full of rich stories about project management, his experience with it and his enthusiasm for the field.

“I studied Applied Physics at Eindhoven University of Technology. I am the kind of person who wants to know and understand everything. On top of that, I am always looking for analogies to bring things together and make them simpler and more insightful. I am driven by my desire to make complicated things easier to understand. I believe there is a need for that now more than ever, in our (project management) world with all of its hypes, uncertainties, multidisciplinary collaboration and changes.

In the late 90s, I started out as a diesel engines expert at DAF Trucks. One of my areas of focus was engine management, which was new to the truck. Many tech companies employ physicists to bring the mechanics, electronics experts and software developers together. They are like the cement between the various fields. As a physicist, you co-strategize and break down the walls between the various areas of expertise. That’s what I strive towards too; bringing people and processes together.

At my first job, risk management meant that I would work on the weekend if I didn’t get things done during the week. That was my go-to solution for everything: just work hard. I see a lot of that same behaviour in the young professionals I help with their start-ups. There’s no shortage of enthusiasm or energy. However, after a while I began to realise that this might be a workable solution in my role as a co-foreman of a team of six or seven people, but if that team were to grow to fifty people or more, my life would be absolutely miserable. There were so many other things I enjoyed doing, I had to save some time for those. I realised that I had to “scale myself up,” so to speak. I had to make my method scalable. That was when I made a seemingly illogical choice. I decided to continue my career as a software project leader. I wanted to learn and – here it is – learn to let go. Software is a field that I can understand, but not do. As a project leader, I would have no choice but to let go, because I couldn’t do what my team members were doing. That’s how I found out that what I loved even more than digging ever deeper as a specialist was managing the whole show as a project leader. Later, I used this to give the software people increasingly important roles in development teams. Software was the glue between the system’s hardware components in the 20th century, whereas these days it’s the system’s blood, responsible for making sure the system ties in seamlessly with the end user’s flow.

Members in the spotlight: Roel WesselsFor me, letting go is about more than just delegating tasks to someone else. It’s far more important to learn to appreciate that they will do things differently to you. If you cannot do that, you will never realise the full potential this collaboration has to offer. I work on that a lot during my training and coaching sessions. When we talk about situational leadership, about Scrum, about self-organisation, I keep telling the manager: “As long as I see in your eyes that you’re thinking, ‘it went well, but it would have gone even better if I had done it myself,’ you’re not there yet.” You can only start delegating once you’re able to enjoy it, once it becomes a privilege to see someone else do things just a bit differently. The only way to deal with that mutual dependence is by being independent yourself. That isn’t easy, and it requires a lot of room within yourself. To create that room, you have to keep investing in yourself.

I first attended an IPMA Parade around 2004-2005 – at Papendal, I think. It was like a reunion of sorts for me, because I ran into a lot of former Ordina colleagues. At the time, I was working as head of Product Development at Assembléon. Guustaaf Savenije, a friend of John Verstrepen’s, later put me in touch with Hans Fredriksz. That was the beginning of my IPMA work. I was part of the organisation of the Parade three times. We had keynote speakers such as Marc Lammers and Ben Tiggelaar – it was an amazingly educational time. That was during the time that Atty van der Schoot and John Verstrepen were in charge of the parade’s organisation. I learned so much during that time. Many volunteers who only get together for one night a month presents quite a challenge. It’s like taking off in a plane, gaining some altitude and then landing again because it’s time to go home. Try making that process effective. Fortunately, we had our driving force Atty. She “kept us warm” in between gatherings. She sent us the right information, made sure our communication was on par and stimulated us with interim results. That ensured we as volunteers never fully lost touch and were instantly effective at the start of the next monthly meeting. We made tons of progress in just two hours’ time. Ultimately, this is exactly what makes Scrum and other organisational methods successful or not. Being effective is actually really easy, provided that you have the ability and the guts to do what it takes!

What I always loved about IPMA is that it not only focuses on the methodical aspects, but also on behaviour and the context of projects. From my earliest introduction to IPMA, that felt right. It’s about more than the method itself; the one applying it makes all the difference. I would like to see all of us at IPMA take that aspect to the next level in the future. Being open to each other, wanting to learn from each other, truly stepping outside your comfort zone and getting in touch with the person behind your IPMA partners instead of – uselessly, in my opinion – debating about how a method was meant, exactly.

Mind you, I’m not saying the method isn’t important. What is even more important, however, is that people talk to each other about what is really going on. That can be a tricky thing to do in the world of projects, because project managers love to boast about their successes. However, the true essence of knowledge transfer is often lost in the process. It’s usually about small things that no one else can understand, yet which project leaders will instantly recognise. Take, for example, the fact that a line manager will proudly announce they helped you out by giving you 0.08 FTE (!!) extra for your project (because one employee was only scheduled for 0.92 FTE in Excel…). At a party, most people will not get the joke, but any project leaders in the room will be all too familiar with the situation: “Yes, that’s my life!”

I enjoy shaking people up. I’m not out to shock them, but I do want to make them think. For example, a department head at a major high-tech organisation recently asked me: “Roel, we are about to experiment with Scrum, can you help us with that?” My answer was clear: “no, because ‘experimenting with Scrum’ sounds like ‘seeing if it works.’ That’s not the point. Of course, Scrum will work, as will the traditional waterfall method. If it doesn’t work, you’re doing it wrong! I will only help you if you genuinely want to learn about and invest in the application of Scrum as it is. Keep it simple. Save experimenting and trying to invent an even better wheel for when you have truly gotten good at it!”

It’s just like the Karate Kid: it takes a whole lot of ‘Wax on, wax off’ to become a champion. Project management is fun!”

Roel Wessels
Sr. Director Projectmanagement & Technology

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