Interview With Thomas Walenta, Former President of PMI Frankfurt Chapter

Thomas Walenta

Thomas Walenta believes in delivering value through program and project management.  His core competencies lie in crisis management, leadership, program portfolio management, training, coaching and mentoring.

He is currently an elected Director on the PMI Board. He has been a speaker at global conferences for more than 20 years. He has accumulated 46 years of experience under his belt. Having spent 30+ years leading PMOs and programs, he has had the opportunity to work on various projects in multiple regions of the world.

He has worked in the government, automotive, electronics, banking, insurance, and other sectors. He has been actively involved with the leadership of the PMI Frankfurt chapter and served in several global volunteer roles for PMI. Since 2002, he has been teaching project management at the University of Applied Sciences, Darmstadt, Germany.

TaskQue: Hey Thomas, can you regale us with your career story, how you fell in love with project management. What drove you to embark on this career path?

Thomas:  In 1974, I started to work on my first project as an apprentice at IBM, tasked with migrating 1401 Autocoder code to PL/1.

It was followed by a career as a developer at a bank and then as a system engineer at IBM again, planning and installing datacenters and IBM hard- and software.

In 1987, I was asked to lead a project moving a data center and I tried to learn about what a project would entail. Not many books, classes or support existed back in those days.

After that project, which had its challenges but ended with a happy client, I decided to become a professional project manager.

The main reason was my laziness, as I understood that dealing with people will always be required and it builds on experience, while a technical career needs a restart every few years (who remembers Autocoder or PL/1 today?).

Consequently, I cut all ties with my technical career and became laser-focused on my new role.

TaskQue:  What do you think are the traits of a good leader which play an important role in the successful completion of any project?

Thomas:  Much has been written about leadership and in project management, we mostly deal with leading without authority, which entails us to focus on influencing clients and management as well as trying to inspire the team and make sure they can work together.

In some projects, where you are granted authority, a more directive and coercive style work as well. So, I believe that looking at the full spectrum of leadership styles is beneficial for the project manager.

At the core for me is an emotional experience with its four areas of understanding yourself (self-awareness) and controlling your emotions (self-control), empathy to understand others and lastly the ability to influence others. Though the four areas follow sequentially, it is a lifelong exercise to become better in all of them, iteratively and incrementally.

Related: Characteristics of Good Leaders

TaskQue: You have been working in this field for a long time. You must have a few inspirations in your industry. Who are they? Would you like to mention one or two?

Thomas:  While working at IBM, I met some amazing leaders there, also some less great people.

For instance, Rory Read, a senior global executive, who flew in from Germany to help with a crisis with a client. He sat with our team in the evening, listening calmly, and the next morning, he apologized to the client, explained what happened in detail and promised that we would recover.

TaskQue: You have been associated with the international project management institute for quite some time. How is PMI helping professionals around the world in improving their processes?

Thomas:  I became acquainted with PMI in 1992 when I saw a PMI magazine at the IBM training center library in Brussels. I became a member and attended the PMI Frankfurt Chapter meetings, which was the 2nd Chapter outside North America.

Since then, PMI has been almost everywhere, with 300+ Chapters and more than half a million members. This global relevance is helping project managers use virtual teams around the world and the volunteers at PMI can be construed of as priests, conveying the enthusiasm for project management.

TaskQue: What do you think is the best strategy for crisis management when your organization is facing low ROI issues?

Thomas:  Is low ROI really a crisis or rather a slowly growing self-made problem? Is it due to neglecting good business practices for some time? If you invest your money or people in initiatives that yield low returns, you might want to look at your portfolio management process, your capabilities and your level of complacency staying in the same market with the same products for too long.

TaskQue: You have been speaking at various conferences for 20 years. Any memorable event for which you would like to share some insights?

Thomas:  The largest event I addressed had 3000 attendees and – the teleprompter failed. This truly was memorable for me, and the audience did not notice.

I liked most when critical questions came from the audience, as they portrayed interest and engagement. Overall, I love the variety of events and audiences, though speaking about project management, leadership, the strategy is a bit limited.

TaskQue:  Share your thoughts on how humans can be more productive in this robotic era?

Thomas:  Robotics, as a variation on Artificial Intelligence and Digitalization, shapes the life of everybody over time, even as 3.5 billion people on this planet are not yet connected to the internet.

I believe productivity is given an unhealthy priority since productivity kills creativity and innovation. It has to be a balance. We already use digitalization in improving productivity, and killing jobs, yet the irony is that the new jobs will only stem from being creative (with the new capabilities).

TaskQue:  Share your thoughts on any key feature or growth hack that you think is a must-have for the success of any tool for digital age professionals.

Thomas:  With the growth of connections and content, it gets more difficult to find relevant knowledge, and beyond that, to find islands of knowledge that have the potential of becoming connected for creativity.

Especially if – like with google – transparent filters are used. Intelligence features and creativity supporting functions will become more relevant to any AI tools.

TaskQue: Do you think that machines/AI will take over human jobs? How should professionals address this rising concern?

Thomas:  For sure, AI will dominate jobs that are now done by humans. One factor is the speed, which influences the lifetime of jobs.

See truck drivers; with the advent of self-driving trucks, we expected to see the extinction of truck drivers, yet logistic companies are desperately looking for drivers even now.

An individual driver – if beyond the age of 50 – might well survive the cutthroat competition, others should be prepared to switch jobs and build competencies that can be used elsewhere.

TaskQue: You have been teaching project management as well. Would you like to share some nuggets of wisdom for project management students?

Thomas:  Do not expect to be an expert after attending a project management course and/or getting a certificate. You have to practice and gain experience while extending your knowledge.

It is all about life-long learning. Continuous learning also helps you secure a PM role, as you learn how to listen, interpret and question the expectations and culture of your clients, sponsor, and team.

I was lucky to experience this in different industries, imaging investment banking, retail, and legislation – they all talk different languages.

TaskQue:  Can you confide in us an infallible productivity hack which can help project managers meet deadlines?

Thomas:  in project management, there is nothing infallible and productivity is not the only objective. In the Olympic games, deadlines matter most, in other projects I rather look at the value provided by a project.

Many times, if you can promise more value, deadlines and budgets become flexible. We already see more scope creep in projects, so you better develop strategies that tackle scope, budget and schedule flexibility.

TaskQue: TaskQue is a productivity enhancement tool which helps in task management and ensuring better efficiency and transparency. What do you have to say about the future trends of Productivity tools?

Thomas:  In the long run, productivity tools might emerge into fully automated systems without the need for human intervention or even insight.

The data will be taken in from all the systems and communications we are building up, for example, 5G including sensor data.

The reasoning ability of tools will consider not only deterministic algorithms but will extend to probabilistic scenarios, taking judgment and decision making from humans (we had decision support systems already in the ’80s).

Human attention will shift to creativity and innovation, as it always has, our drive to explore unchartered territory may help us survive as a species.