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Ben Aston: Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change we seek.
Now, those are the words of Barack Obama who built his election platform on the promise of change. Change is powerful. Change is tough. Change requires projects, and so change requires management. So project management is on the agenda, but what are the tools, skills, and best practices that we need to master to usher in the projectification of society?
Keep listening to today’s podcast to discover how you can prepare yourself for the project economy, how it’ll impact the way you work, and the skills you need to succeed.
Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, founder of The Digital Project Manager. Welcome to the DPM podcast. We are on a mission to help project managers succeed, to help people who manage projects deliver better. We’re here to help you take your project game to the next level.
Check out thedigitalprojectmanager.com to learn about our training and resources we offer through membership. This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise project and portfolio management software. Visit clarizen.com to learn more.
So today I’m joined by Antonio Nieto Rodriguez, and Antonio has the longest CV I think I’ve probably ever looked at. When I was browsing through on LinkedIn, he’s the head of the PMO at GSK, he’s also director there, and he writes some of the best project management books on the market today. He’s a former board member or head of the board at the PMI, he contributes to the Harvard Business Review and various other publications. So I’m delighted to have you join us today, welcome Antonio.
Antonio R: Thank you, Ben, it’s a pleasure to be here on your podcast. I know you have lots of listeners. I appreciate the work you’re doing to promote project and project management, digital project managers, so it’s really an honor to be here with you, I’m looking forward to our chat.
Ben Aston: Well, thank you, yeah, thanks for being here. And I wonder if I can start by actually just digging into your resume a bit, and your background. Now obviously, you’ve held some very senior positions, some very senior project management positions throughout your career, and still do. Can you tell me how you got into project management in the first place, and a bit about how your career progressed and evolved over the past few decades?
Antonio R: Yeah, sure Ben. So my first project, it was when I started to work for Price Waterhouse Coopers, at the time it was called PW, Price Waterhouse, and they sent me as a junior into a very, very large SAP implementation program at ExxonMobil. So they say, “You’re going to be a project office assistant”, I didn’t know what that meant, and then I was shocked because the first thing that the project director told me was, “Get us some coffee.” So I had to do that, then I had to chase people for timesheets, it was a terrible, terrible experience. I said, “What the heck am I doing here, project officer and I’m just like a consultant secretary”, so it was like really from the bottom where I started in PWC, working on these big SAP implementations. So that was my start, not the most sexy one I would imagine.
Ben Aston: And I didn’t put you off though? It sounds like you didn’t enjoy it, so why did you keep going?
Antonio R: Well, I saw it was learning, and I was talking to many people and then people were, yeah, even if I had to push them to get me the deadline, and the timesheets, they were kind of respecting me, I was very junior and said, “Well, if he doesn’t do it then it’s going to escalate”, so I started to see the power I was bringing on people who I never met before. So there was kind of something exciting, then you were shipped to another project, and you started to get more responsibility in another industry. So in PWC, I spent about 10 years, and I became one of the most experts, they call it Global Lead Practitioner for PWC in the area of Project and Change.
So I grew up through the ladder, I launched the first global survey, around PPM maturity in 2004, it is still quite valid what I did that time, with 200 countries, at least 2004, and you won’t believe it Ben, but in PWC, I wanted to become partner. I thought I had the experience, the knowledge, I thought every company needed project and change, portfolio management, PMOs. And so my pitch to become a partner in PWC was to develop project management advisory services. And I made the pitch to the partners, there were 12 in the room, very passionate, everybody appreciates, and the day after, they tell me, “Antonio, you’re fired.” “What?” “Yeah, you’re fired, we love what you’re doing, but project management is something very tactical, we cannot do that in PWC, we’re high-level consultants, this is something that anybody can do, you’ll [crosstalk 00:05:49]-
Ben Aston: Right.
Antonio R: … hundred euros per day for fees, so this is nothing for us.” So that was a major, major setback in my career [crosstalk 00:05:58] and five and six, which made me think, “Do I want to keep doing this, or should I look into marketing strategy, finance, something a bit more structured, and more recognized?”, but I [crosstalk 00:06:11] to focus on that, and since then, Ben, I’ve been trying to convince senior leaders that project is crucial, it’s strategic, it’s fundamental, it’s not just for the IT or the engineer, it’s something that anybody needs to learn, that has been my quest over the past 15 years.
I don’t teach project managers, I think there’s lots of good people doing that, you do that. I’ve been really 100% focused on senior leaders.
Ben Aston: Yeah. Yeah, and I totally agree with your assertion that project management is a strategic endeavor, and I think when we are thinking about projects in terms of earned value, and how are we going to deliver the most value in the shortest amount of time, and then how we create a project plan around delivering value, it’s absolutely a strategic endeavor.
And I think sometimes people can think, “Hey, well yeah, project management, that’s just, you know, those things that you started with.” Making the coffee, getting people in a room, checking timesheets. But actually when project management comes alive, and when it’s a strategic endeavor in terms of managing change, managing risks, delivering value, then it is a strategic activity, and it deserves to be at the table with the other senior stakeholders, or partners because it is something that’s delivering value in a consultancy kind of environment.
Antonio R: Absolutely, I think you’ve said that. It does deliver value, and I think maybe I can blame as well project management, and the way it has been growing, and I can tell you, I’ve been heavily involved in PMI, and I love the [PMBOK 00:08:03], but we’ve made project management very, very complex, very, very complex. I did some research and the latest version of the PMBOK was more than 750 pages, who’s going to read that?
Ben Aston: Well, yeah, people who want to pass the exam. Isn’t it, I think that’s my challenge with the PMBOK. The PMBOK is just this huge guide which you have to learn, and to the letter so that you can answer the question the right way, and it doesn’t take into consideration the nuances of managing a project on a day to day level. So you learn a book, and then you get a certificate to say you read a book-
Antonio R: Exactly.
Ben Aston: … and learn all the answers.
Antonio R: Exactly, so I think there’s a lot of change needed in the way we see project management today. [inaudible 00:08:55] and the manifesto were amazing, I don’t see them as something against projects, or project or change management, I think it’s something very complimentary where they throwback to focus on value, what you just said, Ben. And we need to focus on value creation, and that’s where I think there’s a huge opportunity to deliver that where many people fail. So that’s I think where the future lies for us.
Ben Aston: Yeah, definitely. And thinking about that first day for you, back when you started at Exxon making the coffee, what would you tell your younger self on your first day in project management, considering all the experience you now have, all the things that you’ve learned, and how I guess maybe your mindset or perspective on project management has changed. What advice would you give your younger self?
Antonio R: Well, I think one of my weaknesses, I don’t know, I guess there’s many people when you start, you’re not very confident, and [crosstalk 00:10:00]-
Ben Aston: Right.
Antonio R: … and you might be working in an important firm, but the lack of experience makes you like weak and hesitant, and something I’ve been working a lot, it took me years, is to be persistent and persuasive, and be able to speak up, and say what I think, and so I would have been a bit more on that angle, on the yeah, believe in yourself, I think you’re here to learn, but you can give advice. Don’t take everything, stay what you say, so I think on the confidence side, it took me years to build, and maybe I would have done it faster, it would have helped me as well in my career.
Ben Aston: Yeah. Yeah, I love what you say about that, have some confidence, and as project managers, I think often we can think, “Hey, is my perspective a valid perspective to bring to the table here because I’m not maybe technical, I’m not creative, I’m just the person who’s got an eye on how we’re going to get from A to B and make sure that we arrive on budget, on time, within scope, but that the project delivers value, what it’s strategically supposed to deliver as well.”
And I think actually as project managers, I want everyone who’s listening to have confidence that actually that perspective is a valid perspective, and whilst everyone else might be thinking about, “Okay, the best technical solution, or the most creative way that the project could be delivered, or the most engaging customer experience”, these are all good things, but actually, having that big picture view of how you get from A to B, and the most viable way of getting there, managing the uncertainty along the way. That is a valid perspective and I think sometimes when we’re new to project management we think, “Hey, is that a valid perspective? I’m just telling people what they can’t do”-
Antonio R: Yeah.
Ben Aston: …and you are telling people what they can’t do, but then when you also then bring good suggestions to the table about what you can do within the constraints of the project, that is strategic, and that is delivering value.
Antonio R: Absolutely, yeah fully agree Ben, and I think people should not only think about the team members, or the participants of that project, but also senior leaders, and being able to step up and say to the sponsor, “Hey project sponsor, you’re not doing your job, and we need you, and we need the [inaudible 00:12:28] to take decisions.”
I realize how critical is that part, if there’s something where we need to be stronger, it’s on that part, on telling senior leaders that they have a big role to play, telling senior leaders that if they’re not involved, we stop the project, we’d better stop it, because, without their support, we’re just wasting time and money. So I think that’s where I’ve seen, and most of my training goals, is taking up towards the leaders who have never learned about projects, and don’t know what’s the role in the projects, but 30, 40% of the success of a project is from these people.
Ben Aston: Mm, definitely. And so changing tack here a bit, I’m curious as to where you get inspired. I mean you spend your time giving talks, writing books, but what do you draw from for that inspiration to develop yourself, and develop your own perspectives on project management?
Antonio R: Yeah, good question, Ben. I think I have a natural passion for projects and defending the profession, although I challenge a lot of the aspects of the profession, I think you probably are similar, very passionate about projects, and because we’ve seen that it has been a bit undermined, or not valued as it should be, that’s a very strong force to keep pushing, keep learning.
One of the big characteristics of a book I published last year, The Project Revolution, it was looking at major projects, successful projects. Why don’t we talk about them more, and they’re amazing projects that nobody has heard, who has transformed companies, who have transformed cities, people’s lives. So I wanted to look at those projects and see what were the common characteristics. So I’ve noticed that people in a country get excited if there’s a big project if there’s a [crosstalk 00:14:41] coming to the city, everybody [crosstalk 00:14:45] positive vibes.
This same thing, a company, if there’s something ambitious, something big and a big project, that’s where you get the engagement, and people start being pumped up and happy to go to work, and even if it’s going to be tough, they’re there day and night and working. So the power of projects for engaging organizations, countries, the work is so massive, but it’s not used enough, and this is something that I’m trying to lobby with senior leaders and senior politicians.
And one quick example, Ben, you know Europe, we have the European Union and it’s in crisis, there’s no interest, there’s no engagement with the city sense of Europe, 300 million people, and when I talk to these leaders, I say, “Listen, you know the last time we believed in Europe is when we introduced the Euro currency.” This happened in 2002, people were super excited about the Euro and being part of Europe. That was a massive project, one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever seen, which taught 300 million people. But why don’t you guys, leaders launch another challenging project to motivate the citizens?
So that’s what’s driving me, Ben, it is the power of projects, and learning about amazing projects, it can be personal projects, there are some amazing projects, and why don’t we replicate it? Why don’t we bring these tools to anybody?
Ben Aston: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, let’s move on to talk about that. So, I know according to Silicon Valley futurists, they claim that over the next 10 years, society will experience more change than in the past two and half centuries. So we’ve got more change at a greater speed than ever before. And the universal method of working and organizing work, is the project, so projects are about making dreams reality, they’re about achieving ambition and making things happen.
And I said right at the beginning, I talked about the projectification of society, and the PMI published a report on this where they stated we are living in a project economy, which means that an increasing share of our gross national product, an increasing share of our time, is spent financing and enacting projects in all kinds of industries.
So project-based work has been the engine that turns ideas into reality and generated so many major accomplishments. I mean you were talking there about the Euro, but I’m curious as to your view on this project revolution. What does that look like now to you, and how will it evolve in the next 10 years or so?
Antonio R: Yeah, well it’s a very, very good question, Ben, very deep. I’ve been talking about the project economy for years, and what’s interesting is, maybe a personal story, when I published the first book, The Focus Organization, this was 2013 I think, and I didn’t want to use the term project or project management. My experience when I was starting to talk to senior leaders, and I mentioned the word project management, their conversation completely [crosstalk 00:18:11], they didn’t care. They said, “What next?”-
Ben Aston: Right.
Antonio R: So, at that time I was talking about strategic initiatives, and that was innovating the future. I was getting the attention, I was getting the five minutes, and say, “Yeah, what’s that?” But today I feel very comfortable to talk about projects, not so much about project management, but if you talk about project change and transformation, then you get the attention, and to the project economy.
Just to point to facts, or part of my research, there are two big trends here. One is the one you just mentioned, that because of the speed of change, and the one we’re going to experience, and the need for companies to adapt to this massive change in competition, we see more and more projects. You see that in organizations, you see that in governments where there’s a big, big need for investment, infrastructure, any kind of project. So you see projects not just in the business world, but in the societies, in the government, so there’s a big trend. I did the research, and the project is one of the most used words in the business or public sector. You go to any company, I bet the word that you hear more is projects. Anybody talks about their projects and [crosstalk 00:19:42]-
The second big trend, so yes, there’s a massive projectification that you call it Ben, in overall in the world. But the second big trend is the way work is carried on, so in organizations, they’ve been structured hierarchical, which has been very great for 100 years since [Taylor 00:20:04] and [Fort 00:20:05], and yes, it was very important to have a very lean organization focused on efficiency [crosstalk 00:20:14] and that’s where the budgeting cycle comes, and the power and resources, it’s all these hierarchical structures.
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Antonio R: So 99% of the people were working in a hierarchical structure, and the project was just the addition. What you see over 100 years, this is the research I did, is that there is a shift. So the type of work is moving from this hierarchical day-to-day organization, where you’re in a box, to project-based work. So today, about 50 to 60% of the work is being done project-based.
So this is an extra complexity because it’s not easy to say suddenly from here, okay, we move to a project base, which is completely lean, it’s agile, there are no roles anymore, there is no hierarchy, so now it’s a very different world. So this is how I call the project economy is coming from both sides, top-down, where massive amount of projects, bottom-up is that your organizations, the type of work, is shifting to project base.
Ben Aston: Yeah, and I like how you’ve started in that characterization of projects where yes, people might not necessarily be calling them projects, they might be calling them strategic initiatives, or transformation, or change management, or any of these things, these are all projects, but when people use different language, it can get people a bit more excited about it, which I think is a good lesson for us all.
But I mean, what does the project economy mean for project managers? So things are changing, there is this revolution, or evolution of the nature of projects. How are you seeing that changing the role of project management, or what does it mean for project managers?
Antonio R: Well, yeah, this is a good follow up question, because does it mean that this is the time for project managers? Yes, absolutely. But not the old project managers, the project managers that we’ve been trained to, I think that’s where you had to be just expert on the project management concepts, the PMBOK that you were talking about, and being able to make a plan, make a scope statement, and a project charter, and that’s not the type of project managers [inaudible 00:22:45] needs organization.
So yes, there’s a need for more and more project managers or project leaders in organizations, it’s one of the gaps where it’s very hard to find the people because most of the people have been trained to do just one thing, marketing finance [inaudible 00:23:05]. So I think project managers are highly in demand, but they have to shift and they have to become different.
I see the project manager for today and the future, more as entrepreneurs and CEOs of their projects, meaning they know more about, yeah, finance, they need to know about value, we’ve talked about that already Ben, but they need to be absolutely owners of what they’re developing, and not just making sure that we hit the milestones, and we make the deliverables, no, who cares about the deliverables? We care about the benefits that we would bring to the company, and we’ve not been trained for that. So that’s I think where project managers need to evolve. They need to really become business leaders and take it to that kind of responsibility. If that project is not delivering value, we cancel, or we change it, but this is not the case today. That might go to the steering committee, and maybe it’s the steering committee. It should be the project manager or project leader that I call.
Ben Aston: Yeah. Yeah, and I love the way that you’re framing this as the project CEO, and the project manager, having this mindset of the project is their business. You have a budget, you have money to spend, and you’re expecting some ROI from that investment that you make. So you invest them in resources and activities, but I think yeah, traditionally, project managers have been blinded by this. You know, I create a plan, I follow it, and I produced the deliverables, and that’s my job, and what we’re talking about is “Hey, don’t necessarily deliver those deliverables. If midway through the project, it turns out that those deliverables aren’t going to deliver the value that you expected them to at the beginning.”
And this is all about managing risk, about managing change, transitioning from project management being primarily about hard skills to being more about the soft skills and how we engage with stakeholders, how we manage risk and change, how we think about delivering value, rather than just delivery.
Antonio R: Absolutely, absolutely Ben, and there’s one of my keynotes, it’s about reinventing project management, and I had recently a webinar in PMI or a.com [inaudible 00:25:40] and just to share two of the things I think we need to change, and one of them is the triple constraint. The triple constraint is great, but this internal [inaudible 00:25:51]. Yes, we all want to know about this [inaudible 00:25:54] time and cost and the quality of course, but that’s the internal [inaudible 00:00:25:58], so yeah, fine, we keep that, but what does it matter? I call it the two more, we need to develop two additional triple constraints. One goes around value, and the value that we create, the risk that we’re taking, the benefits that we’re making. So, one would be more on the benefits and the value creation, that’s the triple constraint that today doesn’t exist.
I’m talking to you Ben more on the brainstorming part, it’s a concept that I’ve already put forward, but I don’t think it’s 100% sure. The second triple constraint that we don’t have and we should have, is about engagement. This is the biggest challenge for projects, is to have the people engaged and committed, and I think we need the triple constraint about the engagement of the people, the stakeholders, the passion of that project, [inaudible 00:26:52] passionate about this project? Yes, then we’ll have better results.
So I do think that project management has to evolve from being internal [inaudible 00:00:27:02], which is why what has been today, to externally focused, and this is what I always talk about. Talk about the why of the project. Don’t tell me you’re setting up an HR system. I don’t care about the HR, you’re wasting the engagement of your employees, which are not happy. That’s what your project is doing. This system is just a tool, but the goal is to engage your staff and make them more engaged.
Ben Aston: Yeah, definitely. So these new triple constraints that you’re talking about, I love brainstorming those, and they sound really valid. Now as a project manager, thinking about how we apply this to our day to day, how can you prepare yourself for this new project economy? Have you got any insights on new tools you see emerging or tools that you’re using, new workflows, or challenges that we’ll begin to have to deal with as our role morphs into this project CEO?
Antonio R: Yes. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that and researching, Ben. I think another big change that will happen in the project management, it’s already happening in Asia for example, in [inaudible 00:28:20] companies.
I think the current project life cycle is super narrow if you look at value creation. So somebody has an idea, there’s innovation and R and D, and then somebody chooses one, and then somebody makes the business case, maybe you’re part of the business case, maybe not. You take the business case, you make a project charter, make a plan and deliver, and then you don’t care what happens before, you don’t care what happens after you’re delivering.
Ben Aston: Right.
Antonio R: That’s a very, very narrow view of value creation for a company, for a government. So my belief is that we as project managers, need to grow in both ends that we’re not covering today. So if you look at [Garner 00:29:02], they’re saying that by 2030, 80% of the tasks can be done by artificial intelligence, 80%, which is true, because most of the work today for a project manager, 30 to 50% is reporting, or chasing people to get the reports. So that will be taken up by machines clearly.
So where I think the future of the project manager is, is in the value where we can bring this on both sides. At the beginning, it’s about lean startup, design thinking, or [inaudible 00:29:38], why are we not part of that? We’ve run projects, we know which ones were working or not. Bring that knowledge into the design thinking process, in the project selection, into the prototyping. Why do we need to call every idea a project? We can have small projects, we can have prototyping teams, and we can have agile teams, and only those very good ideas will turn into a project. So I think in terms of tools and techniques, I encourage listeners, your followers to think about what happens, I think there’s a lot of value there. Then, we need to think about also stepping up, I always talk when I talk to project managers say, “Yeah we complain about the silos in the companies, but project managers, you are also a silo. You just talk to managers and your PMO.” We need to think beyond that.
So what happens here Ben, is I think that we need to say, sometimes when we develop this product, this was the project, but now I want to sell it, or we set up this new organization, I want to run the new organization. Why do we always talk when the project is about to launch? When we are, most of the cases, the guys or girls who know most about that product, service, IT application, new product, why do we step back and say, “Now it’s not my problem anymore.”
So I have good examples of people who said, “Well, I’ve done this integration project, now we have this new business,” and said, “Well, I don’t want any project anymore, I want to run this business, I’ve worked years on the project as a project leader, there’s nobody in this company who knows more than me. Why do I need to go and look for another project? No, I want to run it, I want to be the CEO or the managing director, I want to have profit and loss accountability, and let me show you that I can grow that.” So that’s what I’m telling you, Ben, if we want to step up, we need to think beyond this very narrow view of the current project life cycle.
Ben Aston: Sure. Yeah, and I love what you’re saying about thinking about project management as a more holistic kind of business endeavor.
Antonio R: Correct.
Ben Aston: We’re making change happen, but then we’re also sustaining change, and what you’re already talking about here is how the roles and the overlap between project, and what I would call product management, and how actually, a project as it becomes business as usual, morphs than into product management, and how we as project managers can again be strategic in continuing all that work that we did in creating the project, setting up planning, getting from A to B, and then iterating on it.
And in terms of going back to that question where I started, in terms of what tools we see emerging, the new workflows that we need to develop, I think what you said about service design, or design thinking, prototyping, thinking about MVPs and iterating on them, and thinking about projects in a less kind of linear way, and thinking about how that intersects with products management I think is really useful. So really good insight there-
Antonio R: And I love what you’re saying, it’s something I’m exploring now, is that conversion between project and product manager. I think the future will be just one in both, and I think you can be at this stepping stone if we develop more business knowledge, we should be able to play that role. But I think there’s a convergence into these two roles into one you’re, exactly what you’re saying-
Ben Aston: Yeah. So I’m curious Antonio, as we think about the skills that we need in order to succeed in this new project deification of society, in this new projects based economy, as we see roles evolving and changing, we talked about service design, design thinking, we’ve talked about being the project CEO, but what skills do you see as being important for a project manager, as they’re thinking about upskilling themselves for the next decade of work?
Antonio R: Yeah, great question, Ben. I think that I get asked a lot of times, and well there’s one framework that PMI talks about, they call it the talent triangle, and I think that’s a very simple way to look at how we can develop as project managers, just to refresh, there are the techniques, the technical dimension, which is about project management, project charter, project scheduling, and for that, I think you can follow a training like yours, and I would encourage listeners to do your Master in Digital Project Management, I’m sure it covers most of the aspects of the technical part, you can, of course, go for PMP, if you want to have that certification.
So that’s one side, there’s two more. The second is about business. So business is about understanding how a company works, and finance and strategy, and marketing and sales, and the competition. So I think it’s important that because you always need to connect your project to the bigger picture of that company, you need to have the talks with the senior leaders, so if you’re going to talk about your project, you need to be able to talk about the project in the context of the strategy, or the person that you’re interacting with.
The best training there for me personally, was doing an MBA, that’s where I learned a lot of the concept that’s iconically used for other sites and connected to project management. If you don’t have the time or money for an MBA, there are ways to learn about business and how they operate. So I would encourage people to learn that because that’s a very, very important aspect of the project leadership.
And the third part is the leadership, what you talk Ben, is the soft skills, the more transversal, the bigger your project, the more the transformation implications, the more leadership you need to use. And that’s where it’s more about working on yourself. Nobody is born as a leader, you need to work on this area. So first do an assessment, what are your strengths and weaknesses, which one do you want to develop?
I told you I was not very good at persuasion or self-confidence, it took me years to grow those things by practicing. These are the big marathons, it’s step-by-step and you try one thing and second, and I thought it was something very important if I wanted to be a good project manager. Communication, I was extremely frightened to speak in public, so it was another area where I said, “I need to change that.” So it took me years, but yeah, now you can talk in front of 5,000 people without any problem.
So this is something that more and more is needed. The leadership skills, the soft skills that you talked about at the beginning Ben. [inaudible 00:37:23] or the talent triangle, or what you just mentioned, all these new techniques about design thinking, I would add [inaudible 00:37:33] methods, lean startup, this is not covered currently there, but the things that we need to learn as well.
Ben Aston: Definitely. Well Antonio, thank you so much for joining us today. I think all that we’ve been talking about is so valuable in preparing us for the decade ahead, but I think the thing that really resonated with me was this idea of being the project CEO, and that kind of conflation of the roles that we see between project management, and having this holistic view of projects in terms of delivering value and delivering change, rather than just delivering deliverables at the end of it. So Antonio, thank you so much for joining us today.
Antonio R: Thank you for the opportunity. Really enjoyed the talk Ben, we could have gone for hours, but we need to stop.
Ben Aston: Yes, we do. So thanks again for joining, Antonio. And I’d love to know, for you listening to what you think, how you think the next decade of project work is going to change, how you see things evolving in terms of methodologies, approaches, skills that we need to develop.
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