Welcome to Clarizen’s PMO Spotlight Blog series. These interview-style articles strive to highlight the individual project management professionals; their backgrounds, strategies and experiences which shape the use of our product. This piece features Aaron Nicholl, Director ePMO at the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC).
Would you please share a bit of background into your formal education and early career?
While in University I double majored in business and economics. My program provided me with an opportunity to spend some time in England as part of my studies. This gave me a wider perspective as I got exposure to Europe at a time when the continent was undergoing significant change. It was the formative years of the European Union; the euro had recently been introduced and the EU was expanding their influence. So that was an exciting time to be there and quite the learning experience for someone who was studying business and economics.
After graduating, my career started in Sales. This gave me significant exposure with leading Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) firms, large retailers, and their related supply chains. Starting out in Sales gave me the opportunity to work directly with the customer but also with the various teams within the organization (marketing, operations, finance, HR, IT, etc.) that are ultimately needed to deliver great solutions and customer experiences.
As I became move involved in delivering customer solutions, I saw the potential in organizations to improve processes and bring in new tools which elevate the customer experience. So, I started to initiate mini-projects with different departments and implement solutions – some very tactical. I remember a new sales quoting tool I had built (the one we were using was just terrible). Many of the sales leaders embraced it and eventually most of our sales team started using it.
To this day, I try to approach everything through a customer lens and use a ‘customer centric’ approach to ensure that solutions are deployed to fulfill our customer’s needs first and foremost. I credit my early days in Sales for rooting me in this framework.
Early on in my career, I was presented with a life changing opportunity to join one of the largest ERP projects in Europe at that time – a global SAP project. I re-located to Belgium and eventually Germany for a couple of years. Working with such a large and internationally diverse team gave me a wider, more global perspective and an opportunity to learn about new cultures and experience many new things.
When did you make the change to Project Management and what about IT PPM appeals to you?
For me, the ‘defining moment’ was my experience in Europe on the SAP project. Getting exposure to a project of such size and complexity was eye-opening and inspiring. I had the opportunity to shadow the lead Project Manager, who was from Germany. I learned a lot from Karsten and consider him a mentor. We still stay in touch from time to time – he has gone on to become an Executive Coach and thought-leader in areas of organizational resilience and building high performing teams.
Working on the SAP project exposed me to the various elements of project management – I saw up front the importance of problem solving, people management, issue and risk management and change management. I gained an appreciation of the suite of skills needed to be an exceptional project leader and it gave me a great benchmark for my own career and development. I pivoted my own career from that point on toward project management roles – managing projects directly and eventually creating and running PMOs with teams of PMs working on a portfolio of projects.
How has your education in Economics and Finance helped or influenced your career in Project Management?
I was fortunate to study at a great university in Eastern Canada (Memorial). Their business program is well rounded and allowed me the opportunity to get real-world work experience through co-op internship placements. I also got involved in business case competitions. These competitions provided me with national and international exposure to ‘real world’ business challenges and great networking opportunities.
Although Project Management has been practiced for a long time, it was not viewed as a discipline the same way accounting or other more traditional areas of business were in post-secondary institutions during the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Fortunately, my program offered some MIS (Management Information System) and computer science courses, which gave me some exposure to projects.
More than anything, I credit my education at Memorial for providing me with the exposure and opportunity to work on real-world business problems. I learned from an amazing group of peers as well and developed many lifelong friendships.
When you are not working, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Under normal circumstances, I enjoy travel and exploring new places. During the pandemic it’s certainly been a major lifestyle adjustment! I am also a big sports fan – especially the NBA. I have been a season seat holder for 10+ years with the World Champion Toronto Raptors.
I also enjoy films (especially Documentaries) and experiencing food from different cultures. Some of my favorite documentaries are: “Steve Jobs: One Last Thing” and “Capital C” on Netflix.
Tell us about your journey at IIROC these past 4 years as the Director ePMO.
It has been a very interesting journey for me. Prior to IIROC, I spent my career in the private sector, so joining an industry regulator was certainly a big change. The financial services industry is in a period of significant change – fueled by technological innovation and changing consumer behavior as it relates to financial advice and services. This backdrop led to the creation of the ePMO and our transformation roadmap. This was really a greenfield ePMO setup scenario for me. In this scenario, it is always a balancing act to manage the time focus on delivery vs. establishing processes, standards and tools that ultimately will support and elevate delivery.
Looking back, I think we have done a good job of managing this dynamic. As maturity relating to projects increased each year, I am proud that we have been able to introduce more and more process and efficiency improvements. Clarizen has been key to this enablement. We have moved the dial on our maturity relating to project management and the delivery of our projects in a significant way. As we look forward, there are opportunities for deeper integration with business and technology teams to further advance project delivery and portfolio optimization.
How has Covid19 affected your team and/or the way you manage the portfolio & resources?
The pandemic has certainly forced significant changes to how we all live and work. Fortunately, IIROC was well positioned to move to fully remote work as we had just completed a multi-year investment in our technology infrastructure. I think we are all very thankful for the work done on that initiative before things shut down.
From an ePMO perspective, running our projects through Clarizen made the transition to a fully remote model seamless. During the onset of the pandemic, we re-calibrated our priorities as an organization. Some initiatives were shifted, and a few dropped, but for the most part we kept our portfolio intact. Our teams fully embraced the remote model and from my view we have seen an increase in productivity. Our processes relating to resource management have not fundamentally changed but we certainly put a greater focus on checking in with our team members to ensure they are managing things okay and not feeling overwhelmed given the overall situation we are all experiencing.
What is your approach/strategy at IIROC to effectively balance priority projects & available resources?
We have established a robust project intake process to help us prioritize and select projects. This process has a few key ‘stage gates’ that help our investment governance committee make decisions on whether or not projects should be greenlit. We have also designed a discovery process to drive out business needs and solution estimates at a high enough level to give us a better understanding of the project before agreeing to move it fully forward. We leverage Clarizen for our capacity planning and resource management.
Many organizations and industries are in the midst of a transitionary period to more Agile & Hybrid ways of working. Do you see this trend in the Financial Services sector and in what ways?
The shift toward hybrid/agile has been happening for a number of years. I think most organizations in the Financial Services sector are using a mix of waterfall and agile based approaches. Ultimately, each organization has to figure out what works best for them based on their unique environment, the problems they are solving, the people solving them and the stakeholders that ultimately will use the solutions being deployed. We use a mix of waterfall and agile based approaches at IIROC and try be as flexible and adaptive as possible as we approach new initiatives.
What is your favorite Clarizen feature? Why?
There are many but my favorite is the ‘Custom Object’. ‘Custom Objects’ provide significant enablement and flexibility. For example, we were able to leverage this feature to implement a meeting minute solution – this allowed us to automate the production and distribution of meeting minutes and streamline the tracking of meeting action items and decisions. This has led to reduced administration for PMs and team members and the elimination of paper processes and offline documents.
If a peer were to approach you for advice about what to consider when buying a PPM solution, what would you tell them?
- The first question I would pose to them would be,
- “Do you think your PMO is large enough to benefit from a PPM Solution?” (i.e. consider number and size/complexity of projects, # of PMs, resources, etc.)
- The second question would be,
- “Do you think your team/organization will be disciplined enough to use the solution properly?” (i.e. consider the maturity level of your team and related resources – have they used PPM tools in other organizations? consider if you have supporting resources in place to monitor data, etc.)
Like any software tool investment, to get meaningful benefits associated with automation and efficiencies, your environment needs to have enough critical mass in terms of processes/data/projects/resources etc. It is also important to keep in mind that “garbage in = garbage out”. Do not underestimate the number of controls and amount of monitoring you will need to put in place to ensure high quality data is maintained in the system. The best PPM solution out there will be of little value if the data is of poor quality. Not only will it lead to bad decision making. You will also lose creditability quickly with stakeholders.
Once you are comfortable with above, the main area I would tell them to consider would be the overall usability of the solution (i.e. high level of user-friendliness, clean user interface, minimal training required, etc.). Many PPM solutions are not intuitive for end users and once deployed achieve very low adoption rates.