Regulatory Project Management Interviews: From Micro-Finance To Mobile Banking Projects

Jon McGowan, PMP, has expertise in regulatory project management

Jon McGowan, PMP, has led major finance projects around the world.

Regulatory considerations are important in every aspect of the financial industry. Did you know that the mobile banking application you use on your smart phone required project manager expertise? Today’s featured interview guest has worked at several of Canada’s largest banks. Jon McGowan is a Project Management Consultant who builds PMOs for banks, and specializes in transformation and innovation projects. His client list includes large banks such as TD Bank and Bank of Montreal.

Bank of Montreal (BMO) At A Glance (Mid 2014)

  • BMO was established in 1817 making it Canada’s oldest bank
  • BMO serves 12 million customers, mainly in North America
  • BMO has over $500 billion in assets (Canadian dollars)
  • BMO has over 45,000 employees

Interview Guest: Jon McGowan, PMP

Role: PMO Consultant

1) What was your favourite project and why?

In 2011, I was part of the Bank of Nova Scotia team that delivered a mobile wallet application to Haiti. Bill Gates personally launched a $10 million challenge to whomever could be the first to launch a mobile wallet to help distribute aid after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and we won the challenge with our local telco partner Digicel. In the first year, we reached 800,000 users in a country of only 10 million people. The project was a great example of banking and technology coming together to provide services to one of the poorest countries in the world at a time of critical need.

Later, Bill Clinton (who’s foundation also supported us) wrote about the project and it was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as examples of ways that technology is improving the world. It made me believe that project management has a huge role to play in changing the world for the better.

2) How did you get started in project management?

In 2001-2002, I worked in Asia setting up micro-finance offices around Vietnam. It was right after the Dot-Com crash and there were no tech jobs in North America, so it was an exciting opportunity to travel and learn about fighting poverty. I had the opportunity to create infrastructure and processes from scratch that was being used to issue tiny loans to villages all around the country. I saw first-hand what a difference $100 can make in the right hands…

3) What’s the largest project you’ve ever run?

At TD Bank, I played a key leadership role in launching their first mobile banking application. The project ran for two years, had approximately two hundred team members and stakeholders scattered across Canada, the US and overseas, with a budget of around $20 million. That project benefited from strong executive support because CIBC, one of TD’s competitors, was the first to overall launch a mobile application.

TD Bank defines itself as the most convenient bank for customers so it was vital to provide mobile banking to their customers ASAP, and be a little bit more convenient. That’s why we decided to launch the first Wealth Management App, we wanted to overtake CIBC in terms of offering a great product. It was a great experience being in a “tech-race” like that!

4) What frustrates you the most on projects?

These days, I try to stay Zen with the challenges of project management. I have seen project managers in the past burn out because they try to “own the date” when they don’t actually control the resources they’re relying on. It’s extremely stressful if you take delays personally because of things that are out of your control.

Successful project managers understand that projects bring change and uncertainty. Large organizations are built on processes that can easily be scaled up for greater output and profits. They want the same kind of predictability from their projects as they’re used to getting from their processes, and that simply doesn’t exist.

When a project arrives and starts to change the status quo, that change can be perceived as threatening, so all kinds of strange things happen that create delays. Of course there’s also potential for conflict between project work which is creative and non-routine and the steady state process focused work of the operations staff.

In my view, the best project managers develop empathy and know when to provide hand holding to help staff through change and when to back off and let things slide. Large organizations often struggle to communicate the rationale for projects, people get overloaded, priorities are unclear, and conflicts aren’t resolved. You can’t fix all of that with one project. It’s a culture issue, not a project management issue.

You have to do your best to make sure that the purpose of a project is properly communicated so you can help manage people’s fears and uncertainty and figure out the right pace to move them forward.. I love being in the eye of the storm. I feel like it brings out the best in me.

 5) What did you study at university and how did you discover that you wanted to do project management as a career?

I studied business and accounting in college and then went to university to get a degree in computer science. I figured computers were everywhere so I ought to know how they worked. But I was a terrible programmer, and since I graduated right around the time of the Dot Com crash, I found there was lots of better programmers, but few people who understood what programmers actually did, and could explain it to business people and customers.

In Vietnam, I worked with some amazing “Active Listeners” who had to work very hard to capture the details of what we wanted to do. They taught me how to listen and ensure requirements were clear before handing them over to working teams. I realized that was something I could be good at, even though I was a lousy programmer, I was a good listener, and that meant I could be a good architect, analyst and project manager. So it wasn’t through school, but rather through my micro-finance work in Vietnam that I discovered that project management was a good fit for me

6) In your work, what regulations have triggered the need for project work?

Today, regulations touch every part of the industry. Arguably, the pendulum has swung too far in favour of regulation following the 2008 financial crisis. Some regulators seem to be issuing regulations based on fear of innovation or pandering to populism. Unfortunately, poorly thought out regulations often prove very costly to implement and do not add value to the business or protect consumers. But it makes for a great photo op.

In 2014, Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) is an excellent example of poorly designed regulation. This is a very heavy handed way to respond to spam. In my experience, most spam I receive comes from overseas rather than Canada so as a consumer, this law is not going to help me that much.

From a business owner perspective, this legislation effectively reduces the value of their email marketing lists, which is a very valuable asset that has been built up over years of work. How many people are going to ignore or forget to “re-subscribe” to every Canadian newsletter, shrinking the mailing lists of legitimate companies for no reason other than complying with regulations? To me it feels like stakeholders were not consulted in a meaningful fashion, or their objections were ignored when this legislation was created.

7) How do you plan for ongoing maintenance after a project has been completed?

There is an emerging body of research that address post-project management. The discipline of change management developed specifically to sustain large processes that required periodic adjustments. More recently, I have been focused on benefits realization which is another area of growing research.

More and more people are interested on the return on projects. We are starting to get better at answering questions like “what is the return on investment for the project?” or “Did the project deliver the right change to the organization?” The irony is that to measure if a project is successful; you need to plan for capturing those metrics right up front. If you try to do it at the end, you’ll get funny numbers that no one should trust.

It’s no longer enough to say you were successful just because you were on-time and on-budget. If it was the wrong project, or if no one ended up using it, who cares if it was on time? Executives and sponsors want to see a clear lasting benefit to the organization from the investments they approve.

8) What is the greatest project management mistake you see happening?

In the final analysis, a lot of projects fail to solve the problem they were initiated to solve. There is often a disconnect between the focus of the project team (i.e. delivering the project) and the organization (i.e. solving a business problem), so the solution doesn’t always match the problem. It also goes back to the idea of change management and benefit realization. I think it’s a huge mistake if you don’t plan for those activities up front, trying to do them at the end will make it impossible to measure meaningfully and there’s a giant risk that no one will care about what you did once you walk away.

9) How has the importance and maturity of project management at the organizations you’ve worked with evolved over the past five years?

Project management offices (PMOs) are much more common today than a few years ago. There is also a greater understanding of the culture challenges inherent in project work. Project management has evolved a great deal – fifteen years ago, it was  practically unknown as a professional discipline. You just worked on projects, there weren’t project professionals..

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve evolved into a management consulting role rather than a pure project role because I wanted to see the fruits of my labour, and make sure my clients would see benefits from our work. A lot of project professionals see this need, and they’re helping to advance the maturity of the profession in organizations.

10) What makes project management appealing to so many people?

Project management is about constant change, rather than preserving the status quo. I think a lot of people are attracted to projects because they like the idea of constant change and learning. At the same time especially today people are frustrated by the lack of a defined career path for themselves.

In more mature professions like public accounting for example, there is a defined career path. You complete education, fulfil a defined apprenticeship and then work towards partnership in a firm or industry. Project managers don’t have a defined pathway like that yet. Of course that means there’s a greater sense of possibility for those of us in the profession now. It’s very exciting to shape something new!

11) How do you stay informed about new developments in the financial industry and project management? has become a valuable resource because there is a lot of curated content. I find myself using it all the time now, following industry leaders and reading my colleagues articles that they are sharing…

In addition, I’ve found the Project Management Institute has done a great job creating communities, both online and in the real world. I’m an active member of the PMI-Southern Ontario Chapter and I meet tons of interesting people and hear lots of fresh ideas from them all the time.

12) When somebody says project management to you, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

A human nagging machine… Just kidding!… The world needs change, and project managers knows how to do it. We’re the profession that is going to figure out how to change the world for the better, so let’s get to work!

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