Episode 251 – Project Future with Rob Kerr

Rob KerrAs a project manager, Rob Kerr was accustomed to evaluating options and allocating scarce resources for maximum impact. The magic happened, however, when he started taking those tools out of the office and applying them to life:

‘We were making better decisions as a family. We were being a bit bolder with our choices… I thought, okay, this is working for us. ‘

So Rob brought together his framework for bringing project management into real life and united it with his passion for entrepreneurship to create Project Future, a tool to help would-be entrepreneurs evaluate their options and set up a successful business.

Along the way he learned a huge amount about writing, collaboration, illustration, and overcoming his fear of appearing on video…

Rob’s site: https://www.robkerr.co.uk/

Rob on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robkerrauthor/

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Business Book Awards 2021: https://www.businessbookawards.co.uk/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Rob Kerr, who has applied project management best practice in a range of industries throughout his career, helping to bring brilliant products and services to market. He launched his own project management consultancy in 2014, and he’s written Project Future to ensure that others who are aspiring to be their own boss have the confidence to test their ideas and make it happen.

He believes that everyone should be empowered to create the best life they possibly can for themselves, and that critical analysis in the planning phase is vital to success. Welcome to the show, Rob.

Rob Kerr: Thanks. Alison, that was quite an introduction.

Alison Jones: ‘It is vital to success’. It does some very pretentious when you say it like that, doesn’t it. But it is. And I always, I love this about your book is that, you know, project management it’s seen as a work thing, isn’t it? We put it in a box in work, but actually you’ve liberated it from the box, and you’ve said, do you know what? This is a life management tool. So just tell me a little bit more about that, where the idea came from.

Rob Kerr: Well, I’ve been a project manager since 2008. And as I developed my own career, I guess, and my own understanding of it, kind of subconsciously I started applying some of the techniques that go into the business case type idea in investment appraisal, and comparing those concepts or opportunities that I had against others, you know, using the same kind of frameworks that I would use in in work.

And it started to work, you know, we were making better decisions as a family. We were being a bit bolder with our choices. We were delving a bit deeper rather than necessarily taking the obvious route. And the more I developed it, I thought, okay, this is kind of working for us. And it came out of the office and very much just became the way that I, and you know, with my wife that we run our lives. So I thought, okay, how can I think about this further? And how can I develop it into a way that it’s going to work and be digestible for people who aren’t project managers so they can hopefully make better decisions themselves?

Alison Jones: And it’s so interesting that it applies in so many different situations. I mean, I have to say that the one time I very, very consciously took project management out of the office and home was when I was planning the wedding” suddenly, you know, you have this big event and it needed a spreadsheet, but you don’t tend to think of life as being a project, do you? And I love the way that you’ve created ‘project future’. Do you think it’s because people are suddenly realizing they’ve got these big transition points, they’ve got these moments of decision in their lives, and actually nobody’s going to do this work for them, it is down to them to make these decisions, that people are perhaps more open to the idea of, of using a more formal methodology?

Rob Kerr: Yes, I hope so. And the whole concept behind it isn’t necessarily meant to be, you know, completely formal in that way. A lot of it can be informal and it’s just a way of taking kind of aspects of, how you would invest and make a decision around that way. To help make a better decision.

So the angles that I’ve developed for the book are the same as a business would use, businesses are more often interested in a financial return. Not always, of course, but most of the time that financial return is the key metric, but in a life situation, it may be that you’re looking for a more balanced lifestyle, or it may be that you’re looking to you know, have some time out.

Or there’s many, many different angles that you can look at and they aren’t always financial and I’ve tried to apply them equally in the book.

Alison Jones: Yes, and you’re right. Formal was the wrong word. It’s more intentional, isn’t it? It’s a more sort of conscious way of looking at it…

Rob Kerr: Yes, I think so.

Alison Jones: And you’ve used, I mean, Project Future is a great title in its own right. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? Because it’s also the, the mnemonic for the framework that you’ve used. So just explain FUTURE to us.

Rob Kerr: So FUTURE is the six steps, which are the six steps of success as your own boss and they spell the word FUTURE, as you say. And the first one is Find, so to find something that you might be interested in doing, so at a very high level. You know, looking at a range of different things, some of which may come from hobbies, and just finding if there’s any angles that could become a business without doing too much investment as well.

But just looking at the top line the second step, the U is for Understand. So that’s, you know, having taken a few candidates, preferably three or four, or maybe even a few more than that from the find step, to then go and understand and dig a bit deeper. So really look at, you know, who you might serve and why you think that’s going to be the right angle for you going forward.

And that’s, that’s a really long step. It’s where the thinking becomes clear and you kind of understand why you’re looking to achieve this and you know, how it could fit into the real world.

Beyond that the T is for Trial. So the trial is bringing it into the real world, you know, speaking to people about it, doing a, creating a pilot via an MVP or something along those lines, a minimum viable product. So not too much investment, but enough that you’ll have an understanding that by going down that route, you’ll know what you’re getting into that you’ll enjoy it, and that your market will enjoy receiving the service or the products in the way that you think they will. And at the end of those three steps is a big decision point to say, okay, am I going to go forward? Is there a business here? Is it feasible? Is it the right decision? And if it is then the fourth step is to Undertake, which is to make the business happen, to create it and to set it up on Company’s House and create a logo and branding and products and services and website and social media and all of this fantastic stuff that comes with the business. Alongside undertake is to review, some that’s really what we come back to the kind of key project management structures as a project manager, but review all the time, you know, either checkpoint based reviews or more milestone based reviews at the end of a delivery. So reviewing alongside undertake is key to success and to ensure that firstly you’re achieving what you intend to, but then also that the goal that you’ve set is still the right goal.

And finally the most exciting step I think is if the E, which is to Expand. So, to move on maybe to pivot again, or to serve a new market or a different demographic within that market and grow the business based on all the learnings and all the exciting stuff that you’ve learned during the earlier parts of the process.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely brilliant. And at what point did you go, wait a minute, this spells future, because mnemonics are funny things, aren’t they?

Rob Kerr: Exactly.

Alison Jones: You can’t force them because they’ll look gimmicky, but that one really works.

Rob Kerr: Yeah, I don’t know, is the answer. It kind of came together. I think I had kind of four or five of the steps there. I wasn’t setting out to develop the word ‘future’. I think it was, it was almost there and I just needed, I needed the second U, I think was the one that was causing the most trouble, but I’ve worked out that this is the right word.

And most of it works without too much massaging. So yes, the second U gave me a bit of grief, but apart from that, yeah, it felt like the right word and the right structure.

Alison Jones: Yes, and it makes it very memorable, doesn’t it? And when you get that right, it really is helpful to have that because you can kind of hold the whole thing in your mind and then zoom in on different elements of it. I mean, you didn’t know that this book would be coming out… it’s coming out on the 5th of January.

Well, the ebook’s coming out actually the day before, isn’t it? But the print book is being released on the 5th of January, 2021. And it’s a very different world to the world in which you started writing it. So how has that experience been and what has it meant for the book?

Rob Kerr: It’s meant that we’ve delayed publication by a few months, of course, but in terms of the actual book itself, it’s not meant a huge amount. The book was written pre COVID. It was really written by the 20th of February. So I’ve reviewed everything that’s in the book, but it was always designed to be universal, you know, project management structures, governance processes are universal and apply across industries. And the structures were always designed in that way. So I, I wanted to write the book so that it wouldn’t be industry specific or market specific, you know, so it’s a guide to help people across any kind of industries. And I think everything, you know, fortunately everything that was in the book was valid anyway, you know, I focused on the technology angle and how you know, this is such an exciting time to start a business with all the amazing tools that we have at our disposal now that just didn’t exist a few years ago. And yes, some of those things are more in the public consciousness now than they were, but those things were kind of going to happen in this decade anyway.

So I think it’s very timely , there’s going to be lots of changes over the years to come, but fortunately, it’s not changed the structure of the book whatsoever.

Alison Jones: No, I think you’re right, which is a really good sign. Isn’t it? When you don’t have to rewrite the book, you actually have written something timeless. But I think that the context is going into is almost couldn’t be better because so many people have either jumped or, or been pushed into reconsidering their lives and reconsidering their options and what security looks like and you know, all that kind of stuff.

So I think, yeah, it is. It’s so interesting how you write a book and its moment really comes and you didn’t really realize that, that, you know, the situation was going to change so, so catastrophically.

Rob Kerr: Absolutely. And yes, I think for many people this year, or 2020 has been a year of reflection and I think, yeah, new ways of thinking have come about in terms of the art of the possible learnings, you know, what can be achieved, and for not for everybody, of course, but for some people that will involve starting a business.

And hopefully the book is a useful tool to help people in that decision making process.

Alison Jones: Yes, I really think it will be. And then you’ve got a very strong visual element in this book as well. So you’ve got beautiful, slightly whimsical, very, very gorgeous sort of greyscale, pen and ink wash illustrations. So I want to talk about those, but you’ve also created something really striking in a sort of one-page, very highly illustrated, very graphically interesting manifesto. So let’s talk about that first and then we’ll go onto the more classic illustrations. The manifesto really is… I mean, the cover of the book is beautiful. It’s very bright. It’s got a slightly kind of, you know, retro futuristic look about it, people taking off on jet powered packs, and you’ve really carried that theme and worked with it into the manifesto. So how do you plan to use that? Why do you think it’s going to be so useful?

Rob Kerr: Oh, the manifesto in one page, you know, it can be, it can be on A4, I’ve also got it printed on mugs and things like that, so it’s been reshaped for those, but the main aspects of it – I’m looking at it now on the, on the board, in my office, and it’s printed in the exact same colors and font and everything that’s on the cover of the book – it’s 15 commands which essentially show the outputs and opportunities of the book on a page. And it’s, I should say it’s especially striking and there’s all those different angles.

So it took me a long time to develop it. It took a good couple of days and I started with maybe 30 potential commands that were kind of outputs and benefits of the book, if you like, and kind of put some of them together, worked out what the stronger ones were and then put together and gave it to a graphic designer with all the details to use. But I think it’s, you know, especially if I’m, if I’m presenting at an event or if I’m trying to get some get attention, I think is the main thing is each of the 15 would apply to different people.

You know, one of these one is enjoy the journey. Another one is know and deliver your purpose, see abundance, not scarcity, live a balanced life. You know, they, these are all statements set the bar higher, and these are all things that will mean different things to different people. But the book kind of explains how it’s possible to get to that position. And yes, I love it. You know, I didn’t expect it to look as good as it did, being a completely non visual person. And to kind of give that brief to a designer and then for them to run with it and to create something that’s so striking and so similar to, you know, the branding of the book is so, yes, I’m delighted with it.

Alison Jones: It’s really interesting that you say you’re a non-visual person because you still obviously clearly get that we are as a species highly visual and books obviously are not quick to read, you know, they take time and they take attention and energy. And in a sense you need some… well, you don’t NEED something, obviously some people just turn to the book, but it can be hugely helpful I think to have something that immediately, as you say, attracts attention, that is more difficult to ignore. It’s much more, you know, easy to absorb and helps build the bridge to someone, helps capture their interest, to take them into the book.

I think that’s a really smart way of doing it. And and as you say, it’s great to hear someone who’s not a visual person say, well, you just got a designer. I mean, you know, obviously because some people would just think, Oh, I can’t do that. But of course you don’t need to be able to do that, do you? Because there’s a million people out there who can do it for you.

Rob Kerr: Absolutely. And I was able to provide the brief, you know, we developed a wonderful cover for the book. I love the cover. I’ve worked with, with you and your team on that, of course. And my wife helped to bring some of the concepts together from the initial designs that we had to kind of pick the best elements and, and create something.

And yeah, it’s come together really nicely, I think. And I put a lot of focus on that, because it does stand out and it’s the same with the illustrations inside the book. You know, I always wanted that based on illustrations in book, and I couldn’t be happier with how they turned out.

I’ve got a very talented friend who, who did the designs for us. I kind of gave him half a dozen concepts of the star and the cover. I said, these are the sections of the book where I think we can have it as a line. Maybe it could look like this. And to my surprise, he thought about in more detail, he’s a storyteller.

So he looks at the cover and develops the space tours concept, which then flows throughout the book so that the two people on the cover effectively became the characters. And then as we developed through it, through the projects and the story of the book alongside that is the it’s the space tours, a story where Florence and Paxton is, we’ve named them develop their, the letters are the same as the PF of the book. You didn’t know that, did you.

Alison Jones: I didn’t know they were called Florence and Paxton. That’s hilarious. No.

Rob Kerr: But it shows, you know, how they talk me through the, the lifestyle, the life of their projects within the business, within the book. And yes, when Mike came up with that I was so delighted, you know, he named the name space tours and and then we kind of developed them from there. But working with an illustrator, even somebody I know, so, well, it, it still took time, you know, and the first half a dozen weren’t necessarily what I was looking for, even though we had the concept and we did a few iterations and then we worked out the process of developing a draft and then before putting too much detail on the wireframe, if you like, before putting too much detail on. So the final design confirmed that, yes, this is how I see it. So he’s got the visual aspect. So we’ll read that part of the book and try and apply something accordingly. And some of them I suggested in terms of what I want to do, others were completely his original take on the text and how it fits within the overall story.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. That is the dream. That is what you want when you’re working with an illustrator, it’s actually surprisingly hard to do. And it’s great when you actually know the person and there’s this sort of mutual trust between you as well, but they really are lovely.

Rob Kerr: Thank you. I’m so pleased with them. And I say the last, the last three or four, just as we were getting things finalized, it was such a fun experience and it was seamless in the end. We got the whole process down to a T. And yes, they’ve, I think they had, they have a bit of depth and hopefully will make people smile as well.

You know, in one of them towards the end of the book, in the competition and awards section within Expand, he’s hidden one of the aliens, because we’ve got the whole space thing, of course, he’d hidden one of them in the audience and I had no idea. And I’d received that for about a month before I spotted it.

And I was like, wow. You know, you’ve, you’ve put Hailey in the audience, you know, it’s just pretty… Yeah.

Alison Jones: That’s hilarious. That’s so funny. You have to do another book now because you’ve got that partnership working so well, you can’t waste it. You know, you’re going to have to go to go into the continuing adventures for Florence and Paxton, you know, volume two. Brilliant. So let’s talk about the writing now, Rob, because obviously everybody on here is struggling with this as well.

I guess I’m going to go straight into it. What would be your best tip from everything that you have learned over the last couple of years, writing this book and planning it out, pivoting the concepts and how it was applied and so on. What would be your best tip for a first time business book writer?

Rob Kerr: I think it’s to understand that writing is iterative. And it doesn’t come, you know, good quality writing doesn’t come straight away. I think, you know, when I first spoke with you, I had, or I thought I had about 22,000 worth of potential content. And although I’ve taken a couple of those frameworks, no more than 500 words of that actually made it into the book, you know, and it absolutely is… I read over it and it’s like, no, this, this isn’t good enough. There were a few ideas there that I could take, but next to nothing was usable. And so having that iterative approach to write things down and let your ideas expand, I think the ideas once they’re captured on paper, you know, you can just have that light bulb moment at any time of the day where it can get bigger and it can get better.

And, you know, I worked with my table of contents as a project manager, as a spreadsheet person. You know, I had my table of contents open all the time, moving bits around and kind of merging things where if a new idea came in, not too many new sections came towards the end of the writing phase, but one or two did, and I was thinking, how did I miss that? You know, I thought my table of contents was kind of set in stone. Then suddenly I had to kind of move things around and towards the end of the edit phase. So I took a number of sections out completely. I took four or five sections out, they just didn’t, they just weren’t really needed.

And, you know, to, to try and make the book as, as tight and, and relevant as possible or make every word count. So I think be willing to be willing to iterate and to go over what you’ve written. So, so yeah, just even if the ideas aren’t fluid at any given time of what it will be and who is who it’s for.

So I changed my audience fairly early on as well. I was planning to write this book for, when I first had the future method I was planning to write for school leavers until I started researching in the area and realized that I wasn’t the right person to write the book at that time, at least, you know, maybe something I’ll revisit in the future to help people, you know, really start on the right foot as they leave school and get that currency for their future, which was something I never had.

But I think the whole process of writing and it will improve. And getting others involved as well. I say I’ve got so many contributors to the book and I didn’t expect that that’s all initially I thought I might have four or five, I’ve got 17 and some people share their stories, which add to my story, which makes it less monotonous.

But then I’ve also got some subject matter experts in there, who’ve given, you know, their, their tips on branding on social media or communications, on all these things that I just couldn’t necessarily write about in a strong enough way to justify it. So where I’ve got top tips from these other people.

And as soon as I started speaking to other people the bar that I set for the book went up.

Alison Jones: Yes, that’s so interesting. And actually – you’re explicitly saying some really, really good tips here, but there’s something that you are saying just as loudly without actually articulating it, which is your attitude and the way that you have a real kind of sense of humility and open-mindedness about the book, which I think is really essential if you’re going to let it be the best book that it can be. You know, you were holding it quite lightly. You didn’t have your ego embedded in it. You were happy to let things go if necessary and bring in other people. You know, I’m sure you, I hope you’re aware of that, but if you have just in case, you’re not, I’m really spelling out for people that that actually is just as much part of what you’re saying here as what you’re explicitly saying.

Rob Kerr: No, I hadn’t noticed that to be honest. So I’m glad that you did that, but yes, absolutely, it’s… I’m not precious about the book. I want it to work for the reader and, and the exciting thing, and the slight scary thing at the moment is that I don’t really know who who’s going to find it of interest of what type of businesses they go into create or how they might pivot their business if they’re, if they’ve already got one as a result, I just don’t know at the moment. And because it is such a, like universal concept, that, yeah, it is quite exciting, but I never… I wanted to create the best book I possibly could. And I thought if I tried to keep it all to myself, if you like, and, and to, to not involve others, then it would have ended up like my early writings, it wouldn’t have been very good. So, you know, there were, there were four or five contributors to start. I spoke to, and, you know, I was just when I got off the phone or off Zoom or whatever we were speaking on, I was just absolutely just buzzing for the rest of the day, knowing that I got some really quality quotes that would be useful.

And the people I spoke with were wonderful. They were so candid. So open to share their best advice and, and yeah, I’m very lucky to have them all.

Alison Jones: And of course, I mean, yes, it makes a better book, but also those people are now part of your network and they will also be in supporters of the book and help with the promotion of it. So it’s a kind of win-win situation. Isn’t it?

Rob Kerr: Yes, absolutely. And they’ve all got a copy of the book now. I’ve sent them all a copy of the book and yeah, people have been delighted to receive it, and to be part of it. So yes, I think it’s opening myself up, which I did back in January, 1st week of January 2020, I recorded a video.

It took two minutes. Well it was two minutes long. I was determined to keep it under two minutes, but it took me two days to record it. You know, I was terrified at the concept, I’d never done anything like that before. That’s all changed this year in terms of where I’ve, opened myself up, you know, I do Facebook lives and things like that now that I’d never done before and I really wanted to get that video right. Because I thought if it attracts the right people and they come to me and volunteer their time to contribute to the book then it would help make the book that much better as a result. And, and yes, it was, fortunately…

Alison Jones: And it’s a brilliant lesson in bravery, isn’t it? That’s really cool. And is there a book that you’d like to recommend Rob? I mean, clearly, obviously everyone should read Project Future. They genuinely should, but is there a book that you think would be valuable for people listening as well?

Rob Kerr: A book that was really important to me as I first started thinking about writing a book three or four years ago is I don’t work Fridays by Martin Norbury. And I know, you know, Martin, well, he was on some…

Alison Jones: He’s been on the podcast. That’s right.

Rob Kerr: I loved his book because it shares his personal story and you know, how he’s developed and how he’s then he then throws in almost like out the blue, he throws in his SCALE framework and it’s, it’s a wonderful book. And it showed me a different way if you like. I wouldn’t say it was a blueprint necessarily for me, but it was certainly an eye-opener that, you know, business books don’t have to be purely kind of academic and dry, if you like, it doesn’t have to be all about the subject, there’s the personal angle to it as well about, and that’s the kind of audience that I’m looking for here is people that want to start a lifestyle business that helps to give them the balance that that we all seek in life. And I love that book. It was it was really interesting and it came at the right time.

I was thinking about making some changes in our life as well. But then also when I was thinking about writing the book, so it was a really interesting one. And I’ve got to give a quick shout out if I may to my friend, Glen Wilson as well, who’s a graduate of the business book proposal challenge because his book dev sec, DevSecOps has come out, he’s developed the theory and written and published it all within 2020.

So it’s for a technical audience in terms of security, but I think he’s done wonderfully well to to achieve that.

Alison Jones: Yes. And it was such a great concept. Yes, just going back to Martin for a second though, I think you’re right. That his book I Don’t Work Fridays is a real masterclass in telling your own story without being self-indulgent, it’s very much, you know, bringing yourself in in the service of the reader and he’s got a very powerful personal story.

So yes, it’s a really excellent example of how to do that as well as being just a really good book.

Rob Kerr: Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

Alison Jones: Yes. Excellent. And Rob, if people want to find out more about you, more about Project Future, if they want to see this manifesto, where should they go?

Rob Kerr: They can go to my website, which is robkerr.co.uk. And I’ve got a three-minute quiz on there that you can complete to kind of assess where you are at at the moment and your strengths and some areas that you can focus on, and the manifesto’s on there as well. If you call of course, and yep, get in touch.

You can contact me via email as well, hello@robkerr.co.uk. And if anyone would like the template that I’ve created to develop my table of contents. I’m happy to share that as well.

Alison Jones: Oh, that’s brilliant. Thank you, Rob. And we’re recording this towards the end of December, 2020, as I say, the book is coming out in early January, 2021, which is when this podcast will air, but it’s just such an exciting time and quite anxiety making, because as you say, you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next – this book is about to go out into the world and find its own way and meet people that you have no idea who they are and, and, you know, have a life of its own.

So I wanted to just celebrate that for a moment because it is, it’s a really exciting time so congratulations. It’s just very exciting to be here.

Rob Kerr: Thank you so much. It’s been quite a journey at different times. I thought I wouldn’t ever get this far. So I’m so pleased. You know, when I received it, received the first box and looked at the artwork, it was just, yeah, it was, it was overwhelming. So if anyone’s thinking about it and it’s still not quite got there, then persevere, keep going, get a solid table of contents together, work out who you’re writing for.

And yes. Keep going. Yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you. And I have to say, I might put the link to your unboxing video up there as well, because your little boy totally steals the show, doesn’t he.

And you can see the mug, you can see the Project Future mug there as well, which is magnificent. Brilliant. All right. Thank you so much for your time today, Rob, just a joy to talk to you.

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