PM Articles > Carl Pritchard > The Tao, the I Ching, and a Little Non-Western Project Management Attitude

The Tao, the I Ching, and a Little Non-Western Project Management Attitude

by Carl Pritchard, Pritchard Management Associates

Those of you who actually know me personally know that I am firmly rooted in my opinions, energized in my public demeanor and unashamed of my fundamental role as "geek extraordinaire." Thus, any discussion on the contemplative, meditative, and introspective practices of classic Eastern thought might seem out of place. But just as Nixon was the right guy to go to China, I may be the right guy to bring this sense of equilibrium to the table for project management.

For those who have never done any homework in the I Ching (which translates to the Book of Changes), it's often referred to as a fortune-telling device. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's actually a tool used to assess one's own attitudes in a context that had not previously been considered. In his study of the I Ching, titled The Eleventh Wing, Khigh Deigh examines that notion, and strives to drive home the nature of the Book of Changes. (As a sidebar, those of you who have never read Khigh Deigh might have seen him in the classic 70's police show Hawaii 5-0, as the insidious Wo Fat).

Carl, how does this relate to project management in any way, shape, or form?

In project management, we are often called upon to take on the role of prognosticators, as well as the role of seers of our own environment. And we are asked to cope with change. What better place to start than with the ancient Book of Changes? (You can check out an online version at If you read a selection or two, you will find yourself wondering, "What the heck does THAT mean?" The idea behind understanding it is to create your personal interpretation. That's the whole point. That's what the Book of Changes is largely about.

How does this relate to project management? Well, for one, project management is about nothing so much as it's about change. As you study the I Ching, you begin to understand that it thrives on a simple dichotomy of thought. There is what is. There is what isn't. And there is merit in both. Part of the thinking here is that it's important to pay homage and reverence to both sets of conditions. Even as we create something new, there is a need to explore and retain that of value from the old.

The I Ching is about personal interpretation. It's about taking what has been written, said, or done and making sure that you have a deep personal understanding of what it means to you. It's not someone else's interpretation; it's yours. When you read in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge that risk management is designed (in part) to increase the probability and impact of positive events, the question is what that means to you. Do you really have an interpretation for yourself that is meaningful? Could you defend that interpretation to someone else?

For some, it might simply mean that an objective of risk management is to create a sound business case. For others, it could mean that an objective of risk management is to create an environment where the positive is more readily visible and attainable through the application of tools, metrics, and monitors. Is either perspective wrong? No! And in sifting through the available tool set, are there tools that I might find meaningful and you may not? Of course. But the key is to have a personal understanding. It is not enough to know words. What's important is to know what they mean to you, and to still have enough mental bandwidth to know that there is merit in the alternative perspective—it's just not your perspective.

Western philosophy is often rooted in Calvinistic certitude. It is grounded in the notion that there are right and wrong answers, and our objective, personally and professionally, should be to discern and preach the right answers. The I Ching is grounded in the notion that there are multiple answers to every question, and they need to be interpreted by the individual in a given situation, without being dismissive of the alternatives.

While project management often seems to be a practice entrenched in the single right answer, we need to take a somewhat Taoist moment to consider that the other answers have merit in their own context, application, and interpretation. If we can at least acknowledge their relative merit, we have the opportunity to open a healthier dialogue with our customers, team members, and professional peers.

©2008 Carl Pritchard. All Rights Reserved. Published on ProjectConnections by permission of the author.

When not trying to figure out Eastern philosophy, Carl Pritchard serves on the board of directors of and is the lead chapter author for the risk management chapter of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 4th Edition. He is a principal with Pritchard Management Associates, author and internationally recognized speaker. He welcomes comments on his articles at

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