Project Practitioners > The Entrepreneurial Project Manager: Bringing Philosophy to Project Management

The Entrepreneurial Project Manager: Bringing Philosophy to Project Management

By Chris Cook, PMP

Project management is not an exact science, as much as we want it to be. People are dynamic. They change hour to hour, while projects last months or years. As a leader, project managers have to deal with these dynamic individuals on a daily basis. There is no science that has come up with an equation to solve the mental mysteries of team members.

Enter philosophy, continually challenging ideas new and old and dealing with the questions of who, what, where, when, and most importantly, why. Assuming project managers have the technical and educational backgrounds to know the frameworks of project management, this article will take those frameworks and incorporate philosophy to deal better with conflicts and continue performing at a high level. Instead of seeing team members as X's and O's on a whiteboard trying to accomplish a goal, we will view them as dynamic characters whose roles change and giving the project manager the mental tools to stay sharp in such an environment.

Philosophy is a word most commonly associated with theory and the meaning of life. It's usually studied because it's seen as an easy college elective. Get in, get the grade, and get out. Philosophy is difficult to read, with antiquated verbiage often leading to headaches. If it is difficult to read, it is even more difficult to understand.

Project management is the antithesis of philosophy. Its basis is science. There are formulas involved. Scientific models can be created to show progress or how a resource is being used. Concepts can be understood and applied.

So how does philosophy coincide with project management? At every level.

Think of the dynamic project setting. Issues pop up like storms in the mountains. People quit without notice. Resources are taken away because priorities lie elsewhere. Science gets thrown out the window pretty quickly. Based on the evidence of previous projects, your three-day window to get a task completed just turned into five days.

Who would know more about a dynamic setting than Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180? During his reign, there was constant conflict. Wars are beginning and ending. Turmoil is surrounding his every move. The journal he kept during his tenure as Emperor, later titled Meditations, would become a source of guidance and inspiration. His Stoic philosophy applies perfectly to the project management profession.

Western Philosophy – Stoicism

Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they don't.
– Marcus Aurelius

Cook quote 2 The last part of this quote is what stood out to me: Not only looking at what successful do but also what they do not do. How many decisions have they not made? It is fun to highlight the successes. Talk about the best of times. What about adversity? How do they handle themselves when the chips are down?

If you feel like the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Always place yourself in situations where you can learn from people wiser, smarter, older, or more experienced than you. Ask questions. Be curious. Be skeptical. Observe. Analyze. Aurelius is considered the last of Five Good Emperors of Rome. His mind was never at rest. He took copious notes and hashed them out internally. Introspection was one of his greatest traits.

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved, and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
– Marcus Aurelius

Does this not describe a project manager? When the ceiling seems to be crashing down, and the walls are closing in, the project manager must stand tall, remaining calm amongst the waves. Notice how Aurelius mentions the sea falling still around the rock. This depiction is the goal of the project manager. You take on all comers and settle them down in the face of adversity. You are the rock of your team: the steady, settled leader in the flurry of issues.

This quotation is a mental cue to be self-aware when stressors start to add up. Your team takes the lead from you. If you become frustrated and overwhelmed, your team will notice and act accordingly. Remain even-keeled through the ebbs and flows of a project.

Eastern Philosophy - Taoism

The teachings of Lao Tzu form the foundation of philosophical Taoism. Tzu's book Tao Te Ching is a fundamental text for this philosophy (leaving aside any religious aspects for this discussion). Taoism advocates humility. As leaders, project managers need to practice humility.

Now the reason why people are difficult to rule is because of their knowledge;
As a result, to use knowledge to rule the state
Is thievery of the state.
– Lao Tzu

Cook quote 3 Project managers lead teams. Ruling over them may be exaggerated, but leading is a form of ruling. Lao Tzu points out people are intelligent. If you lead by outsmarting, you are doing your team a disservice. In this way, you are always right. You are plotting against their suggestions, stealing their recognition for yourself. They realize this. Again, your team is smart.

Work with them instead of above them. Leading should not be taken literally, as in a race. You are not out in front of the team because you are better. A leader possesses qualities like humility, patience, and confidence. Nowhere will it state that a leader is always right, smartest, best, etc.

People's state of confusion
Has certainly existed for a long time.
Therefore, be square but don't cut;
Be sharp but don't stab;
Be straightforward but not unrestrained;
Be bright but don't dazzle.
– Lao Tzu

This quote is Tzu's way of describing humility during times of uncertainty. Project managers lead during these times. People need direction during uncertain times. They look for a voice. You are that voice.

"Be straightforward but not unrestrained" stands out to me. Tell it like it is without offending. Deal in the facts. Be transparent. Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.

Dazzling the crowd can be infectious. Putting on a show, so everyone recognizes you is intoxicating. It also detracts from your team, and the work others have done to get you to this point. Project management is not a one person show. It takes a team and an organization to make you successful.

There are much more quotes and phrases from these two schools of thought. Reading them weekly helps to keep things in perspective. While project managers want to lead and be the person in charge, it is important to recognize your team along the way. Philosophy may not be the first place you look for advice, but hopefully, this opens your eyes to possibilities it holds.

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