The Entrepreneurial Project Manager: Bringing Philosophy to Project Management

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the-entrepreneurial-project-manager-bringing-philosophy-to-project-managementPhilosophy. A word associated with theory and the meaning of life. Studied only because it is an easy college elective. Get in, get the grade, and get out. Philosophy is difficult to read. Antiquated verbiage leading to headaches. If it is difficult to read, it is even more difficult to understand.

Project management is the antithesis. It is based on science. There are formulas involved. Scientific models can be created to show progress or apply a resource. 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. The turmoil surrounding his every move. During his tenure as Emperor, his journal later titled Meditations would become a source to find guidance and inspiration. His Stoic philosophy applies perfectly to the project management profession. Below I have taken some quotes for Meditations.

Western Philosophy – Stoicism

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

The last part of this quote is what stood out to me. Not only looking at what successful people 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 to learn from people wiser/smarter/older/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, and the walls are closing in, the project manager must stand tall remaining calm amongst the wave. Notice how Aurelius mentions the sea falling still around the rock. The rock 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, unsettled leader in the windfall of issues.

It 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 focus of this section is the teachings of Lao Tzu, the father of philosophical Taoism. I want to focus on philosophical Taoism, not any religious aspects. Tzu’s book Tao Te Ching is a fundamental text for Taoism. Taoism advocates humility. As leaders, project managers need to practice humility. Below, I have some quotes to help incorporate Taoism into the practice of project management:

“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

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 literal, like a race. You are not out in front of your team because you jump higher and run faster. Qualities a leader possesses are humility, patience, confidence, and so on. Nowhere will it state a leader is always right, the smartest, the 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 as it is without offending and dealing in the facts. Being 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 takes away 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. Weekly philosophical reading helps to set a 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 brings.

Chris Cook

Chris Cook

Over the past ten years, Chris Cook has spent his career in the construction industry. He has a Bachelor’s of Science in Industrial Technology Management with an emphasis in Building Construction Management and Master’s of Science in Project Management. He is an accredited PMP. Follow more of Chris's insights at his blog EntrePMeur.

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