How is project management seen and interpreted in the nation's psyche?

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Recently I went along to the London stage show of a popular entertainer whose shows are well known for their audience participation. I thought it might be fun to be invited to go on stage and get a close up view, and was ready to volunteer when the request was made for three people to take part. However, I was immediately deflated when this was qualified by the statement, ”specifically not any project managers, which probably rules out a significant proportion of you”. The reason given being that what project managers do is not clear and generally means all things to all people, to which a rumble of acknowledgement went around the auditorium. 

Having been brought back to reality by this, I started to consider the wider implications of what seemed to be the consensus in the theatre. When we describe ourselves as project managers to colleagues, friends, relations and acquaintances is it always clear what we actually do? From personal experience in the past, I know I haven’t always found what I do easy to describe.  

The APM website offers some definitions:

  • A Project as ‘A unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve a desired outcome’
  • Project Manager as ‘The individual responsible and accountable for the successful delivery of the project’

To me, these definitions are vague, and require us to fill in the areas of vagueness from our own unique internal experience. For example, what endeavour, what outcome, what project?  In some respects this approach to defining and describing what we do as project managers is similar to the language of the Milton Model, which was developed from the work of the hypnotist Milton Erickson.   

The Milton Model is useful in directing another person's line of thinking by being "artfully vague".

The approach may be useful if my aim is to create a hypnotic trance, but maybe not so helpful of if I need someone to understand what I actually do on a daily basis and the person I am in dialogue with doesn’t have these specific project related references to call on.

So, for me this has been something of a wake up call. Having become closely involved with APM, the People SIG, and now starting to connect with colleagues from other SIGs, there is a reminder here for me of the risk of becoming too inwardly focussed. How we view and describe the world can easily, yet inadvertently, create an ivory tower approach disconnected from the real world we seek to inform.

As members of the project management community I believe we have a role to actively engage with wider society to advance project management education, knowledge and practice. If we want to have project management consistently taking its place at the table at board level in organisations, and have project management clearly understood as a relevant and effective tool for all sectors and industries, maybe we need to validate and, if needed, respond to how our profession is seen and interpreted in the nation’s psyche?

Back at the stage show, a new call for volunteers was being made. Thankfully, I was no longer in the mood to take part. They had to think of their most embarrassing moment. Just in my role as a project manager I’ve had a few of those. Sounds like an interesting approach though for a discussion on lessons learned...



Posted by Jane Royden on 19th Jul 2011

About the Author
Since 2002, as a Director of E AND H, I’ve been involved with a range of projects, management roles and change programmes. We provide support to a range of organisations mainly in the public sector in the UK. Every day is different - new projects and new people, but often the same issues. My specialist field is in coaching and mentoring in the context of programme, project and change management. I’m a member of the APM People SIG and have been involved with the successful APM mentoring pilot scheme. I'm interested in identifying the sort of things that give us confidence as project, programme and change managers. What really makes the difference to our outlook, how we feel and ultimately what we deliver?

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