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Project Management: Art or Discipline?
André Barcaui

The balance necessary to become an excellent project manager


A good deal is being discussed about project management these days, both in academic and professional circles. But to what extent can the activity of managing a team toward a specific goal with a fixed deadline be considered a discipline? And if it is not in fact a discipline, how can we aspire to teach it through management improvement courses or certifications? Which is the most important variable when conducting a project: technical and methodological knowledge or the so-called interpersonal skills of the one managing it?

In other words, is it preferable to have a manager with extensive technical knowledge but little experience and familiarity with people management? Or would it be better to consider a manager with little or even no technical knowledge, but who is better than anyone at handling the interpersonal side and team relationships? Maybe there is a middle path, such as a manager who is adept in both areas. Yet if that is the case, what is the ideal composition of each competency? Should this composition vary according to the type of project being managed?

Projects vs. People
Regardless of the industry segment or business field, project management has grown exponentially in the job market and the interest for this activity has been rather significant in the corporate arena. This is mainly because companies seek to better meet the need for increasingly better, faster and cheaper production with fewer resources and sustainable quality. This fact has been confirmed by the great interest in project management careers and by the amount of investments currently being made in training, consulting and tools.

In the book Gerente também é Gente: Um Romance sobre Gerência de Projetos (Managers Are People Too: A Novel about Project Management), the story’s main character has been recently promoted to manager and must face three projects with different levels of complexity throughout his saga. To accomplish the task, he is helped by a more experienced manager who ends up teaching him that managing projects is much more than simply using techniques and tools. To be successful, one must know people well, and the protagonist finally learns this truth while he faces the challenge of managing his professional and personal life. The book attempts to present a point of view that is less restricted to methods and processes. This more inclusive approach considers the human side of project management, and covers issues such as personal conflicts, lack of confidence and fears intrinsic to the job.

In real life, the project manager, leader or coordinator plays a fundamental role ensuring the success of an organization’s projects. If we agree that these projects represent the means for carrying out the company’s business strategy, the importance of having a good manager in charge is a critical factor for such success. However, the qualities that make a successful project manager are not always so easy to outline.

Historically, technical knowledge, business familiarity and academic background were deemed fundamental factors for choosing a manager. More recently, however, other qualities have come to be recognized. Skills that before were only desirable have now gained another degree of importance. These include: interpersonal relationship, conflict management, emotional intelligence, leadership, communication, negotiation, coaching, etc. The sum of all these qualities certainly weighs significantly in the profile of a successful manager. Nevertheless, the role played by this set of managing skills in the overall formation of such a profile has yet to be precisely defined, especially in relation to other “classic” and more discipline-related skills, such as the use of methodology, discipline and technical knowledge.

Even the Project Management Institute (PMI) showed a more obvious appreciation of some of the qualities related to team direction and stakeholder management in the most recent version of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK). Some of the changes made to the areas of knowledge suggested that project management should be more “humanized,” as opposed to only the manager’s set of technical skills as a planner, controller, executer and the person responsible for the project as a whole. Although legitimate, this movement raises an interesting discussion about the extent to which the management skills (considered by many authors as “the art of management”) can be even more fundamental than technical knowledge itself when coupled with strong management methodology. We could take the image of an iceberg as an example to illustrate this attitude towards project management, as shown in the figure below:

Graphic Representation of Project Management

Management Practices
According to the PMBoK Guide, the relationship between different management practices could be represented by three interdisciplinary dimensions. The first includes practices and knowledge generally accepted in the field of project management, involving the knowledge of management methodology, tools, techniques and concepts. Another dimension is that of the practices related to the project’s specific area of application. These can normally be described through functional departments, technical elements, expertise, technical training and/or industry groups. The third and last dimension includes the so-called general management practices, often represented by planning, team setup and management, organization and decision making, among other competencies. This last dimension is associated with the “art” of management, which involves the individual experience and involvement of each manager. It also serves as a differential for the individual. The mastery of each of these areas has a high degree of significance for guaranteeing successful projects. Although they are not necessarily proportional, there is an overlap between the three dimensions of management practices, as shown below:

Project Management in Relation to Other Management Practices
Source: PMBoK Guide, version 3.

It is also very difficult to form a general opinion for each and every kind of project. For this reason, we have defined a simple typology here, since the range of possibilities is extreme (due to factors like complexity, value, risks and other variables associated with project management). If this massive range of types were not segmented in some way, we would run the risk of getting a single explanation for multiple scenarios. The adopted typology follows a model based on the complexity and size of each project. “Complexity” is used here to mean the degree of difficulty in terms of the project’s technical, innovative, political and circumstantial aspects, or a combination of these variables. “Size” is meant to represent more linear variables such as value, project length and associated risks. Based o these assumptions, we created the following diagram, which represents the various kinds of projects in four distinct quadrants, where:

  • Q1 = Small Size vs. Low Complexity
  • Q1 = Small Size vs. High Complexity
  • Q3 = Large Size vs. High Complexity
  • Q3 = Large Size vs. Low Complexity
Quadrants for Project Classification

The Victory of Discipline

It is also essential to define what is considered a successful project. Are we speaking only of the classic definition, which involves scope, time, cost, quality and client satisfaction? Or should we also consider the morale of the team and of all the other stakeholders involved? It should be stressed that there are various other definitions of success that could also be included in this group of metrics. For some authors, for example, success should even be considered situational, since it also depends on who analyzes the results and the time at which they are analyzed.

Based on the purely academic definition of success, discipline prevails over “art” in the degree that it plans, organizes and controls the project goals. Besides, in certain project environments and segments, especially those related to quadrants 1 and 2, it is almost impossible not to have some kind of technical knowledge, since the team itself demands this type of leadership from the manager. The language and jargon used, and even slang, often help build credibility and improve the team’s impression of its leader.

Although hard to generalize, this observation is valid for certain industry segments, for short-term projects or those with above-average technical complexity. It also varies according to the type of business, the company’s degree of project-readiness and especially the level of project management maturity of the department or organizational being analyzed. There are certain situations in which technical knowledge, methodology and management training itself end up influencing the success of the project. In other words, discipline becomes necessary because of the very nature of the project. A minimum amount of technical knowledge is always desirable, and in some cases, indispensable. But what is the percentage of time a project manager should spend on concerns of this kind when compared to project strategy and stakeholder management, for example?

The Victory of Art
There is a consensus among professionals in the area that in order to know to what extent discipline should be exercised, one needs a great deal of experience, common sense and other qualities that make up what we are here calling “art”. Discipline in and of itself, especially in quadrant 3 (high complexity and large size) does not become obsolete or useless, yet perhaps less required. Technical and methodological knowledge is clearly important, but the type of demands faced by a manager of large projects normally involves characteristics that are more related to interpersonal and strategic skills than those of a merely technical nature.

A possible analogy to be considered is that of directors of large companies. Every detail of the operation is not necessarily known, but they can count on professionals and staff members under them who are able to perform their duties and offer guidance for the necessary technical decisions. Perhaps the manager who is highly skilled in a specific area or has a strong technical background can over-influence the team’s creativity or lose focus, since they would have to make use of a more holistic and less detail-oriented approach to the processes. In his article “MicroManager” (2001), Edward P. Youngberg comments on the thin line separating control and obsession in project management. Among other things, the author highlights the concern a manager must have with the project as a whole and not only with the details of its organization. “Art” might just be the answer to discovering this balance. Where to invest more time, or the area about which they should and could be more concerned.

Another remarkable fact is the influence that managers have over their teams. They spend quite a bit of time together. The hours spent with the team can even surpass those spent with the stakeholders of the manager’s personal life. This means that the team must be fully comfortable with the manager’s presence. Otherwise, the daily routine can become torture. Herein lies the value of the so-called “art.”

This article does not intend to have the final word on what is most relevant in a project manager’s profile, simply because some of the qualities covered here can only be acquired with time and experience. However, it is interesting to note how the project management profession is in a constant state of evolution. The quest to update and improve is part of this professional’s profile. The role played by technique and methodology in environments with increasingly more complex demands cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, as insightfully observed in the novel Gerente Também é Gente, one has to acknowledge that those behind any and every project are people too, not machines. Hence, the more the project manager “understands” people, the higher the chances for success. Therefore, it is worthwhile to invest in and learn more about the interpersonal skills included in this article, and to which I refer to as “art.” These are the skills that will be frequently decisive in situations such as acceptance requests, change requisitions, stakeholder behavior forecast and meetings, i.e. everything that leads to the success of any enterprise.
Article originally published in Revista MundoPM - Project Management magazine (,
issue 09 - June/July 2006, page 30.

André B. Barcaui, MsC, PMP is a consultant and management coach. Having earned several MBAs, he is the author of the book Gerente Também é Gente: Um Romance sobre Gerência de Projetos, published by Brasport, and co-author of Gerenciamento de Tempo em Projetos, published by FGV Management.

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