Thought Leaders

Project Managers – Is It All About the Ego?

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I’m a middle-aged man prone to impulses. The last impulse I had occurred in the pub in less time it took for my mate to buy two pints of ale and a packet of prawn cocktail crisps.

I’ve had a few impulses recently and some people think it may be getting out of control. I’ve even been known to share my impulses on social media. I wonder if it’s an age thing. I wonder if others have the same impulses.

I am talking about buying books.

A lot of the articles I have written have been based on business/psychology books I have read and how their themes may be seen through a ‘project management lens’. This article follows this same approach. The in-the-pub impulse buy I am referring to is the book: “The E Myth Revisited” by Michael E. Gerber1.

The ‘E’ in the title is: Entrepreneurial, and the ‘E Myth’ “is that small businesses are started by entrepreneurs risking capital to make a profit” (page 3).

Michael E. Gerber says this is simply not so! But why I am looking at project management from a small business viewpoint? Well, in my view the skills, behaviours and characteristics of a project manager are very similar to those skills, behaviours and characteristics needed of a (small) business owner.

Let me explain my thinking. Michael E. Gerber states (on page 13) that the fatal assumption of a small business owner is: “if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does the technical work. And the reason it’s fatal is that it just isn’t true. In fact, it’s the root cause of most small business failures”.

Read these statements back- and substitute the word ‘project’ for ‘business’: if you understand the technical work of a project, you understand a project that does the technical work. And this just isn’t true!

Just because you are good at IT/construction/HR does not mean that you understand how to run a project in IT/construction/HR. My conjecture is actually the other way round – you don’t need to be an expert in IT/construction/HR to run a project that has these as technical streams.

Take me as an example: I was a project manager in the automotive industry, but I am not an expert in Powertrain systems – and I don’t need to be to run an automotive project. It’s not my role to be an automotive engineer – my role is to deliver the project to realise the benefits.

To further this point, Michael E. Gerber say that small business owners need to be a balance of three different personalities: “The Entrepreneur”, “The Manager”, and “The Technician”. The author states (pages 23-26) that “the entrepreneurial personality turns the most trivial condition into an exceptional opportunity. The Entrepreneur is the visionary in us. The dreamer. The energy behind every human activity…the catalyst for change”.

“The managerial personality is pragmatic. Without The Manager there would be no planning, no order, no predictability”. “The Technician is the doer”. Can we draw parallels to Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Super-Ego? The Entrepreneur = Id, The Manager = Ego, The Technical = Super-Ego? Too deep? Let’s park this for another day…

I see the need for all these personalities in a project manager. A visionary, a pragmatist and a doer. Yet we can easily see how there is a conflict between these three personalities: the dreamer, the fretter, and the one who ruminates.

Michael E. Gerber says (page 28) “the fact of the matter is we all have an Entrepreneur, Manager, and Technician inside us. And if they were equally balanced, we’d be describing an incredibly competent individual”.

Are we still too transfixed on making ‘Technicians’ project managers as they ‘know most about the technical subject’? Is The Technician still the dominant personality? In which case are we guilty of the ‘fatal assumption’ about projects? I do see a change away from The Technician being the dominant personality, and I do see organisations changing their view of what a project manager needs to be.

However, I don’t see an equal balance of the three personalities just yet – the one still imbalanced is The Entrepreneur. Project managers need an entrepreneurial personality – someone who can dream, be the visionary, provide the energy behind the project, yet do we look for these traits when we recruit and develop project managers?

Another theme central to his book is that Michael E. Gerber says small business owners need to “…go to work on your business, rather than in it” (page 98). And I like this philosophy. If project managers are to run projects successfully they need the mindset of working on the project, not in the project – and in my view me this is a seismic shift in thinking.

Yet it’s not easy – can we delegate (not abdicate, I hasten to add)? Are we disciplined enough not to ‘revert to our Technician’ when faced with issues? Does The Entrepreneur have the opportunity to speak up?

If you are guilty of making the fatal assumption and Your Technician is dominating (and you’ll already know if this applies to you), then my simple advice echoes what Michael E. Gerber says: go to work on your project, rather than in it. Michael E. Gerber says this realisation will change your life – I’m hopeful it may change your project.

Throughout his book Michael E. Gerber cites many quotes from texts he has read, and a lot of them are really resonating with me. It’s taking a lot of self-restraint to avoid more of my impulses!

1Gerber, Michael E. The E Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don’t Work and What to Do About It, HarperCollins, ISBN: 0-88730-728-0

Ian Clarkson
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