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Speaking of Projects: Six Varieties of Project Manager

Over the past few years I have been researching the identities of project managers. I am particularly interested in those who are active decision-makers, and how they handle challenging situations. My aim is to reveal the sorts of people they need to be in order to be effective at such times. To this end I have been collecting and analysing stories about projects. It has become apparent to me that there are several different varieties of project manager.

By this I don’t mean merely that managers have different skill sets, or that they inhabit different industry sectors. I mean something more fundamental: that different managers have different notions of what a project is actually about, and what their purpose might be as a manager.

This becomes apparent when we hear managers speaking about their projects. Different types of manager talk about different things; they use different languages. The sort of manager you are is revealed by the way you speak about projects. Or, as Ben Jonson put it in 1640:

“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee”

That being the case, when managers talk about their projects, who do we see?

Six Varieties of Project Manager
My first manager I call the Analyst. An Analyst’s project is characterised by problems. They talk of issues they have resolved, glitches they have cleared. They talk frequently, perhaps daily, to the members of their team, dealing with difficulties, untangling the knots. They talk of bringing clarity where they find confusion, of bringing light to areas of darkness.

Analysts speak of their managers’ trust in them, and of their “cheerleaders” in the organisation. At times of challenge they speak up to defend their reputations, because without reputation they will lose trust, and without trust they cannot function.

My second manager I call the Enforcer. The project is in difficulty: meetings are “chaotic”, or “costs are spiralling out of control”. The Enforcer is on a mission (“I was asked”). It is forever “time to get a grip on the project”. Enforcers speak to lay down rules and procedures, to demand promises, to point the finger of blame at those who have failed to meet their obligations.

Enforcers are enthusiastic tellers of stories, about how they used Project Management to save the day, contrasting the chaos they found with the order they then brought. They tell of how they dealt with the foot-draggers and other renegades, and compelled them focus on the completion of the project.

My third manager, the Expert, has specialised discipline knowledge. The Expert can claim full authority over how the project is performed, simply on the claim that “I know this stuff”. The Expert has a process – a set of tasks – that will take the project to completion. The Expert speaks a lot, to team members, their own managers, the client’s managers (and everyone who needs to know), explaining the steps of the process – exactly how the job is to be completed.

Experts like to tell stories about the importance of their role, often using metaphors: of the theatre (“how I brought everyone back to the script”), or of railways (“how I rescued those who had gone off-track”).

The three managers we have covered so far are systematic and organised in their approaches to projects. The Impresario, on the other hand, operates in a free-style manner, bringing in help wherever it can be found. The Impresario will talk about “the brilliant thing we are making”, to persuade others to “join in my adventure”. Their work will often involve informal arrangements and occasional rule-breaking moves. They talk of the obstacles to be overcome, “by whatever means we can find”, for which they will invoke an atmosphere of “in-it-together” daring.

Away from their band of helpers, Impresarios, especially those working in organisations that value formal procedures, do not tend to talk much about their exploits. Best to keep quiet!

My fifth manager is the Master of Ceremonies. The Master of Ceremonies is concerned with mediation, and bringing in outsiders, giving them their opportunity to speak on the project stage. Masters of Ceremonies speak of the importance of space and time, arranging meetings and inviting others to speak.

This management approach is subjected to a lot of external pressure. There are always demands, from somewhere, to stop talking and drive to a conclusion. To counter this pressure, Masters of Ceremonies must speak confidently about their philosophy of management, of how the standard “get-on-with-it” approach to managing projects is fundamentally flawed, and of how we need to resist short-termism (“the tyranny of deadlines”).

Finally I present the Reshaper. If the project is in difficulty, the Reshaper’s response will be to change strategy. The Reshaper will talk in grand strategic terms, of the need to “get the wind behind us”, and of politics, manoeuvres and deals. Reshapers speak of themselves as being the smart people in the project world.

Invariably, these shifts of strategy bring with them switches in loyalty, which might easily be seen as betrayals, particularly by those who are losing out. To counter this slur, the Reshaper will talk about the “tough world” we work in, the hard realities that separate the winners and the losers.

Learning and Using the Language
Many people perform the project manager role predominantly in one particular mode. Successful careers are built in this way. As we mature we develop, with experience, our preferred style of being a manager, and we become fluent in the language that supports our chosen style.

This skill of rhetoric is an essential part of the job. We cannot operate in a managerial role unless we can speak that role. If we are revealed to others by how we speak, how will people know who we are, the sort of manager we are, if we don’t speak the right way?

So to be effective, we have to learn our primary managerial language. However we can enhance our performance if we also pay attention to the language of others, to recognise their particular mode of working or managing, and to adjust our own language to be compatible. If our team are speaking as Analysts, we will alienate them if we over-emphasise our Enforcer speech. If our senior managers are in crisis over costs, we will not be well received if we pontificate about our philosophy as Masters of Ceremonies. We must accommodate.

In summary, then, language is a crucial topic for project managers. We must each develop our own style of speaking about projects, because our speech is the essence of our managerial identity – the variety of manager we are endeavouring to be. But we must also be sensitive to the language of others, because that enables us to ‘see’ them through how they speak.

CRScThe Author
Following a thirty-year management and consulting career in engineering and financial services, Charles Smith has, over the last ten years, researched the realities of project life. Originally qualifying as an engineer, Charles also has a degree in psychology, and is a Founder Member of the Association for Business Psychology.

Charles is the author of ‘Playing the Project Manager’.

For more information on research, books and other publications visit www.projectcraft.org.uk

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