Brave New World

Project Management in a Brave New World
cover of book by Aldous Huxley

Which level of proof do you require on your projects? Do you have a tolerance for ambiguity? Is it shared by your sponsor? What exactly does Red, Amber or Green mean?

This article focuses on the difficulties of managing people and projects across functional areas, global regions and cultures and in particular on the lack of objectivity in the historical approaches offered by management theory. The article also looks forward towards a better world where the latest knowledge gained in science makes its way into the project management discipline.

The new thinking associated with the outputs of the ‘Decade of the Brain’ and ‘The Genome Project’ work is going beyond our previous, basic knowledge of human traits into a greater understanding of the role of genetic involvement in our behavior.

Virtually no behavior is determined by my genes but virtually all behavior is influenced by my genes” as Matt Ridley says in Nature via Nurture.

This new scientific information will enable us to move the proof available for behavior management theories in the soft skills areas of Project Management from the observation models of Myers Briggs, Belbin, Weinberg, Tuchman, Maslow, Hertzberg, McClelland and others towards a more objective and scientific foundation.

Much of the material in this article is based on the writings of Richard Dawkins, Robin Dunbar, Steve Jones, Matt Ridley, Robert Winston, Steven Pinker and many others as well as information from websites including the Genome project (see for a full bibliography).

Perhaps, to paraphrase Steven Pinker in ‘The Language Instinct’ – “It is time for project management theories to submit to science.

Therefore there are three cases to be made:

  • Case 1 – That significant and important discoveries have occurred in science in the last decade.
  • Case 2 – That a link can be made between these discoveries and areas of project management.
  • Case 3 – That there will be an impact on project management from these discoveries in the near future.

CASE 1 – That significant and important discoveries have occurred in science.

The Human Genome Project (HGP), completed in 2003, was a 13-year project coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

The project goals were to determine the complete sequence of the 3 billion DNA subunits (bases), identify all human genes (approx 23,000), and make them accessible for further biological study. They discovered that only 1.5% of these genes differentiate us from our nearest cousin, the chimpanzee and only 0.1% differentiates us from any other human on the planet.

This in turn has led to a huge increase in specific gene research and a corresponding increase in scientific and non-scientific articles relating to genetic aspects of behavior and instincts.

The ‘Decade of the Brain’ that ended in 2000 was initially seen as unsuccessful by those seeking immediate results. However the weekly outpouring of follow-up advances picked up pace in the last decade to the point where it is hard to open any serious newspaper today without reading of some new understanding of human behavior based on neurological research.


CASE 2 – That there is a link between these discoveries and areas of project management.

The PMBOK® Guide currently comprises 42 steps in a framework to manage a project. It neatly fuses 9 knowledge areas into 5 process groups to produce or deliver a unique product or result. It encompasses the human aspects of stakeholder expectations, skills, motivations, teaming, performance and rewards.  The PMBOK® uses key steps, tools and techniques to achieve this including, Initiation, Scope planning, Organization planning, Staff acquisition, Risk response planning, Risk management, and Team development.

Behavioral Management theories seek to identify, simplify and improve the efficiency of individuals and teams in delivering successful projects. In the last century this has typically been carried out by speculation followed by observation and surveys of individuals at work. This work is then translated into questionnaires that attempt to label and categorize the behavior patterns of individuals and teams.

A brief analysis of the various theories referenced in the training of Project Management include the following:

  • Motivation – Maslow, Hertzberg, McGregor, McClelland, Mayo
  • Team development – Tuchman/ Jensen, Belbin, Myers Briggs. Social styles, Bolton, Robert & Dorothy
  • Organizational Change Management – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, William Bridges

Some management theory has postulated that successful projects are delivered in two parts.

  1. Project Management (PM) is primarily concerned with delivering a product or service to bring about the pre-determined change.
  2. Organisational Change Management (OCM) is primarily concerned with the acceptance of the product or service. As projects become more global, complex, virtual and cross functional, more emphasis is being placed on teams and teamworking.

Belbin, Myers Briggs, DISC and others give ‘labels’ (e.g. chairman, plant, monitor-evaluator, resource investigator, completer-finisher, etc) to work styles or team roles. An understanding of these styles and roles is important to understanding team working and development. The recent discoveries from the Genome project allow us to ‘look behind’ the team role ‘labels’ to see the environment or needs that produced these classifications and the mechanism for their transfer to future generations. As discussed above, genes have played an important role in developing who we are including being the mechanism of transferring previous experiences from generation to generation. Greater knowledge of our genetic make up will enable us to improve our performance in these areas.

CASE 3 – That there will be an impact on project management from these discoveries in the near future.

The primary impacts of these scientific advances on our current lives are medical, legal and ethical. Current medical discoveries are focused in the field of single gene diseases (cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Tay Sachs.).

In project management the primary impacts will come from:

  • A greater awareness of what is to be human. Future genetic testing will allow us to know ourselves better. This will, in turn, enable us to more informed choices regarding career and job opportunities. Genetic information will help to reduce the reliance on psychometric testing as the means to establish compatibility with career, job or team membership,
  • Improved selection of team members. Currently we are faced with a multitude of observation type theories with corresponding questionnaires to assist team selection and development. We are a product of both the ingredients (nature) and the fertilizing (nurture) of our genes. Our genes are programmed to produce as well as respond to social behavior, mostly represented through changes in our brain chemicals. Soon we will have a better understanding and evaluation of Belbin’s team roles and Myers Briggs’s team styles. A simple genetic test will greatly simplify and vastly improve this process.
  • A more scientific understanding of motivation. Currently many theories from Maslow to McClelland seek to explain the intricacies of motivating an individual. However recent studies seem to suggest that motivation is related to a brain chemical called Dopamine that in turn is controlled by many genes including the D4DR gene on chromosome 11. A shortage of Dopamine causes indecisiveness, frozen personality and therefore has an impact on motivation.
  • Managing Stress in the workplace. Currently stress is not very well understood or managed on projects. Due to their temporary and unique nature, projects lend themselves to high stress situations. A better understanding of stress and an individual’s ability to cope with stress would be of great benefit to the project management community. We would need to understand the role of the hormone, Cortisol, in stressful situations. High stress produces Cortisol which reduces immunity. Happier people get fewer colds and people with low control over situations at work exhibit high stress levels (as this has the effect of lowering immune system).
  • Post genome sequencing. This is the evaluation of the 0.15% of genetic material, which varies between humans. It will enable us to understand the real differences in personalities and aid our understanding, particularly in global teams, of what unites us and what divides us. It will help us to overcome prejudice, perceptions and cultural misunderstandings.

In summary, we are on the verge of our own ‘Brave New World’ in Project Management. A greater reliance on science and objectivity will enable us to make more rational decisions and avoid the reliance on primitive, shortcut, gut thinking and decision making.

There will, of course, be healthy resistance to be managed and ethical issues to be resolved and the results need to speak for themselves.

Recently our world population has passed the 7 billion mark. Milestones often have the effect of asking us to reconsider the future based on our understanding of the past.

We are close to the day when neither I nor any team members are again labeled as an ‘INTJ’ any more than a ‘Capricorn’. When no one is judged by either the style of their handwriting nor the answers to a series of inane, multi choice questions.

How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!


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