Project Mangers, Points and the Space in between

How might we apply the observations Richard Nisbett made in his book Geography of Thought to the project-driven workplace? Is there a Workplace of Thought? And, if so, can our understanding of the Workplace of Thought help us manage our project stakeholders more effectively?

During my career, I made the transition from engineer to project manager to engineering executive. The focus for each of these roles was very different. Trained as an engineer in the US, I felt well-schooled in western-based problem-solving techniques: taking a problem and breaking it down to its core components and then building it back up into an effective solution. Identifying problems along the way, the “scientific method” aided me in diagnosing and solving those problems quickly and efficiently. When my position changed to project manager, my focus changed – I had to manage the relationships between various activities and stakeholders. This role required a very different skill set. As a project manager I could delegate specific problem-solving challenges to team members. What was left was managing all the space in between.

Just like the difference between Eastern and Western thinking, thinking between engineers and project managers may also result in misunderstandings and conflicts. For instance, an engineer focused on solving a specific problem may not appreciate the ramification a given solution will have on the overall project. The project manager may try to convey those ramifications, but the engineer may not appreciate that because of the engineer’s intense focus on the problem itself. The project manager has to learn to applaud creative problem-solving while guiding engineers toward solutions that have the best outcome for the project overall.

And while the focus necessarily widens from engineer to project manager, in some ways it narrows moving from project manager to management. Busy executives do not always have the time to appreciate the complexity of the many projects that might be underway or fully understand the context in which decisions are made and problems are solved. The busy executive will focus on points – talking points, bullet points and getting to the point. The project manager must learn to distill all the complexity and context of a project issue down to pithy, concise points. This is a special talent that the project manager must develop.

Understanding the different roles in the workplace and the necessary focus of those roles helps the project manager to appreciate the point of view of all the stakeholders and to better manage and to better communicate with those stakeholders. The project manager lives in the space between the points and needs to understand how all the points are connected and related.


2 thoughts on “Project Mangers, Points and the Space in between”

  1. Hi Scot,

    Well said. You have definitely highlighted the value of the systems engineering role on a big project. Another common term that describes this role is “architect.” In short, it is someone that can understand the relationship between the different moving parts and the ramifications of decisions made during the course of the project.


  2. Hi Matt,

    Very good point here. In our organization, we are developing a strong Systems Engineering group as well as a Project Management office. For each project, the Systems Engineer works quite closely with the Project Manager and takes the lead in not only ensuring project requirements are well set at the start and tested at the end of the project, but that realtime deviations from the original plan don’t have unintended consequences to other parts of the system. As projects become more complex and intertwined, an active Systems Engineer becomes an extremely valuable resource for the successful Project Manager.


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