Zen and the Art of Project Management


What has Zen got to do with the art of Project Management? Arguably, more than it has to do with motorcycle maintenance! But then, I don’t own a motorbike, and neither do I know how to maintain one.

But I do know how to manage a project, and I have a fair idea of some of the main principles of Zen. Although, admittedly, they date back to a fascination with Eastern thought that many students have in their late teens and early 20s.

But it seems to me that there are two interconnected clusters of ideas that define the practice and philosophy of Zen. However, one of them eschews philosophizing! So, I’ll be careful not to do that then.

Zen and Self-Knowledge

I think the essence of Zen is a quest for self-knowledge. It demands that we try to understand the meaning of our lives directly, from our experiences.

This leads me to two specific experiences I had as a project manager. Each one illustrates nicely one of the two aspects of Zen that I shall identify. But more importantly for you, it illustrates an essential insight into the art and craft of project management.

A Still Center Amid Project Chaos

“What do we pay you for?” asked my boss one day, when he was visiting my project.

“Whenever I visit,” he told me, “I see you sitting on a sofa, drinking coffee, talking with one of your team leaders.”

I thanked him for his concern about my coffee consumption. The tea in that office was dreadful.

He was right, of course. And not just about the coffee.

We were in the thick of a high pressure, sharp deadline stage of the project. So, my response was to try to spend as much time as I could  sitting and chatting with my team leaders. Because, as I told my boss, that was my job.

Here’s why. I worked hard to develop a robust and precise project plan that each of my team leads could sign up to. I set out a framework, asked them to fill in the details for their work-stream and then brokered resolutions to clashes, overlaps and missing elements.

And now we were in delivery mode. My team leaders knew their tasks, and their timescales. They had capable teams and all the resources they would need.

So, what was my job? My job was to:

  • Provide my team leaders with the support they needed
  • Understand each work-stream’s status
  • Identify project-wide problems
  • Help my team leaders resolve their issues

And how would I do that? By calmly making a regular assessment of the situation of each work-stream, and then quietly reflecting on the big picture and what all those conversations told me.

Also, by not having a load of “stuff” to do, I would be able to react quickly and flexibly to any issue that arose — like when Richard found an error in his team’s analysis but could not trace the source.

Deploying my Reserves

I’m no deep expert, but I could drop everything to make some phone calls, negotiate with some senior colleagues and source him an expert.

The expert duly turned up, reviewed the team’s work and pointed her pen at one column of data. Her work was done. And so was mine, on that crisis. That’s what my boss paid me for.

Zen emphasizes self-control; a peaceful, relaxed demeanor. And that needs to be inside, as well as outside of you, by the way. If you can achieve this, you can free yourself from the stresses and anxieties of your project. You can steer clear of frustration, agitation and anger.

Reading your Project in Tones not Hues

I learned the next lesson from a colleague, Judith (yes, her real name). I was acting as a program manager, coordinating and leading the work of a number of project managers. Judith was one of them and, by far, the most experienced and capable. More so than I was, that’s for sure!

Part of my job was to ensure that, at corporate level, my client understood the status of each of the projects within the program. This was a complex, high-risk program. And I was successful in running it, in part through my ability to cut through the complexity to see the main plotlines.

So, I would meet my project managers and team leaders frequently for detailed updates. The only problem was Judith. She and I were great friends; but we failed to work well together at first.

I wanted clear, incisive, actionable data. Judith had that, but she knew that it would not always tell the whole story. And sometimes, the bits it missed out were important. Data alone can lead you in the wrong direction. To Judith, everything was data, and she wanted me to understand it all. But I was impatient.

“Just the facts, ma’am,” I said, uttering that apocryphal saying popularly misattributed to the famous police procedural TV show character, Dragnet’s Det. Joe Friday.

Judith responded with a metaphor that has stuck with me for 20 years: “The problem is, Mike, that you want to see the world in black and white, but I can only see it in many shades of colour.” (Judith being English would have used the English spelling, so an apology for my American audience, but Judith demands that sort of respect.)

Zen tells us that true meanings are rarely susceptible to logical interpretation. We need to be aware of every little detail of tint and shade. We need to consider it all and synthesize a deeper understanding.

That’s what Judith taught me to do. We learned to meet over lunch. She’d tell me the story of what was happening on her project, using all the tints, tones and shades. At the end, we’d sit down formally, and I’d try to distill it into the clear picture I needed. Not monochrome, I hoped, but certainly purer hues.

how can zen help your project management

How to Increase the Zen of your Project Management

So, what are some of the things you can do, as a project manager, to get more of the spirit of Zen into your practice? Here are seven suggestions.

One thing at a time

There’s so much to do, it’s easy to fall into multi-tasking. That’s a mistake. Your focus goes, and you easily miss the essence of what you’re doing at best, and make mistakes at worst.

Slow down

Do things that matter, and take the time to do them really well. Be deliberate in the way you do things and speak with people.

Finish what you start

It’s way too tempting to get to “nearly” and move on. Zen, like project management, requires you to be done, and be done properly.

Do less

To make the time to slow down and finish what you start, you’ll probably need to do less. Put aside the trivial and the things that won’t matter when the project is done.

Leave gaps in your day

If you are doing something all the time, there will be no room for happy opportunities or reacting to crises. This will cause conflicts and stresses. When there are no crises or opportunities, use the gaps to chill out and reflect. You’ll be surprised at the value of the ideas that come to you.

Develop rituals

Zen monks have rituals for most of their activities. Rather than constrain you, rituals free you up. If you don’t need to think about what you’ll be doing between 10 am and 11 am, then you can be thinking about the meaning of that strange comment one of your stakeholders made in yesterday’s meaning. Creativity comes when your mind is not occupied. Empty it by taking away the million small decisions you may otherwise need to make.

Serve others

In a recent article, I wrote about Servant Leadership. The idea of service is central to Zen Buddhism. It develops a sense of humility and selflessness. And, when you serve others, they will serve you better because you will free them from some of their low value tasks.

Read Zen Wisdom

There are a lot of books of Zen thinking out there offering lessons on life, leadership and even archery. It can be tempting to dismiss them as New Age bunk. But don’t. Find one by a reputable expert on the subject, like Christmas Humphreys, Thomas Cleary or Paul Reps.

They are filled with genuinely powerful insights. But you will need to think about the words long and hard. Let them sit and stew in your unconscious. Because many will defy easy analysis. Let me retell a favorite, in my own words:

“If there is a fire at the bottom of a pile of wood and you are lying on top of it, then while the heat has not yet reached you, you will feel certain you are safe.”

What is going on at the base of your project today?

What’s the sound of one-hand clapping? The answer to this koan is the lucky project manager and team that is using ProjectManager.com, an online project management software that has a Zen-like simplicity of use and robust features to make you and your team feel like they’ve reached nirvana. Are you willing to risk enlightenment by taking this free 30-day trial?

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