Book Review – Playing the Project Manager

I really love this book. It’s not often that a gem of a book on project management comes along and this one is definitely one of those. I’ve just finished reading Playing the Project Manager from Charles Smith and throughout the weeks of picking it up and reading a bit more, it’s stuck with me in my thoughts. A sign of a good book you would say.

412+7RPNBTL._SL250_So Playing the Project Manager is all about the identities, style and mode of operation or performance of project managers. The book sees Project Managers as performers (actors). Performers in their own stories or narratives. Project Managers have certain modes of performance – as Charles calls them, archetypes – when they are in the full swing of managing projects.

This is the bit I really love. I’ve spent years talking to both those new to project management and veterans of the role about the style of a project manager. I’ve met so many different types of project managers over the years – and by different I don’t mean their experience or qualifications – I mean the way they choose to conduct project management – their behaviour, the words they use, the reaction from others and so on. It is a tricky thing to explain and this book does that perfectly.

I totally get that project managers are performers, in fact many people I’ve asked about that agree. They are playing a role. For every challenge or conflict they come across, they are adopting a certain mode of performing the role and trying to resolve the conflict. What is interesting though is in those conversations is that Project Managers often lack the insight or self-awareness to know what role they are performing. If a Project Manager was able to hold a mirror up, to really understand what modes they operate in and what other modes are available for consideration, it would be a revelation.

With Playing the Project Manager, Charles is bringing these archetypes to life through stories (the book is littered with well articulated real life stories of challenge and conflict from serving project managers). On the premise that the Project Manager is like an actor, they choose to speak and act like a performer in their projects (I likened this to the role of a barrister in court. They definitely do this and wouldn’t be out-of-place on Shaftesbury Avenue). The crucial thing here is that the performance is not ‘put on’, it’s not about over dramatising the role we play.

Charles introduces six archetypes:

  • The Analyst – these project managers guide actions by finding resolutions to problems and issues. They immerse themselves in detail, interrogation and logical analysis with the team
  • The Enforcer – acts on behalf of senior management to create order. Plays on fears of chaos and disaster. Deals in systems of authority, contracts, rules and the law.
  • The Expert – has technical knowledge in a professional discipline and a process to apply. Acts to bring others into line with the process
  • The Impresario – leads a personal value-creating adventure, persuading others to join in. Operates through personal deals, rule-bending and dramatic events (that’ll be me I think!)
  • The Master of Ceremonies – generates widely based inclusive social value. Operates through openness pauses and reflection.
  • The Reshaper – uses the project as the strategic arena for own career. Operates through political understanding, making and breaking alliances (think Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall)

For each archetype, through a series of examples, we uncover exactly what it means, how the project managers act, what they say, in this type of mode of operation. You can’t help but recognise people you know which for me indicates the light bulb moment of a book like this.

As with any performer, you are not stuck with the character you are. This book highlights the fact that project managers choose different archetypes throughout their careers and indeed with differing situations on any one project you are managing.

Alongside the excellent insights of the archetypes, there are some stand out quotes that tell me I would like a beer with Charles because I agree with his thoughts about the ‘custodians of the profession’, how dealing with difficult situations on projects transcends certificates and the like.

With one story from a project manager he talks about “throwing off the shackles of the profession (of project management)” in order to get the job done in the interests of his organisation. In another story, he talks about how project managers have defined and taken control of difficulties in their projects and how this has helped them grow in the role. They become the type of project manager who in the future can handle those difficulties much easier, a great quote:

…an opportunity for a changed identity – the person I can become – has been discovered lurking in the shadows of the project.

A quote about the purpose of a manager that really sums up the book for me, “…concerning not only the work to be done (the project) but also the development of the manager’s identity”.

What is interesting about this book and the stories within it is that there is very little mention of the tools of the trade. We read the challenges and conflicts of these project managers and not once do we see in the narrative mention of the project plan, the schedule, the risk assessment etc.

And that’s why this book is a gem. It has managed to nail the subject of what is really happening when a project manager chooses to manage a project. This book should be a compulsory companion book to any project management training course out there. We’re doing a disservice to people if we didn’t.

> Available from Amazon for £8 (£4.10 Kindle)

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  1. Thanks for the great review. I’m going to pick up copy. I can’t wait to see what category I fall into. I would guess I’m a “Master of Ceremonies”, but I’d like to learn more

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