Report of research examining the characteristics of managers of complex contemporary projects in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Gerald M.Mulenburg

Evidence exists of the use of project management principles since the beginning of human history. Its modern use derives from the period during and following World War II. Examples include the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb, the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe, and other major undertakings. These accomplishments sprung from innovations in management that “… were set up outside of existing academic and government structures” (Drucker, 1973, p. 801). Those projects were made up of teams of academic specialists working toward common, specific goals, driven by urgent time requirements. These criteria remains as a basic definition of project management today: project management lies outside the functional organization, and is staffed by technical specialists working toward a common, specific project objective. Undoubtedly, the most recognized example of project management in the history of mankind to date began with this challenge to NASA by President Kennedy to accomplish,

“… before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” (Bilstein, 1989).

Following its evolution as a new management discipline over the last 50 years, project management is now a pervasive and important part of the larger field of management. Archibald (1976) states that project management is the single most important management development in the second half of the 20th century. And, Kerzner (1995, p. 2) claims that, “Today, the concept behind project management is being applied in such diverse industries and organizations as defense, construction, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, banking, hospitals, accounting, advertising, law, state and local governments, and the United Nations.” For the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and much of world industry today, project management is the systematically effective management technique used for managing large and complex projects (Sayles & Chandler, 1971; Chapman, 1973; Archibald, 1974; Kezbom et al., 1989; Gadeken, 1997).

As the expansion of project management moved beyond the traditional areas of aerospace/defense and construction, the role of the project manager is likewise becoming recognized as critical to project outcome. This research builds on an existing body of evidence in the literature that intriguingly suggests there are significant and identifiable characteristics in project managers. It takes advantage of the unique opportunity that NASA provides to explore the project manager's role as part of the larger field of management. The findings shed some new light on the linkage between the characteristics of project managers, the actions they take in response to project needs, and the outcomes of their projects as a result of these actions. Also implied in the findings is that the identification, selection, and training programs for project manager candidates can be improved. Further areas of study are suggested as a next step in the incremental chain of research concerning the project manager.

The project manager is a little known variable in the project management equation. Academia and practitioners alike have primarily concentrated their focus on the tools and techniques of project management, the how-to-do, or how-you-should-do project management. Choosing the appropriate project manager for a particular project remains a highly “accidental profession” (Pinto, 1995).

The question of importance is one of the project manager's role in project outcome. The intuitive answer is, of course the project manager is important to project outcome, and is well recognized: “Project management starts with the project manager” (Roman, 1986). However, when probed a bit deeper as to why the project manager is important, the answer no longer appears so intuitive, or easy to answer. There is some consensus in the relevant project management literature that clearly identifies the role of the project manager as critical to project success (Gaddis, 1959; Wilemon & Cicero, 1970; Sayles & Chandler, 1971; Thamhain & Gemmill, 1974; Roman, 1986; Struckenbruck, 1988; Kezbom et al., 1989; Kerzner, 1995; Anderson, 1992; Eisenhardt & Tabrizi; 1995; Center for Project Management, 1996). There remains however, a paucity of empirical evidence about just what is the makeup of this critical project manager (Anderson, 1992, p. 144). What is reported in the literature however, does help to define what is known, and also what is missing. Three areas appear prominent:

1. The personal characteristics of project managers are important [because]

2. These personal characteristics influence a project manager’s actions [and]

3. The project manager’s actions influence project outcome.

One of the first to identify specific characteristics required of project managers was Gaddis (1959, p. 29) who asked, “What kind of a man (sic) must he be?” In answering this question, Gaddis claimed that the project manager lies somewhere between a technologist and a manager; being neither—yet some of both, “He (sic) provides an integrative function to accomplish what neither can do by themselves.” Gaddis also stated that the processes of the project manager’s mind were “indefinable,” but that they must include an ability to deal with the intangible as well as the tangible factors of the project, and, [the project manager] must be intuitive in making judgments and decisions, with a capability for both conceptual analysis, and integration.

Considering the project manager responsible for the integration needed in managing a project infers that his orher effectiveness does not only depend simply on skills and experience, but also involves some personal characteristics necessary to achieving this integration (Archibald, 1976, p. 5). This description of managers as integrators in research and development intensive organizations such as NASA is supported by other authors (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967, p. 86; Dinsmore, 1984, p. 42; Kezbom et al., 1989, p. 11). The sheer complexity of contemporary project management supports a need for the personal characteristics of the project manager as major influencing factors of project outcome (Eisenhardt, 1989a; Kezbom, 1994; Gadegen, 1997).

Research Methodology

The research design is a qualitative multiple case study using 10 contemporary NASA projects as the cases. The 10 project cases are from four different NASA centers, and involve several different technical disciplines cutting across all of NASA’s strategic enterprises. Qualitative research often, as in this case, does not have a formal hypothesis for statistical testing; it is undertaken as a search for theory. The goal of this study was to find the “theory in use” versus the “espoused theory” (Argyris & Schon, 1974), of NASA project management. The critical importance of the project manager to project outcome can be summarized by a succinct description of effective job performance:

“The job demands … reveals primarily what a person in the job is expected to do. The organizational environment … reveals how a person is expected to respond to the job demands. The individual’s competencies … reveals why he or she may act in a certain ways” (Boyatzis, 1982).

The job demands required of a manager of complex NASA projects lead to three compelling research questions that this study attempts to answer.

1. What characteristics describe the manager of a complex NASA project?

2. How does the project manager respond to project needs?

3. Why does the project manager respond in the way he or she did, and why is this response important to the project outcome?

Significant to answering these questions is to identify any link between the characteristics of the project manager that affect his/her actions in response to project needs, which then lead to desired project outcomes. Simply asking the project manager why they respond in a certain way (what characteristics they used) is shown to be insufficient:

“The existence and possession of [these] characteristics may or may not be known to the person. In this sense, the characteristics may be unconscious aspects of the person (i.e. he or she is not aware of them or is unable to articulate or describe them” (Boyatzis, 1982, p. 21)).

The three research questions drove the need for a methodology with a rigorous research design for data collection, and analysis.

Exhibit 1. Meyers Briggs Personality Type Meanings

Meyers Briggs Personality Type Meanings

Research Design

The selected over-arching research design for the study used the general framework for qualitative theory building described by Eisenhardt (1989b). The framework identifies a series of steps to be followed, the activities involved in each step, and the rationale for each activity. The results sought from each of the steps were added to the framework used for this study. The research strategy chosen to answer each research question, and what was to be made known by the answers, follows that proposed by Yin (1994, p. 32).

Research Question 1:What Characteristics Describe the Project Manager of a Complex NASA Project?

The strategy for this what form of question uses surveys to gather data in answer to this question.

Demographic Survey—From an examination of historical personal characteristics, Simonton (1994) found that demographics appear to play a role in people who become high achievers. Similar characteristics may then also exist for project managers of complex NASA projects. A simple self-reporting survey was used to gather data about the participants’ demographics.

Personality Survey—The Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based on a theory of psychological types by Carl Jung who attributed much of the apparent randomness in individual behavior to be actually an orderly and consistent way people perceive and operate in the world around them (Jung, 1971). The MBTI construct developed by Isabel Meyers and Katherine Briggs, operationalized Jung’s theory in a structured, systematic way that identifies four pairs of personal preferences for how people act in their environment (Meyers Briggs & McCaulley, 1985).

1. How they maintain their personal energy (Introversion— Extraversion).

2. How they gather and respond to information (Sensing—iNtuition).

3. What influences their decision-making (Thinking— Feeling).

4. How they structure their lives (Judging—Perceiving).

MBTI theory holds that the functions of each scale-pair of preferences are complimentary, but that one is dominant. The opposing types exist but are not the person’s preferred method of use. 0 1 provides details about the meanings of the four MBTI scale-pair characteristics (Hirsh & Kummerow, 1987).

A shorthand method used in identifying each preference represents the dominant preference name by its first letter, capitalized, with the exception of iNtuition, which uses the capital N, the I having been used for Introversion. With four opposing pairs of preferences, sixteen individual type combinations are possible as shown in Exhibit 2.

Exhibit 2. Meyers Briggs Type Shorthand Designations

Meyers Briggs Type Shorthand Designations

Exhibit 3. Meyers Briggs Type Combinations

Meyers Briggs Type Combinations

Type preferences of the participants were determined using the MBTI Form G survey. A numerical score for each preference indicates the strength of the preference as indicated in Exhibit 3.

Ego-Resilience Survey (Emotional Maturity)—How well people respond to ambiguity and uncertainty in their environment led to the development of a construct called ER89 (Block & Kremen, 1996) and has been validated in research studies over many years. The theory of ego-resilience is a premise of emotional maturity, which is an individual’s adaptability or ability to modulate control over his or her responses in situations of uncertainty or ambiguity.

“… ego-resilience implies the ability to change from and also return to the individual’s characteristic level of ego control after [a] temporary, accommodation-requiring stressing influence is no longer acutely present. Thus, ego resilience is expected to predispose individuals not only to an absence of susceptibility to anxiety, but also to a positive engagement with the world … The ego-brittle individual, in contrast, is expected to frequently experience anxieties precipitated, inevitably, by existential uncertainties and difficulties” (Block & Kremen, 1996, p. 351).

The term emotional maturity, as used here, is defined as that characteristic in an individual that enables him to control his ego needs or who is, in Block’s terminology, ego-resilient. Those who do not possess this ego control are considered ego-brittle. A current popular term for emotional maturity is Emotional Intelligence, originally defined in a seminal paper by Salovy & Meyer (1990, p. 189) as, … the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions, [in essence] a subset of Gardner’s personal intelligences.

Emotional intelligence includes emotional self-regulation, adaptive impulse control, a sense of self-efficacy, and social intelligence. Ego-resilience can be considered a surrogate of emotional intelligence, much like SAT scores are for IQ (Goleman, 1995, p. 315), and emotional intelligence is reported to be a better predictor of success in the world of work (Goleman, 1998, p. 293). Thus emotional intelligence, as popularly used, is aligned with the definition of ego-resilience as the modulation of ego control, used here to indicate a level of emotional maturity, measured through the construct of ego-resilience in a simple instrument (Block & Kremen, 1996).

Research Question 2: How Does the Project Manger Respond to Project Needs?

This how form of question fits the case study strategy of Yin (1994). Each complex NASA project was treated as a separate case and used active interviews (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995) for data collection. These in-depth interviews provided a rich base of qualitative data about each project case and the project manager’s methods of problem solving, conflict resolution, and decision-making during the course of the project. The audiotaped and transcribed interviews provided a permanent written record for comparison with research notes, and for qualitative analysis. Each participant reviewed their verbatim transcript to correct errors and omissions.

Research Question 3:Why Did the Project Manger Act in the Way He or She Did, and Why Was This Response Important to the Project Outcome?

This why form of question also fits the case study strategy (Yin, 1994). The active interview approach again provided data within the case study strategy to supplement data collected for Questions 1 and 2. Why project managers act in a certain way, rather than choosing some other response, is a key issue in understanding the importance of the project manager’s role. It became the responsibility of the researcher therefore, to draw out this information during the interviews and data analysis. The data for research Question 3 was linked to the findings from the other two research questions, and contributes to the theory building and meaning making of the research.

Exhibit 4. Project Cases

Project Cases

Summary of the Methodology

The soundness of the research design lies in its usefulness, neutrality, and credibility established as a methodology in other research programs, and published as research guidelines (Eisenhardt, 1989; Marshall & Rossman, 1995; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Yin, 1995). The use of both qualitative and quantitative data provided a means to triangulate findings from one method with findings from the other, and increase the meaning and understanding of the data (Yin, 1995, p. 91; Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 267). The value of the interview data lay in the accuracy and honesty of the interviewees’ description of their reality, and also of the interviewer in correctly hearing and interpreting that reality. Because the methodology included the use of the researcher as an instrument of data collection and analysis, the potential bias of the researcher was recognized, and conscious efforts were made to reduce or mitigate this bias as much as possible.

The use of multiple, diverse cases also helped reduce bias in the data. The analyses of the findings provided implications for meaning building throughout the study as data was collected, reduced, and displayed within the research framework. The final analysis included consolidating the evidence for testing and confirmation to generate meaning, in a search for alternative explanations, and to form a chain of evidence and causality in support of the findings and possible implications (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 227). Conclusion drawing and verification were integral to proposing interpretations (Marshall & Rossman, 1995, p. 15).

Project Cases

The project cases (see Exhibit 4) were selected from a list of complex contemporary NASA projects that all met three criteria: (1) development of a unique technological objective, (2) a budget of more than $20 million, and (3) a 2–10 year time frame. They represent an array of contemporary projects across the four NASA enterprises involving many diverse technology areas, derive from four different NASA Centers, with project manager educational backgrounds in a variety of technical disciplines.

The objective of the study was to use currently ongoing projects to ensure that the memories of the participants were fresh, and that the final outcome of the projects was uncertain. Three of the projects had been recently completed at the time data collection began, and all of the projects (except one delay due to budget reductions) met their completion dates by the end of the study. An initial pilot study helped structure the format of the interviews and some of the interview techniques. The pilot project case [one of the completed projects] was chosen for the unique technology involved, an experienced project manager, and convenient location to the researcher. Analysis of the pilot project data began immediately and continued as data collection analysis for the other projects was occurring.

Project Manager Participants

Seven of the project managers were involved in development of the technology of their project prior to the start of the project, and the other three began as project manager after their project was fully established. For simplicity and confidentiality, the author refers to all project managers as if they were men when, in fact, two participants were women.

Exhibit 5. Demographic Data

Demographic Data

Exhibit 6. MBTI Numerical Score Groupings

MBTI Numerical Score Groupings


The findings for the first two research questions include data from each of the three surveys in answer to research Question 1, and from the interview data in answer to research Question 2.

Research Question 1:What Characteristics Describe the Project Manager of Complex NASA Projects?

Summary of Demographic Findings

The demographic data provide a baseline of information that characterize the participants as mature, experienced, and well educated in a variety of technical disciplines (see Exhibit 5). The data is ranked by age with a midrange of 49.5 years, mean of 50.2 years, median of 52.5 years and, assuming a normal distribution, a standard deviation of 9.67 years. Except for the two oldest and the one youngest, the participants were within one standard deviation of the mean. Eight of the participants were at the highest civil service grade of GS-15 and two at the next lowest grade, GS-14. These grade levels compare to senior engineer or researcher positions without line management responsibility, and are equal to functional supervisor positions at the Division or Branch manager level in NASA.

As expected from their role as managers of complex NASA technical projects, the majority of the participants’ degrees were in engineering, one was in physics, and one in mathematics. Six of the participants also had advanced degrees. Five had a second Master of Science Degree, and one a Master of Business Administration (MBA) Degree. Of the six with a second technical degree, two of these also had an additional Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, and one was pursuing a Doctorate at the time of the interview. Complementing the demographic data, the personality types further help characterize the participants.

Summary of MBTI Personality Findings

Exhibit 6 indicates the MBTI type preferences of the ten project managers and the individual numerical scores for each MBTI scale-pair. The data show a predominance of Extravert (7), iNtuition (8), and Thinking (9), with nearly equal preference for Judging (6) and Perceiving (4). Eight of the ten participants’ were NT’s with six of these being ENTs. Based on the MBTI preference definitions, these findings appear to fit what would be desirable in a project environment requiring working in close relationship with a project team (Extravert), favoring less structure (iNtuition), and exhibiting a preference for logical and objective analysis (Thinking).

Summary of Ego-Resilience Findings

As shown in Exhibit 7, the average ER89 score was above 3.0 out of a possible 4.0 for nine of the participants. The ER89 scale is an ordinal rather than interval numerical measure, limiting meaningful statistical analysis to the median (3.36) and mode (3.43). The results, however, appear to be interesting, perhaps useful, and possibly important. The fact that all except the highest and lowest ER89 scores are within 10% of the mode and median indicates the sense of centrality to this grouping.

Summary of Findings for Research Question 1

The survey data collected in answer to research Question 1 clearly establish the characteristics describing the individual project manager participants, and indicate patterns for the group as a whole. As a group, they are mature, experienced, well-educated individuals in the highest civil service grades; and exhibit a preference for Extraversion, iNtuition, and Thinking (ENT), especially iNtuitive Thinking (NT). They are tightly clustered in the highest range of ego-resilience (3–4). Beyond this baseline of what the participants’ personal characteristics are, the interview data from research Question 2 developed insight into how the participants responded to project needs.

Research Question 2: How Does the Project Manager Respond to Project Needs?

The interviews followed a semi-structured approach so each covered all of the same general areas of project management. The participants described in chronological detail how they formulated their projects, managed their project teams, addressed project needs, and handled conflict affecting their projects. During the interviews interaction be-tween the researcher and interviewee included the development of meaning making and reality constructing of the project activities. This approach gave the researcher the flexibility to take side excursions to pursue interesting issues that arose during the interview, and to return to items that needed more depth of exploration. This back-and-forth process provided a rich and complete database of information about how the project managers managed their projects.

Exhibit 7. Ego-Resilience (ER-89) Scores

Ego-Resilience (ER-89) Scores

A finding that was of substantial importance to the participants was how early in the project they assumed a role on the project. Seven of the participants began their involvement early in the project life cycle. This early involvement increased their ability to influence project formulation in positive ways related to the technical requirements, cost, and in some cases, the schedule. It also provided them with insight into how they could structure the project to match their personal strengths and weaknesses. Early involvement also had substantial influence on how they managed their projects.

Establishing the Project

How the project was established is important. Although the projects in the study were very complex, project formulation was based on simple principles. The key issues for the project managers in formulating their projects included being involved early, structuring the project in ways comfortable to them, defining and articulating the project goal and success factors, and selecting the project team as shown in Exhibit 8.

Project Structure

The particular requirements and situation faced by each project manager, such as the important technology areas involved, defined the preferred project structure and what the project managers chose to do themselves in the project. The driving factors usually included a fixed launch date or tight cost constraint. They chose to focus on the particular method of project structure that they were comfortable with, such as the work breakdown structure (WBS): “I broke it down to the fourth level.” Some focused on the budget: “I had a 300-element budget.” Other approaches included innovating to mitigate risk: “I organized it by [its] systems in a unique way.” Whatever the choice of project structure used, it was simple and fit the project manager’s personal skill-set and their intuitive sense of the particular situation.

Exhibit 8. Establishing the Project

Establishing the Project

Exhibit 9. Project Size Comparison

Project Size Comparison

Project Goal

Following structuring of the project, the project manager clearly defined and articulated the project goal. Early involvement of the project manager provided an opportunity to understand and in some cases influence, the project goal. They then succinctly articulated that goal to the team and why it was important to them, to NASA, and even to the world. Each of the projects also had simply defined success factors, with the science to be delivered always as the major product to be delivered.

Project Team

The participants were outspoken about the importance of choosing their key team members. Seven of the study project managers were able to choose their full-time team members, partly because they were involved in early stages of the project development, and partly because of their outright demand to do so. Two project managers had to accept a deputy selected for them, and in both of these cases the deputy became a problem for the project manager. Three of the project managers inherited an existing project team.

Project Team Size

Smaller project teams are better. The project managers preferred as small a team of full-time members as possible. The reasons for this included both an issue of visibility of what was going on in the project, and to exercise control. These project teams had no extraneous members or as one project manager stated, “It was a no-slack zone.” The team members were, as would be expected, in the few key roles established by the project structure. As shown in Exhibit 9, the number of key team members ranged from four to 25. There was, however, variability in the complexities and types of technologies involved in the different projects that, in some cases, required more diverse technical specialists than in others. The ratio of project size in dollar value with the size of the project team however, shows that projects over $100 million had dollar/size ratios of more than 10, and those less than $100 million were less than 10.

Exhibit 10. Specific Management Methods

Specific Management Methods

Clear Role Definition

Everyone knew his or her role on the project. Clear role definition ensured that there was no duplication of effort, and the small team size ensured that all work was directed toward the project goal. The project goal and success factors defined what would be worked on, as well as what would not.

Managing the Project—General

Beyond establishing the project in beneficial ways, the interview data identified general rules that the participants used in managing their projects. These methods were the framework for day-to-day operations.


A few general rules used by the project manager were seldom violated. The project plan was followed and the minimum necessary to accomplish the project goal was the rule, but it was clear that it would be done in a thorough and complete manner. It was also made clear that the project manager was not a technical expert on the project. The various specialist team-member experts were held both responsible and accountable for technical issues. The project manager, however, ruled the budget and schedule, and no technical changes were made that impacted these parameters, or that involved adding unacceptable risk to the project, without his consent. The project manager also handled all interactions outside the project except for technical issues that were the responsibility of the technical expert team members. Once the project was established and general operations defined with a few rules, the specific day-to-day methods of how the project would operate were defined.

Managing the Project—Specific

Each project manager participant (see Exhibit 10) defined a clear understanding of how the project would conduct its business on a day-to-day basis. The specific rules for operating the project were simple, and everyone knew them. How the team would communicate, find, and solve problems, make decisions, and deal with conflict was clear and direct. Communications were done in real time; problem finding and solving used the method established for the project; decisions were by consensus when possible, and were appropriate. The project manager made decisions when the team could not reach consensus in a reasonable period of time, and/or risk to the project was involved.


Communications happened in real time and in the simplest manner possible. The underlying principle was to have open, continual communications with the team; “we meet in twos, threes, and fours as small groups.” None of the methods used were highly sophisticated, and structure was kept to a minimum. Periodic meetings predominated however, they were held only when necessary, and not held at all if there was nothing to discuss. Although meetings were the norm, e-mail was the primary method of communication on one project. The project manager collected e-mails from key team members during the week and sent out a very extensive weekly e-mail status report that was later summarized for monthly and quarterly reviews. One participant quickly put information in writing and distributed it to preempt questions from external sources. The project manager usually did periodic briefings about the project alone, or with a minimum number of key team members.

Problem Finding

Problem finding fit the project situation and was an important, and sometimes difficult issue. One of the project managers said, “putting together the right information in the many technical issues we had was a very difficult task.” As a nontechnical expert, the project managers needed, “a deep enough understanding of the engineering so I can tell if they’re doing something dumb,” or to “get technically educated enough to know when something was going wrong.” Among the problem-finding techniques used were peer reviews for major changes, probes to bring out softness in the disciplines, and simple information gathering. As described by one participant, “you ask questions and just keep poking at it until you turn the rock over and find out what’s underneath.” A unique technique for problem finding used by one project manager with an extremely tight schedule was described as a “shotgun” approach. The team members would sit in a circle and each would describe the problem, or an element of the problem, as they saw it. Once everyone understood and agreed on the problem, they would backtrack to identify the most likely causes. Work then began on finding possible solutions.

Problem Solving

Problem-solving approaches varied widely, but were effective for each project situation. Common techniques included asking questions, listening to arguments, putting the right information together, and using parallel or multitasking approaches to identify immediate, action-oriented solutions. The team using the “shotgun” approach to identify problems handled problem solving the same way by implementing multiple solutions simultaneously. They prioritized the solutions to be implemented by what could be tried most quickly; “it was always the most important thing to try something; you’ve got to start implementing solutions.”


Decision-making was also kept simple. The project managers accepted their responsibility for decisions affecting the whole project. Most stated that they preferred consensus in making decisions, but made it clear they had no qualms about making a decision if there was no consensus. As one put it, “This is not a democracy and it’s not a debating society.” Schedule demands drove many of the decisions because of the need to meet a fixed launch date.

Conflict Resolution

The project managers understood their role in dealing with conflict within their project, whether it was comfortable for them or not. They advocated a clear need to get conflict out in the open, deal with it, and move on. They appeared to have no trouble controlling their emotions in dealing with conflict with team members. External influences affecting the project were dealt with directly by the project manager; who shielded the project team: “I think my main job is to protect the team, I take all the grief.” One project manager described his methodology as “providing a membrane around the project team.” Self-confidence in themselves, and understanding of the project were significant factors in the project managers’ approach to handling external influences. Conflict with their own managers appeared to be a challenge they willingly accepted and deal with routinely, or as one said, “I go toe-to-toe with my management all the time.”

Summary of Findings for Research Question 2

The role of the project manager in establishing the project and responding to project needs is not a complex one. It is one that the participants handled by framing the project in simple ways that fit their particular skill-set. Early involvement gave them an opportunity to structure the project in ways that were comfortable for them, and that took advantage of their strengths. Within this structure, they clearly defined the project goal and success factors in simple terms. They also built the project team with as few key members as possible, usually with a deputy who complemented their strengths, and/or supplemented their weaknesses. And finally, they used the structural framework in managing their project. They clearly defined their role and the roles of each of the project team members. They developed a few general and specific rules for project operations, including what was important, and how the team would communicate, find problems and solve them, make decisions, and handle internal conflict.

Research Question 3:Why Does the Project Manager Respond in the Way He or She Does, and Why is This Response Important to the Project Outcome?

Because of the specificity of the problems that occurred in the project cases studied, linkage of the responses to these problems to the findings from research Questions 1 and 2 was somewhat elusive. Many of the findings do, however, provide pertinent information in answer to research Question 3.

Managers of Complex NASA Projects

Are these managers of complex NASA projects unique? As a group, they appear fairly similar demographically, and are also close in their personality characteristics and their level of emotional maturity. They are, however, highly individualistic, and they use that individualism to leverage their strengths, and to compensate for their weaknesses. They also exhibit numerous similarities in how they approach projects through use of a structured framework for establishing and managing their project as identified in the findings to research Question 2.

Why They Respond the Way They Do

The search for answers to research Question 3 help to tell the story about why NASA project managers do what they do, so well. NASA project management is challenging and complicated—just what these project managers want, and are well suited for. NASA project management is about developing things that do not currently exist, at least at the level of complexity involved in the projects studied. The worth of a NASA project lies in capturing new science, developing new capability, or advancing technology. These worthwhile endeavors create inherent value for the project manager as he manages a NASA project.

A complex NASA project demands a project manager who is not relied on for his technical expertise as much as for his maturity and experience. The NASA project manager brings a passion to the project to excite and keep the project team motivated and on-track toward the project goals as measured by success factors. They gain personal satisfaction by quietly accepting their own often-unrecognized contributions, and by celebrating the successes as a team. It takes someone who can provide both the substance of leadership, and the ability to manage complexity in the face of uncertainty and change, to accomplish the goals of a complex NASA project. It requires a person who is emotionally mature to counter the multiple influences affecting the project, including those of his own management.

Why Were Their Actions Important to Project Outcomes?

Why the participants chose the actions they did in the projects studied is based on a mixture of complex factors, including the situation they faced with their project at the time a problem arose, and what may best be described as a “toughness” in their character. This toughness is what various authors, and the participants themselves, say a project manager needs to have. It is a characteristic containing initiative, decisiveness, and the forcefulness to choose an action and make it happen. And the actions they chose were not just important, but were often critical, to the project outcomes. The problems they faced were not trivial. Their toughness is evident in their willingness to stand up to their managers, who wanted to “meddle” in the project. They did not allow those situations to materialize. They did what they felt was necessary to ensure completion of the project, sometimes at personal risk to their careers.

Summary of Findings for Research Question 3

The findings for research Question 3 explain in general ways why project managers do what they do and why this is important to project outcome. The complexity of their projects, coupled with the complexity of the project manager, does not provide for a simple answer to research Question 3. They do what they do because of who they are, and without the outcomes they obtained, many of the projects in the study would not have met one or more of their constraints. Analysis of specific problems encountered by the participants in their projects showed, in individual ways, why the characteristics of the participants were important in making particular decisions. However, substantial evidence exists that indicates that the sum of the characteristics they exhibit strongly influences the actions they take in responding to project needs. Therefore, a complete answer to research Question 3 remains obscure until additional approaches are devised to explore this area. The broader implications of the totality of the research findings, however, define the characteristics of the NASA manager of complex projects, and how these managers use these characteristics in managing their projects.

Summary of Findings

Research Questions 1 and 2 provided answers about who the project managers of complex NASA projects are, and how they manage. These findings describe a pattern of characteristics that show each of the participants as a unique individual, although as a group they display many similarities. These similarities fit their environment in ways that make them well suited to what they do. Project managers use their characteristics when they structure their projects within a simple framework that helps them to manage using few rules. In examining this framework, the challenge was to find links between their characteristics and how they manage. These links would help explain why they take the actions they do in responding to project needs, and provide supporting evidence for why their responses were important to the project outcomes. The findings for research Question 3 address these links about why the project manager’s characteristics are important in taking actions, and why these actions are important to project outcomes. These findings include specific instances of linkage to the participants’ characteristics in addressing project needs.

Exhibit 11. NASA Project Manager Profile

NASA Project Manager Profile

As a majority, the participants were Extraverts who prefer to be with people; as iNtuitives, they prefer working in unstructured environments; as Thinking types, they prefer to use objectivity and logic in solving problems such as those encountered in their projects. Having a very strong ego-resilience, they easily handle the ambiguity and uncertainty involved in complex NASA projects. They use their characteristics in systematically structuring, managing, and solving problems for their projects. They also use them in protecting the project team by providing a tough boundary against outside influences, and willingly confronting these influences themselves.

The findings identify a natural grouping of characteristics among this set of project managers that corresponds to how they take actions in establishing and managing their projects. What the participants believe are important characteristics for NASA project managers closely represent those of the managers of the project managers. Outliers among the findings show that gender does not appear to be a factor in project manager characteristics, and Introverts can be as excellent project managers as Extraverts, but it may be more difficult for the ISTJ types who appeared to combine with lower ego resilience.

Limitations of the Research

Complex projects in other industries have similar characteristics to those found in NASA projects (Kerzner, 1995). However, the situational factors identified in the NASA projects in this study may have an overriding influence on how project managers manage them. Most notably, the rigid constraint of the project schedule to meet a fixed launch date may not be as significant in industry and allow more flexibility for the project manager to balance the project. Examples might be an important bridge, military requirement, tunnel, airport, or others (Archibald, 1976; Kerzner, 1995; Morris & Hough, 1974), which will, in the end, be built anyway. Finally, the technical constraints in many areas of project management are different from those in NASA where the whole world watches to see the success of another new adventure in science or technology application—or watches the spectacular failure to do so.

Considerations for Theory

Several constants in the research findings appear to apply to a multitude of project management situations. One is the significant advantage to be gained by early involvement of the project manager. This early involvement allows the project manager to influence and establish the project in ways that take advantage of their strengths in establishing the project goal, in identifying success factors, and in structuring the project. Other important factors of early involvement include the opportunity to select key members of the project team, especially a deputy to offset self-known weaknesses, and establishment of a few, simple rules for project operation.

A second and more important consideration is the makeup of the project manager him or herself. The findings of this research support the position that certain personality characteristics add to the strength of a project manager, especially the personality preferences of Extraversion, iNtuition, and Thinking. These are characteristics based on preferences of wanting to work with others (Extraversion), being able to work with patterns in data rather than having complete information (iNtuition), and basing decisions on logic and objective analysis (Thinking).

The major strength identified in the participants, however, appears to be in having high levels of emotional maturity or ego-resilience, expressed by self-understanding, self-confidence, self-control, flexibility, and adaptability. The tight centrality of the ego-resilience scores in the 3.0 to 4.0 range for all except one participant, plus the behavior exhibited in taking action in response to project needs indicates the importance of ego-resilience. This need for strong ego-resilience in project managers is aptly stated by Peters (1992, p. 212): “Project managers must have phenomenal ego involvement. They are faced with a most daunting and complex task. To succeed, they must be consumed by it; the best ‘become’ their projects … But project managers must [also] have no ego at all. They deal with numerous outsiders and insiders, whom they can hardly ‘command.’”

Exhibit 12. Project Management Model

Project Management Model

This point of view is supported by Simonton (1994), who drew his conclusions from research into the ego strength of great leaders and great talents in many fields throughout history: “It is imperative that a strong ego unify the personality into a tenacious whole.” Project leaders have ample opportunity to use the ego strength they bring to a particular project.

Implications for Practice

The research findings led to two outcomes to consider as implications for practice. One is the profile of a project manager of complex projects that may fit well, whether in NASA or other arena, with similar projects (see Exhibit 11).An important caveat is that all components of this profile may be necessary but not sufficient. More components than in this study are involved in managing complex projects, and may be equally as important.

A second outcome of the research is a framework for how the managers of complex NASA projects construct their environment and manage their projects. Using this framework they simplify their unstructured project environment and establish a bounded environment that they can comfortably operate within. A visual depiction of the framework in Exhibit11 shows a model with a tough, flexible, but porous periphery as a boundary with the project manager as the protective shield for the project team. This shield resists outside influences that must first directly confront the project manager, and forces all external influences and nontechnical communications to come through the project manager. The porosity in this boundary, however, allows technical information to flow freely across it to and from the project technical experts. Additional porous inner boundaries enclose the project structure, rules, and processes for how the project operates. Communications about project activity flow freely across these inner boundaries but are limited to a single path through the outer boundary controlled by the project manager. The day-to-day processes for communications, problem finding and solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution reside nested within the innermost boundary.

Any model must be general enough to fit a large number of situations, yet be specific enough to be useful in a given situation. The model in Exhibit 12 appears to fit the findings of this study and may have potential for use in other project management arenas. Application of this model in other project management situations will help to identify its limitations and hopefully improve on it.

Implications for Future Research

The research results reported here represent only a small step in the incremental process of developing a more complete understanding of the project manager, if indeed it is possible to do so. Follow-on studies should consider additional areas involving complex projects to corroborate, or disprove these findings. A secondary but longer-term effort would be to review the characteristics of, and methods used by, project managers on complex projects that met all or most of their technical, cost, and schedule constraints.


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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000



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