Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu



Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: a person is a person through (other) persons.

Ubuntu is a concept that has become very popular in the past few years. It has been mentioned in speeches made by prominent statesmen and politicians, including Bill Clinton, and most of us have probably heard it as the name of the popular open source operating system for computers. It has entered the management world too. Sergio Marchionne, Chief Executive Officer of both Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat S.p.A. uses it repeatedly when addressing his fellow employees (Gregoretti, M., 2006), and there are a number of websites and consultants mentioning the Ubuntu way as a source of inspiration and improvement.

In this paper I will try to highlight some aspects of Ubuntu that may bring a fresh outlook on issues faced everyday in our profession, having researched it with the eyes of a Project Manager.

Ubuntu is a philosophy, a social system, a set of values, rules and behaviours that allowed people and tribes in the southern parts of Africa to survive through famine, harsh conditions and hostile governments for centuries. It is not a religion, neither a set of codified norms. It is more a collection of cultural and ethical heritage, habits, behaviours and beliefs. In project management speech we would probably call it “best practices”. Best practices that allowed them to manage what probably is the most difficult project of all: survival.

.Thanks to the culture of Ubuntu, South Africa managed the very difficult transition from the Apartheid regime into a Democracy without falling victim of a civil war, healing its deep and painful social wounds in a way rarely achieved in history by other countries.

If Ubuntu helped people survive in difficult environments and countries transition and improve, there may be some concepts useful for the survival and success of projects, a very simple and “small” matter when compared with the aforementioned tasks.


Nelson Mandela, in an interview with Tim Modise (Modise, 2006) about the meaning of Ubuntu, stated: “A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

The Ubuntu culture is based on a set of values and keywords that we will expand on during this paper:

Respect and Recognition

Helpfulness and Sharing


Trust and Community



Compassion and Reconciliation

Collective Intelligence

The list above is made of strong, deep words that extend their meaning way above management science. In this paper we will analyse how the Ubuntu way of putting them in practice can help us, as Project Managers, improve. In doing so, I will be treating Ubuntu in a superficial and somewhat dry manner. During the course of this research, however, I have come to appreciate its depth and nobility and I can only encourage the reader to find out more about Ubuntu and its effects on individuals and society in order to give the subject its full justice.

Sawu Bona and Sickhona

Sawu Bona and Sickona are the two words used when people greet one another. Sawu Bona means “We see you”. Sickona means “I am here”.

When saying Sawu Bona, the person is acknowledging the other person. The use of the “we” is because through that person, the community he represents and his “ancestors” are also acknowledging the person. It is not just “hello”, without further thoughts. It is recognition.

The counterpart says “I am here”, in the sense that “I can be validated”. “I am available to contribute”. I am also here with my needs, with my community and my history (ancestors).

Their way of greeting is far deeper and bonding than “Hello” in the Western world. This is because for them people need one another to survive, and need to recognize and be recognized by others. Imagine during a project: how many times do stakeholders really acknowledge and respect each other? How many times there is this sense of recognition and respect of the person, and of awareness of his/her “ancestors” (professional past life, experiences and best practices learnt). In the rush of the project times, very often we place little importance on the context a certain person comes from, only to be seen as a resource and at best a project role.

This is particularly true in the Customer and Sponsor project roles, where senior executives pay sometimes little attention to Users or sometimes to the Project Team as a community, causing a high rate of project failures according to recent studies and articles on the subject. (Standish Group, 2008; ITCortex, no date; Hamil, 2002)

The first lesson learnt from Ubuntu would be that of acknowledgment. If our project team is like a tribe then any newcomer should be acknowledged, sharing with rest of our Project Team his own value and that of his ancestors (experience he has and community he comes from).

No Need to Travel with Luggage

When people travel from village to village, in the Ubuntu culture the person does not need to carry provisions or food. Each village has a duty to feed and entertain people who pass by. This allows the traveller to walk without unnecessary weight, covering longer distances even under harsh conditions, and reaching further.

This reciprocity among all villages makes travelling and exchange of news possible over the vast distances of the African Continent. Hospitality makes progress possible, and hospitality is never denied.

This is possible because all in the Ubuntu culture share the same “project goal” which is survival and progress of the people as a whole. In our organisations, where projects take place, we have many “villages” made of project teams, departments and so on. If every department and team was to provide true hospitality and entertainment in the form of sharing information, providing means to work easily, access to people and information without diffidence and resistance one can imagine what difference it would make to the progress of our Project.

This is only realistic when the project’s goal is in line with everyone else’s goals. It calls for good communication to all involved over the “usefuleness” so they can share it and support it. It also calls for “villages” to understand that they also will only be able to make their own travels longer and more fruitful if others will use them the same hospitality and entertainment. In this case the use of shared work methodologies and light standards are very useful, so that the person can adapt quickly and add value to each “village” he visits.

In the Ubuntu culture no one is alone, no one is just an individual. Wherever he will go, provided he is “acknowledged”, he will be assisted and catered to along the way.

No Child Will be an Orphan

In the Ubuntu culture, any child is not just catered to by his parents. The child belongs to the tribe, to the community. Mortality rates were and are high in that part of Africa, and for a child to loose his parents and be an orphan is, unfortunately, quite normal. The rest of the community always takes care of them, giving them shelter, food, studies. This is key for survival of the community, and explains very well the concept that a person is a person through other persons. Without the other persons an individual will struggle to stay alive in such environment, without his ancestors being respected before him, he would not be acknowledged and assisted.

In the project world we can imagine how much of difference such situation can make: if no one was left alone struggling with a problem, if the individual was sure that his village would take care of him no matter what we can all imagine the positive impact it would make on motivation, communication and reduction in anxiety and stress. In highly individualistic societies common in the Western World, the “no-orphan” culture will make a huge difference in team and Project performance.

Our Ancestors

When a person introduces himself formally to an event or a village, he recites his genealogy normally starting from his great great grandfather. A person therefore is not just what he made of himself, which community comes from, but also he represents his ancestor’s lineage. This is very important in people’s conduct. People are encouraged to carry out good deeds and not to commit crimes, as this will have an impact over their own descendants.

From a project management perspective, it emphasises several aspects of value most notably two: the person ancestors and the project ancestors.

The person’s ancestors are mostly made out of their own work experience, of the lessons they learnt in their professional and personal life. Too often when we talk to stakeholders, or we utilise people in our project team without knowing, let alone building on, people’s experience and skills. Spending some time acknowledging each person involved in our projects would help us leverage their unique skill and experience profile for the benefit of the project. At the same time, each project team (village) should have a duty to be a good “ancestor” to each person it has been in contact with, providing them with their own success story so that they will be acknowledged by better and better “villages” as their career progresses.

Each project, on the other hand, has “ancestors”. They are the collection of best practices, mistakes and accomplishments carried out by previous projects, not only within the organisation itself, but more and more often by the professional community at large. The development of open source software is a good example of this, where projects build on what other “villages” have produced. Medical science is another example, where the findings of research, new surgery techniques, etc are shared and made public among all doctors via congresses and conferences.

Project Management associations worldwide are after the same divulgative mission, although real experiences and best practices are often not made public due to corporate policies and lack of awareness of Project Managers of the need to divulgate the useful lessons they learnt.

Reconciliation vs. punishment

Various authors have contributed to a rather informative section on Wikipedia about the Ubuntu culture, (Ubuntu, 2010).

Quoting paragraph on Justice: “The concept of “unhu” ..(A.N.: unhu is Ubuntu in the Shona dialect).. also constitutes the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, crimes committed by one individual on another extend far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications to the people among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes from. Unhu jurisprudence tend to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim’s family and the accused’s family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of “tertiary perpetrator” to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society where the individual perpetrator hails from. However, the punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating “unhu” or “ubuntu”.”(Ubuntu, 2010, Zimbabwe, ¶7)

Such an approach is very different from the two common ways to deal with “guilty” parties in the Western World. The first approach is the “Nuremberg” approach where there is a panel of judges, and a trial to judge and punish the guilty party. Normally the victims find justice in the punishment inflicted on the guilty party, however no real reparation normally takes place, and the responsibility ends with the guilty party.

On the other end of the spectrum there is the “no blame” approach, whereby the attention is drawn on the problem itself and the system causes that have generated it, rather than blaming an individual for a situation. This approach encourages problems to come out in the open, but little it does to repair the damage done, nor to compensate the “victims” for the wrong inflicted to them.

The Ubuntu way to approach and resolve conflict is very different. It is based on the admission of guilt, but because an individual is always part of a bigger community, this guilt has to be shared, and the community has to help the guilty party repair the damage it has done. It is however also based on reconciliation, i.e. actively involving the victim in accepting a form of repair to the wrong it has suffered. Such an approach is exemplified in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was formed after the Apartheid regime in South Africa ended and the first democratic government was elected. More information can be found on Wikipedia (Truth_and_Reconciliation_Commission_(South_Africa), 2010). The TRC collected evidence of thousands of crimes and human right abuses committed during the Apartheid regime by both National Party and ANC, and allowed victims (often the families of the missing) and abusers to meet. The idea behind the TRC was that if an abuser confessed all of his acts, and if the acts were of “political” nature and not disproportionate, they would be given amnesty. The victims would be offered state support and the perpetrators also offered their own support.

Such a public act of recognising, hearing and closing in a reconciliatory manned the atrocities committed acted as a giant “psychological group session”, and it is believed by many to have avoided Civil War in South Africa. The same approach has since then been adopted in many other countries transitioning out of dictatorial regimes such as Chile.

We can think on how conflicts are often solved in projects. Very rarely there is a “reconciliatory” approach, and very rarely people are encouraged to speak openly about faults with the possibility of being given “amnesty” provided they hear from their “victims” the damage they have caused and contribute to make amendments. And yet such approach would probably solve problems in a much quicker way, leaving less hard feelings between the parties involved at the end of the process.


Quoting again from Wikipedia (Ubuntu_(philosophy), Zimbabwe, 2010, ¶7): “A leader who has “unhu” is selfless and consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects and lives among his subjects and shares what he owns. A leader who has “unhu” does not lead but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with “unhu”.

Management styles vary tremendously from individual to individual and from organisation to organisation. Many dozens of books have been produced on the subject and the aim of this paper is not to dissertate on which one is wrong and which one is right. However we should note that Ubuntu allowed people to come together and survive in very difficult conditions. The more conditions are difficult, the more the “team” needs to pull together and survive.

Leading by example, selflessness, consultation and humbleness seem to be characteristics found in the Ubuntu culture that are often the foundations of leadership skills development courses available all over the world.

Collective intelligence

Quoting again from Wikipedia (Collective_intelligence, 2010 ¶1): “Collective intelligence is a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals. Collective intelligence appears in a wide variety of forms of consensus decision making in bacteria, animals, humans, and computer networks. The study of collective intelligence may properly be considered a subfield of sociology, of business, of computer science, of mass communications and of mass behaviour—a field that studies collective behaviour from the level of quarks to the level of bacterial, plant, animal, and human societies.”

The Ubuntu culture represents a wonderful example of collective intelligence, resulting in a set of values, behaviours and best practices to allow a society to survive, evolve and flourish. The deep bond between the individual, his community and his history has emerged as a key factor for social stability and to achieve personal and collective goals.


The Ubuntu culture could inspire many behaviours, both an individual and organizational level to improve not only Project performance but work performance overall.

Starting from building on the sense of sharing a common goal, a number values have emerged that could make the difference in Project Management:

  1. Acknowledging people and letting them into “our village”, leveraging their experiences, background and network (ancestors)
  2. Providing and using “hospitality” to and from other “villages” i.e. being able to work (travel) light (i.e. agile, small work packages, sharing information and standard work practices across the organisation), knowing that on our journey we will be hosted and assisted by fellow “communities”, i.e. organisations need to create a sense of belonging and sharing of common objectives, so that executing a project in one “village” is not seen as detrimental to other “villages” but on the contrary as moving towards a “common good” (the corporate strategy).
  3. Only choosing necessary projects, and communicating how they contribute to the common good. Only in this way other “villages” will provide their support “hospitality” without feeling deprived.
  4. Managing conflicts with a focus on reconciliation, no matter how difficult is the object of reconciliation. Both the “victims” and the “perpetrators” need to be actively involved in this process of healing, in order to be able to address the problem in a collaborative-no hard feeling mode.
  5. The leadership style is one leading by example, made of leveraging collective experience and acting together.
  6. A person is a person through others, i.e. each one should be made to feel part of the team, protected and safeguarded by it. On the other hand each individual should be devoted to his team or project in return.
  7. Rewards and problems should be shared (if the team wins, everyone in the team wins and if there’s an issue, then it’s everyone’s issue) in order to place people in a condition to stop thinking about their personal gain, as the team will provide them a bigger gain, both in terms of immediate reward and feeding their “ancestors” line.


Collective Intellegence (2010) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia retrieved on Jan 10, 2010 from

Computer Associates (2007, September 26) New research into it project failures [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Globalonness Project, Mr. Orland Bishop video on Sawu Bona

Gregoretti M. (2006), L’uomo dal maglione nero, Classeditori (Gregoretti, M. 2006, The man from the black sweater: unauthorized biography of bravest manager of the world)

Hamil, D. L. (2002) Article “Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It: Project Management Excellence”,

IT Cortex (no date) The KPMG Canada Survey, 1997) KPMG Information Technology Retrieved from

Modise T. (2006), Video: Experience Ubuntu: Interview with Nelson Mandela retrieved on Jan 10, 2010

O. Bishop, (Date Unknown) Video: Sawubona, retrieved on Jan 10, 2010 from

Standish Group 2008, Chaos Report, The Standish Group

Truth_and_Reconciliation_Commission_(South_Africa), (2010) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia retrieved on Jan 10, 2010 from

Ubuntu(Philosophy) (21 March, 2010) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia retrieved on Jan 10, 2010 from

© 2010, Matteo M. Coscia
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy