Lessons learned from Dante's Comedy

should a project managers' inferno exist, how could it be? What penalties would be inflicted in it? What virtues should a PM cultivate in order to avoid "hell?"

Carlo Beraha
General Manager, Eta Beta

Introduction

« First career choice »: a brilliant career, this is what Fortune, the famous magazine, was promising to design the future of Project Managers, as early as 1996. Since then, thanks to contributions from scholars and researchers, and to the precious action of promoting “ best practices” carried on by international organisations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI®), Project Management has become a well-known discipline and the number of people involved increases every day. Following this development, an ever growing number of companies devoted important shares of financial resources and investments to turn into “Project Oriented Organisations” and thus promote the role and the professional growth of Project Managers.

But if we compare the performances of the past (less than 25% of projects appear to be completed on time and within budget) with the most recent results, we have to admit that the effort didn't pay proportionally. We therefore have two questions to ask: first, why is this? And second, what is the roadmap to guarantee that the promise of the magazine Fortune can at last be fulfilled? What follows is an attempt to find an answer to these questions and my comments and proposals originate from an ideal collaboration between two different professional careers:

  • that of a Senior Consultant, who has been working for many years in the field of Project Advisory Services, carrying on his activity in public and private companies and who, in the past years, managed the Project Management Office in an international company;
  • that of a General Manager, for whom projects are a substantial bet on the future, and who, thanks to many different experiences in more than 30 years of activity, learned how to cultivate the virtues of an ideal Project Manager. We decided to call this ideal Project Manager “Socratic”

We have a third contributor, so much more illustrious than the previous two, and that is the poet Dante Alighieri. His masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, prompted us to speak about “sins” and “virtues” in a Project Manager, and offered beautiful verses to use as lessons, in order to understand and embody as best we could this difficult profession.

Project Managers' Inferno: how could it be?

I had the opportunity of listening to a great scholar of Dante's masterpiece giving a reading and commenting on a few cantoes of the Inferno. This reading gave me the cue of examining an aspect of my profession and a peculiar question came to my mind: should a Project Manager's Inferno exist, how could it be? And what would be the punishments inflicted to the sinners, according to the law of counter-penalty (the law stating that punishments are determined in close relationship to the sins).

Well then, we can make an analogy with the eighth circle of the Inferno, called Malebolge (“evil pouches”), in which Dante situates ten evil pouches for all those who swindled their fellow-men, (seducers, flatterers, and so on). A Project Managers' Inferno could be divided in the same way: we can picture nine pouches referring to the knowledge areas of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK® 2004) and a tenth one linked to “professional responsibility” (Exhibit 1).

Dante's Inferno and PM's Inferno

Exhibit 1 – Dante's Inferno and PM's Inferno

Now, soundly inspired by self-irony and without any sadism, we can try to imagine what punishments would be inflicted to Project Managers, according to the above mentioned law of counter-penalty. This means taking into consideration the project elements that are unforgivable for neglecting and turning them into a corresponding punishment.

For example, those who neglected all integration aspects, in this peculiar Inferno would be condemned to live in strange bodies, with displaced members, and would be prevented from accomplishing the most elementary functions, such as eating and walking. Vague Project Managers, who never cared about defining the scope of their projects, would be condemned to gather food with fishing nets, but they would never be able to catch a prey because of enlarged meshes. Squanderers would be condemned to a penalty in proportion to their carelessness in planning and controlling costs: facing an automatic drinks distributor, they would not be able to quench their thirst because of a cursed missing coin.

Fiercer punishments would be inflicted to Project Managers who failed to accomplish some other essential task, such as communication management or human resources management: the former would be compelled to live under a bell-glass and be thus quite isolated from animated and lively surroundings; the latter, threatened by a fierce fire, would be unable to organize a human chain to carry the buckets of water needed to extinguish it.

This paradox is ironically intended to underline Project Managers' peculiar sins. Now, we have to go on and consider the virtues a Project Manager needs in order to avoid the transformation of a project into an infernal circle, made of never-ending strain, short-fallen expectations, and burning defeats, situations in which the Project Manager himself always pays the highest price (it's hard to imagine an Inferno for sponsors or even stakeholders who did not fulfil their duty!)

I leave to everyone's imagination the pleasure of figuring out what destiny could other guilty Project Managers meet (for example, those who neglected key elements such as quality, risk, time, and so on...) and I shall now delineate the virtues that bring salvation and the path to be followed to reinforce and consolidate them.

Project Managers' Inferno: how to avoid it?

In the last few years, an increasing number of influential publications and speeches held during congresses dealt with a Project Manager's role and profile. We could therefore easily think that the research already completed is adequate and try a well-constructed synthesis of all the identity summaries, both in the case they were focused on a Project Manager's hard skills, or if the main topic was the definition of personal and soft skills.

The risk we now face is that of filling a list of the professional skills a Project Manager should embody, and in doing so miss the core of the problem, which is to try to highlight the key-skills needed to reach the goal of a project. Essentially, many empirical studies attempted to determine the link between the project management maturity level in a company and the project performances the company produces (Ibbs 2002). We feel it is now necessary to try and connect the performance to the peculiarities and the profile of the involved Project Managers.

I've been wondering about these features many times in the past years, as I was carrying on my manifold activities, such as organisational advice, advanced training, tutoring on the field, and, last but not least, responsible for the Project Manager Office of Getronics Italy, all the time being in contact with a group of more than two hundred Project Managers.

Recalling, once again, some part of Dante's masterpiece, (“Paradise”), in which those who had cultivated in life theological virtues (for example, hope) and cardinal virtues (for example, fortitude), receive their final prize, my professional experience prompted me to classify two kinds of virtues: individual virtues and corporate virtues pertaining to the company in which the Project Manager operates. The relationship between individual virtues and corporate virtues is obviously very close: each one of the categories is essential, but cannot in any way suffice without the other one.

Individual virtues

Bearing in mind that the following are personal evaluations and have not been statistically confirmed, my experience and years-long collaboration with many Project Managers prompted me to classify a group of virtues traceable in each one of the “best in class”, those who gave the best performances. Surely, some of the best known individual virtues (such as leadership and self-control, for example) can be traced back in the virtues I mention hereunder. I was led to believe that a virtuous Project Manager should be:

  • Sincere: the virtue of transparency and intellectual honesty is the most difficult one to keep in front of stakeholders, especially if the issue at stake is problematic and the Project Manager's duty is to draw attention to the problem, while at the same time pointing out the solution. You don't need Murphy's law to understand that being reticent about the trend of a project, not only never pays, but tarnishes a Project Manager's image and his credibility.
  • Optimist: again, the issue is not about inverting the assumption on which Murphy's law is based, but it is about understanding that optimism coming from willpower (not the optimism of those who look at life through rose-tinted glasses) is the ability of motivating one's team, of overcoming the doubts and the hesitations of the stakeholders and of transforming the risks (which one would usually try to avoid) in opportunities to catch (a fundamental thing in a project).
  • Curious: we may all agree on the fact that technical abilities related to a project are not a binding prerequisite in the choice of a Project Manager; nevertheless, the Project Manager must be moved by a personal curiosity towards new knowledge, without any purpose of challenging experts on their own field, but in order to understand their “language” and to find with their collaboration the solutions needed to overcome the difficulties of the journey of the project he is working on.
  • Responsible in his own mind for any difficulty of the team: another ability that a Project Manager should be able to put into practice, is the virtue of considering every single problem, whatever its cause, as one's own problem, for the sake of the project itself. This is, as a matter of fact, the strongest antidote against that infectious, and sometimes incurable, disease, that could have easy-to-imagine effects on the team: anxiety.
  • Able to read events embracing many points of view: the ability of analysing a scenario from different points of view is a basic talent for a Project Manager who needs to face situations heavy with uncertainty, in which it is necessary to seize the feeblest negative signals (where the dangerous potential is bigger). To this talent we must add that of always taking an overall view. Without these qualities it becomes impossible to manage a complex project, or even less a program associating several initiatives bound towards the same goal.
  • Tactful in treating personal data and reserved info: as we already know, one of the relevant duties of a Project Manager is to dedicate an important part of his work to communication processes (not less than 70%). This implies another big responsibility: that of using all private data he comes into possession of, with the utmost care, not only out of respect for everyone's privacy, but especially to avoid a distorted use, for example in the case these data become tools to influence the decisions and the behaviour of all actors involved in the project.
  • Internationally open-minded: in the last ten years of increasing globalization, occidental society became more and more multiethnic, and this caused most projects, even those not involving international actors, to be the opportunity of meeting people of different origin and all bearing different cultures. In this context of development, the availability of a Project Manager towards multicultural dialogue with no prejudice or suspicion is an important and decisive quality for the team unity.
  • Capable of transferring his own knowledge to the team: the ability a Project Manager has of exercising this virtue, which is typical of a Knowledge Leader, is expressed first of all through his generosity towards his interlocutors. The more a Project Manager shares his knowledge with the team and doesn't use it as a way to gain a positional advantage, the more he is well considered in his role and is regarded as an example.

In our aim of saving Project Managers from a more or less imaginary Inferno, the table hereunder (Exhibit 2) suggests the positive influence of each virtue against the sin committed by the Project Managers who neglect one or more of the knowledge areas of the PM Bok.

How Individual Virtues can affect Knowledge Areas

Exhibit 2 – How Individual Virtues can affect Knowledge Areas

The question that may now arise is whether we can highlight a dominating virtue, one that may constitute a kind of “summa” of all the virtues we listed above: there's only one answer, I think, and it is hidden in the first letters of those virtues. I truly think that a SOCRATIC Project Manager, someone who has no pre-established beliefs but who builds his own certitudes through the dialogue and the discussion with other people, is the best example of a virtuous Project Manager. Such person cannot be wanting in sincerity, optimism, earnestness towards learning, sense of responsibility, capacity of analysis, reserve, openness to dialogue, and generosity, as already discussed.

Corporate virtues

Referring to the above listed virtues, the more a Project Manager operates in a immature context, considering both the organisation and the culture of his company, the less the excellence of his qualities will guarantee to a project a positive outcome.

Many companies are well aware of this, and they are striving to evolve as Project Oriented Organisations (Gareis, 2000), for example, by standardising project life cycle and related processes, by strengthening the training proceedings, by creating special structures for a permanent support to projects, and reporting to executives. At the same time, those companies are investing in the integration and development of the planning and control environment.

Is all this enough to be a “virtuous” company within the Project Management context? I'm convinced, out of my experience as project advisor in several companies, that it is definitely necessary to break with the past. The following examples are inspired by innovative choices the effectiveness of which I witnessed; they are related to the procedure of selecting, training, and supporting the Project Managers:

  • Selection: needing several Project Managers in order to enforce the projects of a new industrial plan, some companies decided to recruit internal resources. The selection was made on the basis of a wide vision of the company problems and of a positive relationship with other people the Project Managers-to-be showed in the role they previously held, without taking into consideration mainly their technical skills.
  • Training: in order to plan the training of more than a hundred Project Managers, a choice was made to use workshops, focused on communication and negotiation (for example, Open Space Technology), and to add meetings with experts in which all the candidates could examine the aspects of their profession concerning managing and behaviour.
  • Incentive: in deciding to adopt an incentive mechanism (MBO) proper to Project Managers and project teams, the company determined the birth of a model based on a few key elements, such as: the objectivity of evaluation criteria (earned value based), and the exclusion of all factors out of the range of a Project Manager's control. In the evaluation, medium term results were taken into consideration, not only the final ones.
  • Continuous support: to the basic duties of a Project Management Office, such as support to planning activities, control and reporting, important additions were made. A Community of Project Managers was created, they were offered press reviews concerning topics of common interest, a periodical questioning to meet demands, workshops for experimenting new approaches (see training), meetings with company's Top Management and with Project Managers of other companies were enforced, and more.

Lesson Learned by a “socratic” PM

Compared with that, of all of you dedicated and exclusive Project Managers, my experience may seem very peculiar: my business career concentrated on sales and export of Italian products to foreign markets, as a free-lance and entrepreneur, looking for new challenges all the time. The unifying factor of the whole experience can be focused on a “project-minded” strategy, as I always followed a few self-directions strictly related to the main factors of a Project Manager's knowledge, that I can detail as:

  • organisation: a preliminary scan of all actors and stakeholders at play, both on the originating market and on the final one;
  • planning: all stages carefully designed and studied beforehand, taking into consideration all aspects at stake;
  • teamwork: the start and the progress of the project are carried on keeping in mind all the stakeholders and never leaving anyone behind. Every step is discussed by the team.

On my side, I had a family tradition of internationality, the knowledge of several languages, and a great push because I was aware of the success of all ”made in Italy” articles on the international market.

1975: My first challenging project was the opening on the French market of new channels for furniture accessories manufactured by very small artisans all over Italy. The challenge was the disproportion between producers and retail market (in the hand of big distribution for more that 50%) but it had winning potential because coordination could make up for the size of the production plants, the products were innovative in the design and refined in the manufacture. Applying painstakingly the virtues of being sincere (never hiding the fact that there was no industry behind my proposals), optimist (the Italian miracle would again be winning, if a careful planning was devised) and curious (to gather information about all stages I visited the stores with the managers, discussed with the sales people and went around the plants to examine all the producing processes).

Communication was essential to evaluate the needs of the production time, the refilling of the stocks, the logistics and sales promotion.

1985: The dollar rate was very high, so I decide to discover America and the USA market! I first needed to analyse the functioning of the US furniture market and this decision drove me to the Dallas Furniture Show. I was well aware that extension was the future of the Italian export market, together with the attempt of all stakeholders of being internationally open-minded. In Dallas I met an important company and they appointed me European buyer: I had to find for them the Italian “winning product”.

In this challenging project I name mainly two winning virtues: the first one, which drove everyone to bet on Italian marble furniture, was transferring my knowledge of this particular and unusual Italian product to the sales team, and they gave me the necessary information about the customers in order to together build the sales strategy. The second one, which allowed me to solve the various problems related to transportation, warehousing, and handling of such a fragile item, was that of being as responsible as possible for all aspects of the process, from the purchase to the delivery in the house of the final customer. I was later appointed by an Italian marble factory as the founder of an American branch: again, I had to be “project-minded” and consider the various stakeholders (American management, American employees, former importers, targeted stores, and final customers, for example). In this case, I had to make a total change of perspective and shift my leading role from buyer to promoter, bearing in mind the aim of the new challenging project and the best way to reach it.

1995: This time the challenging project was to develop the export business of an industrial powder paint producer. To develop this project I had to consider every possible new export market: the fact of being capable of reading the situation from various points of view, gave me the necessary drive to combine the position of the existing sales team and the characteristics of the varied final markets, paying special attention to weak signals.

Thanks to this strategy, I found my successful way through the Turkish market (the situation of which required the establishment of a local factory) in Russia (where I had to be as tactful as possible in order to win over a widespread suspiciousness of foreign manufacturers) and all over North Africa (where the use of the language and the knowledge of the habits helped enormously):

Finally 2004 and the big European crisis: moved by a necessary optimism, and especially by my availability of deeply examining my certitudes, I understood that the market was no more in the hands of manufacturers of finished products and turned to a new challenging project: the export of tool machinery. This meant finding out about possible contacts and new discoveries in this field and I was sure that the “Socratic” approach would be the only way to win this difficult challenge. Once again it is already turning true.

Conclusions

The improvement of the current project performances needs a deep reflection about criteria and mechanism in the choice of Project Managers, about the best way of developing their abilities and individual attitudes, of sustaining their professional growth within the organisation they belong to. To reach this goal, we believe it is necessary to:

  • abandon the idea that a Project Manager should be mostly technically skilled, strongly task-oriented and should establish relationships focusing only on the contents of the project. The previous characteristics are not faults, but they might become weak points instead of strong ones;
  • adopt new processes of selection and evaluation of Project Managers and through these processes be able to focus on all elements forming the patrimony of someone's skills, such as abilities (being), experiences (acting) and learning (knowing);
  • choose non-traditional training, in order to promote the growth of individual qualities, such as creativity (lateral thinking) and a bent towards confrontation with other people (especially in unknown situations or facing incoherent interlocutors);
  • empower companies' project offices by adding to the traditional duties of support to planning processes and project control, the launching of opportunities for Project Managers to exchange their experiences and develop their knowledge and relationships.

In conclusion, a reward should be reserved to SOCRATIC Project Managers, capable of being a steady reference for their team. These Project Managers will surely act according to the wonderful verses in which Dante celebrates the greatness of someone who, without any selfishness, opens the way to knowledge to other people: “Facesti come quei che va di notte, che porta il lume dietro e sé non giova, ma dopo sé fa le persone dotte” (La Divina Commedia - Purgatorio Canto XXII: 67-69). In English (Kline 2000): “You did what he does who travels by night and carries a lamp behind him, that does not help him, but makes those who follow him, wise”.

References

Project Management Institute. (2004) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®) (Third Edition). Newtown Square, PA, USA: Project Management Institute

Ibbs, W. & Reginato, J. (2002, May). Can good PM cost less? PMI Annual Seminar & Symposium, San Antonio, TX, USA.

Gareis, R., Huemann, M. (2000) Project Management Competences in the Project-oriented Organization. in: The Gower Handbook of Project Management, JR Turner, SJ Simister (ed.), Gower, Aldershot, p. 709-721.

Kline A.S., (2000) Dante – The Divine Comedy: A complete English translation, with in-depth index and notes. Retrieved 30/3/05 from http://www.tonykline.co.uk/Browsepages/Italian/Danthome.htm

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2005, Walter Ginevri & Carlo Beraha
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress EMEA Proceedings – Edinburg

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