Five Minds and One Hundred Languages

The Multi-Skill Challenge for the Project Manager in the VUCA World



The modern project manager needs a synoptic vision of different approaches and methodologies to develop a multi-skill knowledge framework. This presentation aims to help the attendant to reach a personal, robust comprehension of the major skill management models, as well as the coaching and leadership styles—as it has become crucial for creating a continuous learning approach when facing a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) context.

Keywords: multi-skill, VUCA, leadership, knowledge, learning


The reasoning is based on two major assumptions:

  • The profession of the project manager during the last decades has passed through a real revolution, starting from an engineering approach (focused on resources optimization), then discovering the central role of soft skills and the importance of leadership, and finally facing the projects as complex systems, with emerging properties and behaviors
  • The environment in which our projects, programs, and portfolios take place, more and more often, is a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity)


In consideration of the long evolution of the project management culture, the wide spectrum of human disciplines is covered by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013). There are also many important innovative experiences included in the PMI Educational Foundation's (PMIEF) programs. Project management is more and more recognized as a skill for life—for the person as a whole—and not only from a professional perspective.


VUCA is an acronym used to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. The VUCA idea began in the 1990s, coming from military experience and lexicon, and was subsequently used in emerging ideas in strategic leadership that apply in a wide range of organizations, including everything from for-profit corporations to education.

  • Volatility. The nature and dynamics of change, the nature and speed of change forces and catalysts.
  • Uncertainty. The lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events, naturally calling for a risk management cultural approach.
  • Complexity. The multiplex of forces, the high numbers of connexions between components.
  • Ambiguity. The haziness of reality, the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect misinterpretation, multiple semantic schemas overlapping, the potential for misreads.

The challenges of VUCA can be conveniently explored from the specific viewpoint of talents, skills, and competencies. What does this actually mean for project, program, or portfolio managers facing a VUCA context in terms of skills and learning? Are the classic categories of study, growth, competency assessment, gap analysis, and roles delineation still valid? Which are the right mind-sets for the organizations to grow complete persons who are able to reach their goals in a fluctuant world?

A Great Convergence: The Person as a Whole In such a complex scenario, we need to establish a new continuous learning framework for the person, not constrained by just technical concerns or performance goals. In order to answer to these questions, it is possible to combine great lessons from different schools, far from each other in time and space, but strongly converging (as shown in Exhibit 1): One lesson is from Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence paradigm (1993)—the mind's useful to face the challenges of the future. Another lesson is from the philosopher Edgar Morin (2001; 2014), one of the greatest thinkers of the Sciences of Complexity movement (suggesting a new learning manifesto). And, lastly, there is a lesson from one of the revolutionary school-for-kids manifestos, the so-called “Reggio Emilia approach,” which is a new pedagogy oriented to the development of a person as a whole (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 2012).


Exhibit 1: The converging of different lessons into a common framework.

When talking about skills, competence, and knowledge, it's natural to refer also to the PMI Talent Triangle™, a simple, but powerful schema to enlighten the complexity of the required skills and organize the related knowledge for a modern and extensive project management profession interpretation.


This paradigm was envisioned from the major American psychologist, Howard Gardner. In 2008, he put together the results of many years of research on the mind and the way it approaches learning—distilling the key points of the mind-sets that we need to develop to face the future challenges of our society:

  • The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of major branches of knowledge, with one or a combination of professional crafts
  • The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others
  • The Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions, and phenomena
  • The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups
  • The Ethical Mind: fulfilment of one's responsibilities as a worker and as a member of a social group

In the following (see Exhibit 2), we want to emphasize the correspondence between each of the five minds and a set of important attitudes that we recognize as an intimate part of the project management profession.


Exhibit 2: Five Minds mapping over the PMI Talent Triangle™.

Trying to re-map these concepts over the PMI Talent Triangle™, we could say that the Disciplinary mind—in the sense of a project management discipline—refers to the Technical vertex of the triangle, the Synthetizing mind is necessary, not only within the project boundaries, but also to establish and maintain the best alignment with the business strategy and the overall organization. The Creating mind is spreading over the three vertexes: within the project it is a sort of meta-tool, at the organizational level it is crucial for an effective Demand Management, but it is the kind of mind that is also required by the modern leader. Respectful and Ethical minds are more strictly related to the soft skills, personal side—the Leadership vertex of the triangle.


“It's not about destroying, but connecting:” that's the way the great French philosopher, Edgar Morin, draws a new path, as suggested by the neologism reliance (a French word for fusion of relationship and alliance). It's time to transform the idea that we have of knowledge itself: knowledge is not a ready-made tool that can be used without considering its own nature. The supremacy of traditional knowledge models, in which fragmented disciplines are juxtaposed, must give way to a new kind of knowledge that is able to capture complexity. Uncertainty is the basis of all sciences; this belief offers us a straight connection with risk management—the art of dealing with uncertainty and change—that during the years, has been embodied in the project management tool kit, transforming the project manager's attitude from plan-addict to change-ready.

We may derive positive outcomes from errors, wherever a virtuous try and learn culture is promoted and not opposed. “You look for India, you find America,” as written by the poet, Voznessenski. Errors cannot be detached from any knowledge. In the western culture, an error is typically seen as a noncompliance and related to fault and punishment. In other cultures, like the Japanese culture, where the total quality management has grown based on the continuous improvement cycle—it's not a shame to openly share a situation of deviation as the start of potential growth and innovation.

Moreover, we cannot be completely effective without considering the triple nature of humans:

  • Biological (the way we function, the mechanisms that move us)
  • Individual (the way we feel, the psychological dimension)
  • Social (the way we interact, connect, communicate)

These are the key ideas on which it is possible to establish the new knowledge building:

  • The idea of system, in opposition to the reductionist conception; the great importance of connections, over components, beyond the WBS
  • The importance of dialectic, absorbing opposite poles and resolving the opposition AND the culture developed (global/local, cause/effect, analyse/synthetize, separate/connect), including the idea of circularity
  • The Ologrammatic principle; the part is in the whole and the whole is in the part; the idea to develop a DNA, a manifesto of values, principles, beliefs, rules, that is shared by all the components of the system

Morin (2001; 2014) emphasizes the importance of com-prehension as a true holistic approach, offering us a deep reasoning on the different kinds of comprehensions (intellectual, human, complex). We are called to respond to a multidimensional crisis with a multi-skill mind-set. This implies the inversion of the master-disciples relationship, as well as the acceptance of the importance of learning how to learn, and to design education for sustainability (in society, organizations, and—we could say—“in projects”).


Many experiences and researches have brought the project management culture into the schools at different levels, and the positive results have been synthetized by The PMI Educational Foundation (PMIEF, n.d.) in the guidelines, Project Management Skills for Life®. In the 1970s, an Italian pedagogist created an innovative manifesto, based on the “one hundred languages” metaphor, which indicates the innate multi-skill talent that each individual has inside him or herself. Unless carefully developed and maintained to be free to express, this innate form of talent can be gradually killed by specialized knowledge. Once recognized that the project must be faced as a complex system, where the “whole” is more than the sum of the components, the team is perceived as a source of emerging vital behaviors. From this comes the importance of being trained in every phase of life in continuous changing and relearning. From this perspective, “one hundred languages” can easily take the DNA of stakeholder management; the negative meaning of the Babel's tower is reverted into a paradigm of continuous confrontation, a permanent training in respecting differences.

The specialization can kill the “hundred” that is there.

The manifesto was based on a few revolutionary ideas that anticipated what has been recently acquired by many schools of thought:

  • The idea of the project itself as a learning experience
  • The value of collaboration and communication between different categories of stakeholders
  • The pursuit of interdisciplinary, the value of contamination

Leveraging these principles, they distilled among the others, the following guiding strategies and hints:

  • Revisiting and co-construction
  • The next day
  • The role of metaphor
  • Reinforcement vs reflection
  • Individuality within the collective
  • Plans before production
  • Thinking versus skills
  • The value of misconception
  • Emotion and knowledge


The sum of concepts and models shown above can be combined in a balanced, tailored organizational approach, at two different levels:

- At an organizational level, as a PMO responsibility—how to help grow complete project managers

- At the project level, for the project manager to recruit and grow talented, complete team members

In order to lay the basis for the next century of cultural development, we have to establish a new paradigm—not destroying, but rather, including and refreshing all the knowledge from the past.



Stefano Setti is the Technical Director at Blulink, a leading Italian software company in quality and compliance management systems. He is a consultant in project and portfolio management, risk management, business analysis, and innovation. He is also a contract professor and a PMI® Global Congress presenter. He holds the Project Management Professional (PMP)® and PMI Risk Management (PMI-RMP)® certifications, and is a Leadership Institute Master Class alumni. He is president of the PMI Northern Italy Chapter. He has authored two books, Process & Project Integration and The Language of the Project.


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Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (Eds.), (2012). The hundred languages of children – The Reggio Emilia experience in transformation. (3rd ed).Oxford, England: PRAEGER.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gardner. H. (2004). Changing minds: The art and science of changing our own and other people's minds. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Gardner, H. (2013, March). Good work: Theory and practice. Retrieved from:

Morin, E. (2001). I sette saperi necessari all'educazione del futuro – Milano, Italy: Cortina Raffaello.

Morin, E. (2014). Enseigner à vivre. Arles, France: Actes Sud.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF). (n.d.) Project management skills for life. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Theory of multiple intelligences. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Retrieved from,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity

© 2016, Stefano Setti
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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