Project Management Institute

Project mechanic or artist ? The skills of project artistry


Introduction and Background

Do you consider yourself a project artist? Typically, project managers do not think of themselves as artists. They assume that their job is to use standardized processes, methods and checklists, akin to a project mechanic. They see little room for artistic expression. This is a common misconception. The assumption is based on a machine-oriented view of organizations and projects, as if projects are manufactured in a factory using standard processes in a controlled environment that can deliver predictable and consistent outcomes each time. There is more and more realization that projects are different than goods or widgets produced in a factory. Particularly in today’s dynamic project environments with complex projects that have a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity there is a need for new approaches with a different mindset.

Projects by definition are unique and viewing and treating them with an artistic perspective can offer new insights to better manage them, and have them be perceived as successful with greater customer satisfaction.

“As business becomes more dependent on knowledge to create value, work becomes more like art. In the future, managers who understand how artists work will have an advantage over those who don’t.” emphasize Rob Austin from Harvard Business School and Lee Devin in their book, Artful Making: What Managers need to Know about how Artists Work (2003).

This paper will look at the metaphor of a project manager as an artist and distinguish it from a mechanical mindset. We will look at the importance of recognizing the need for project artistry. We will define and describe the characteristic skills of project artists; we will look at how good project management requires judgment and how an artistic mindset can help project managers to balance between tough choices. We will illustrate how key characteristics can be combined to create project artistry. We will see how the artistic approach complements classic project management to deliver project masterpieces!

If you are a successful project manager, you are probably already a project artist! This paper will help you to validate your approach and emphasize the characteristics and lessons that make you successful.

This paper is based on lessons learned from our work in implementing PMOs and project management practices in organizations around the world over the last 10 years. The observations are based on working with hundreds of project managers in different industries. This paper also builds on Managing the Dance: The Pursuit of Next Generation PM Approach and Tools presented at the EMEA, PMI Congress, May 2010 in Milan, Italy.

Recognizing the Need for Project Artistry

Traditional management processes and techniques have evolved from the scientific principles of management invented by Fredrick Winslow Taylor a hundred years ago. As the world was becoming more industrialized there was a need for systematic approaches and standardization to gain efficiencies. These scientific principles of management have been successfully applied and have persisted for over a hundred years. The challenge is that work has evolved and a lot of today’s work and projects are not factory and manufacturing-oriented, but are knowledge-oriented based on information, knowledge, people, and connections.

Strictly management by the book methods and processes are based on a machine-oriented view of organizations and projects, as if projects are manufactured in a factory using standard processes in a controlled environment that can deliver predictable and consistent outcomes each time. There is more and more realization that knowledge work and projects are different than goods or widgets produced in a factory, and they need a different approach. Particularly in today’s dynamic project environments with complex projects that have a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity there is a need for new approaches with a different mindset. There is a need to complement and balance the so-called scientific processes with artistic approaches.

Following a step-by-step approach to manage a project is like trying to paint-by-the-numbers, the problem is that in today’s knowledge work the numbers keep changing. Project environments are Dynamic and changing, Ambiguous and uncertain, Non-linear and unpredictable, Complex and Emergent in nature. It is not clear what direction the business should take, customers don’t know what they want, stakeholders can’t define what to do.

As Austin and Devin point out, “In the 21st, it’s a simple fact that you don’t know where you are going when you start a journey. A manager who needs to be handed a clear set of objectives or a process specification is only half a manager (and not the most important half). To know where you are going by the time you start is an amazing luxury and you probably can’t afford it. Anyway, if you think you know where you are going you’re probably wrong.”

Is this a contradiction?

You may find that the need for standards on one hand, and artistic freedom on the other, are paradoxical and at odds with each other. However, they are not.

Standards provide a foundation and outline the boundaries within which there is room for flexibility and artistic expression. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition states in the introduction that it is a guide, rather than a methodology.

Yet in practice, many project managers do try to apply the PMBOK® Guide as a step-by-step methodology—they don’t realize its intent is to provide an adaptable framework to deal with unique project characteristics.

The Science and Art

Project management like many disciplines is a science and an art. There is a lot of discussion about what is the science and what is the art and how much of project management is science and how much is art. Typically, science is referred to as the tools, techniques, processes and established methods, which are also known as the hard skills that can be learned. Art on the other hand is referred to the soft skills like communication, motivation, emotional intelligence, leadership, etc. There is a lot of literature in the area of the need and development of soft skills for project management. In this paper we are going to look at another perspective, an artistic view of project management.

What is not understood easily is often labeled as “art.” Traditionally processes that cannot be easily codified, documented and standardized are considered as immature and have a negative connotation. However, an evolving artisan view offers a different perspective and may not necessarily be negative. In fact, it may offer unique benefits and competitive advantage just like artisan products that can be sold at high margins and are perceived to have a higher degree of customer satisfaction, without being easily emulated by the competition.

Describing a Project Artist

Other than being grounded in the fundamental techniques project artists know how to see, sense and respond to project situations based on their experience, insights and intuition with judgment. They know how to balance between the art and the science. They are passionate about their project and associated people and products.

Instead of using precisely defined rules and processes each time, project artists sense the situation and respond accordingly. Project artists are better prepared to deal with the changes and variability of project environments; they design the project with a creative eye, with a built-in flexibility to rearrange the project plan based on emerging stakeholder needs; use personal judgment and make appropriate adjustments to each situation. They constantly ask “what if,” challenge the rules, and substitute or combine project elements to create a robust project plan.

One of the purposes of art is to cause change and provide new perspectives. While management of projects is the management of change and project managers have to manage change, project artists not only manage change but they also influence and cause change. For example, project artists work closely with the stakeholders and can influence and cause change in stakeholder and customer perspective, as well as project requirements, deliverables and outcomes.

One way to classify project managers is as mechanics or artists. The following distinction between mechanics and artists in Exhibit 1 further clarifies what it means to be a project artist. This table can be used to check either option and then add your score at the bottom to find out which side you lean toward.

Are You a Project Mechanic or an Artist?

Are You a Project Mechanic or Artist © J. Duggal, 2010

Exhibit 1 – Are You a Project Mechanic or Artist © J. Duggal, 2010

Characteristic Skills of Project Artists

There is a whole range of skills that that can be identified to make good project artists. Here we focus on six characteristic skills:

Project Artists Know How to See

“You do not see,” is a very telling line in the worldwide hit movie, Avatar (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Company, 2009). Neytiri, a native of the distant planet Pandora, says to the main character, Jake Sully, that sky people (humans) cannot learn because they do not know how to see.

Project managers can miss opportunities or focus on the wrong things because they do not know how to see. They might not be perceptive enough to uncover the real motivations or needs of stakeholders and customers. They fail to see underlying connections and relationships. Instead of seeing things from other’s viewpoint, their vision is confined to their own perspective.

Most people see what’s visible on the surface, but only a few people can see the non-obvious, which is often more important. The art of seeing can make the difference between project artists who focus on the right things, versus project managers who are mired in unimportant activities and often get blindsided.

The following example illustrates the difference between a project mechanic and a project artist. Two project managers attend the same meeting and walk out with totally different views. The project mechanic hears what is being said, checks off agenda items, notes key points, responds to questions, and walks out with a list of action items, while complaining about how the project has become more challenging and there is no end in sight.

The project artist observes that a key stakeholder who is supposed to attend was not there, and wonders, why? He notices that the person from finance was quiet and did not have any comments and wonders if additional funds will be approved. He sees the list of client requests has grown in the last few weeks and realizes finally the client is engaged and on board with the solution. He also smiles when it is announced that one of the consultants is getting married to one of the team members, confirming his observation of their body language in the last couple of meetings.

He walks out of the meeting pleased that the client seems to be on board and that the end is in sight. He also has an action item list, but his list includes items from observations he made. He needs to find out why the key stakeholder did not attend; he needs to call the finance person and confirm the funding; he needs to find out more about the wedding plans to identify the risks as both of them were key resources.

Project artists are skilled in the art of seeing. Besides body language and gestures they are adept in recognizing patterns, identifying relationships, and connecting the dots as they can zoom in and out from the big picture to the details. They can see different angles of the same situation and are comfortable with multiple viewpoints. They can skillfully see and size-up the current situation, but more importantly they can also foresee challenges and opportunities.

Project Artists Think Design

Mechanics think like engineers, whereas artists think like architects and designers. Engineers plan and spell out the details of the project. Architects design the form, function, and structure to ensure the feasibility and viability to enable the vision of the project. Design is geared toward end-user and customer experience, optimization, and outcomes.

In a Harvard Business Review (June 2008) article on design thinking, Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, an innovation and design firm, describes it as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Project artists use design-thinking to design the project for maximum benefit and intended outcomes within the given constraints and boundaries. It provides a greater opportunity to understand and focus on what customers and key stakeholders need and design a plan to deliver it.

For example, in a large IT systems implementation project, the roll-out was typically planned on a regional basis. After a design approach was introduced, the project team realized that a better plan was to implement systems based on a line of business or departmental basis. In the previous approach, if there were implementation problems, the whole site would be down. In the new customer-focus designed plan, the site would be operational and business could be conducted even if there were issues in one of the areas.

Project Artists Improvise and Iterate

Jazz musicians, dancers, actors, chefs and other artists have one quality in common—the ability to improvise. They rely on the music score, choreography, script and recipes but they can improvise and iterate. Similarly, project artists rely on plans as roadmaps but they know how to improvise. By design they build iterations into their plans that help them further improvise. They design the project with a creative eye, with a built-in flexibility to rearrange the project plan based on emerging stakeholder needs.

Project Artists Are Comfortable With the DANCE

Project artists are comfortable with project environments that are Dynamic and changing, Ambiguous and uncertain, Non-linear and unpredictable, Complex and Emergent (DANCE). These projects cause unexpected variance beyond the normal thresholds. In these cases, the project environment is dynamic and constantly changing, driven by factors like a turbulent economy, market forces or shifting stakeholder needs. There is ambiguity and uncertainty, it is not clear who all of the stakeholders are, and the ones you can identify are indecisive—they do not know what they want. The project direction is not clear and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future. While project mechanics might be uncomfortable with these elements, project artists thrive on it and use it as an opportunity to find creative solutions.

Project Artists Sense and Respond

To manage the DANCE, an organic approach is required. Project artists cultivate skills to sense, respond, adapt and adjust (SRAA). Instead of using precisely defined rules and processes each time, project artists sense the situation and respond accordingly. Sensing skills help to develop acute awareness and vigilance to anticipate unexpected changes. Response prepares you to view the unique situation and respond accordingly in that moment. Adaptation helps you to quickly adjust to new realities and alter the plan to accommodate the changes.

For example, project artists plan, but they don’t get comfortable with them. They continue to ask penetrating questions and challenge the assumptions throughout the project lifecycle. Plans should be fluid and enabling, not rigid and confining. Rigid plans in a DANCE environment can create blind spots that prevent you from seeing the unfolding project reality. Fluid plans enable you to sense and be open to emerging stakeholder needs and respond to unexpected changes.

Project Artists Are Passionate About Their Work

Project artists are passionate about their work and have an emotional attachment to the project. They are engaged in every aspect of the project and give it their 100%, as a result they inspire and motivate people around them. Project artists care about the project, its associated products and people—teams, customers, end-users, and stakeholders. They are committed to creating and delivering extraordinary projects.

The Qualities of Project Artistry

Can you remember a successful project you worked on where everything gelled and it was a high-performing project environment with almost a magical quality? You probably experienced the four qualities of artful making as described by Austin and Levin (2003) based on their observations in theatre:

Release—Release allows artists to move past inhibitions to gain access to original ideas and creativity and collaborate freely. It may seem like the opposite of control, but it is not. It’s a form of control. Control by release requires careful preparation that aims behavior rather than restrains it. Release contrasts with restraint; it allows and challenges artists to reach their edges.

Collaboration—The quality exhibited by conversation, in language and behavior, during which each party, released from vanity, inhibitions, and preconceptions, treats the contributions of other parties as material to make with, not as positions to argue with, so that new and predictable ideas emerge.

Ensemble—The quality exhibited by the work of a group dedicated to collaboration in which individual members relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Play—The quality exhibited b a production while it is playing for an audience; or, the quality exhibited by interaction among members of a business group, and ultimately between the group and the customer.

The Art is Knowing How to Balance

Being an artist is having the experience, insights, intuition and judgment. It is an art to be able to use personal judgment to balance between paradoxical dilemmas. Management guru, Top Peters published an essay, Pursuing the Perfect Project Manager in 1991 in which he listed eight dilemmas that a project manager has to balance—ego/no-ego (have to invest their ego and take credit for successes and at times they have to know when to let go and have others take credit); autocrat/delegator (they have to know when to take responsibility and ownership and when and what to delegate); leader/manager; tolerate ambiguity/pursue perfection; oral/written; acknowledge complexity/ champion simplicity (to deal with project complexity they have to focus on simplicity); think big/think small (know how to distinguish the forest from the trees and how to link the details to the big picture); impatient/patient (on the one hand they have to be action-oriented in a world of deadlines, on the other they have to be patient and not make rushed decisions).

We can add other related dilemmas to this list that a project manager has to learn to balance—tactical/strategic focus; formal/informal approach; focus on tasks, deliverables and outputs/focus on objectives, benefits and outcomes; process rigor/rigidity; and discipline/flexibility.

Benefits of an Artistic Approach

Project artists are better prepared to deal with the changes and variability of project environments. They use personal judgment and make appropriate adjustments to each situation. Use of personal judgment can help to reduce costs as you judiciously evaluate each situation and make appropriate decisions. For example, we just came across two project managers who procured the same service at vastly different costs, one of them complied to established organizational policies, whereas the other use their judgment o question and negotiate a better rate. The artistic approach also increases accountability. Like an artist, the project manager is responsible for the end product with a greater degree of ownership of the outcomes, instead of simply following the process and completing the project. Artistic approach naturally fosters creativity and innovation. Also artistic approaches have competitive advantage because they are hard to emulate and replicate.

Overall, an artistic approach can help to better engage and collaborate with stakeholders to understand and respond to their needs. It can help you focus more on outcomes and results, rather than on standard outputs based on following the same steps each time.

Artistic Approach is Not Appropriate for All Projects

You have to cultivate the conditions to foster and nurture project artists. Your organization’s level of project management maturity will help determine the degree of artistic freedom that is acceptable. So will its culture. Control-oriented cultures may be less conducive to artistic approaches than cultures that foster creativity and innovation. The culture has to support and encourage bottom-up flexibility to try new approaches that lead to creativity and not punish failure.

The need for discipline needs to be balanced with the right amount of flexibility. The challenge is to achieve rigor, but without rigidity. Not all projects are suitable for an artistic approach. The appropriate degree of artistic application depends on the type, scope and nature of your project and your organization. For example, in health care or security-related projects there is a greater need for standardization than in software development projects. The latter often afford more flexibility to iterate with stakeholders and refine the project to address their needs. Similarly projects that have a huge cost component in the initial stages may not be cost-effective to follow an iterative or artistic approach.

How to Become an Artist?

In project management we are used to checklists and step-by-step how-to instructions. If you are looking for a detailed recipe to becoming a project artist, you are thinking with a mechanic’s mindset. There are no how-to manuals for becoming an artist that would defeat the purpose of what makes an artist. If you want to be a cook, you can read a cookbook, but there are no chef books to become a chef. As the famous chef Julia Child points out in her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), “Our primary purpose in this book is to teach you how to cook, so that you will understand fundamental techniques and gradually be able to divorce yourself from a dependence on recipes.”


Project management is a science and an art. While there is a lot of emphasis on developing the hard skills of the science of project management and a growing focus on developing the soft skills related to the art of project management, this paper presents a different perspective of developing and cultivating an artistic mindset. Developing an artist-like attitude can enrich the project manager’s palette with artistic skills that complement the traditional tools of project management. Grounded with a strong foundation of project management fundamentals, the artistic mindset can provide the insights, intuition and judgment to balance among tough dilemmas that project managers have to deal with.

If you are thinking this sounds to fluffy and flaky, think again. An artistic outlook offers tremendous advantages, particularly in today’s tough project environments where innovative approaches are required to deliver successful projects that meet stakeholder and customer needs and expectations. Art can be viewed in a negative connotation because it cannot be codified or easily understood. But that is precisely why it can offer competitive advantage to because it cannot be easily emulated and replicated as artistic project managers deliver artisan projects that have high value and benefits. As Seth Godin in his book Lynchpin puts it, artists become indispensable as they are the lynchpins who everybody counts on to get things done. This approach is not appropriate for all projects, software, new product development, research and development, organizational strategy type projects are better-suited than manufacturing projects or projects that have strict compliance and regulatory requirements.

Are you ready to craft your project masterpiece? Becoming a project artist takes time, practice, experience, insight and intuition. You need both the hard and soft skills, and the ability to use the appropriate judgment. When you learn to balance the science and art of project management, you can become the project artist and take your craft to the next level up.

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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.

© 2011, Jack S. Duggal
Published as a part of 2011 EMEA Congress Proceedings



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