Project Management Institute

The tyranny of the "fifth constraint."

Why is it?

With our highly evolved state of Project Management discipline, the time, cost, scope and quality constraints have been long understood and targeted as the “road to project management excellence.” So, if this is true, why does the Standish group still report a large percentage (66% was the last report I saw) of projects as being not successful. The reason is what I refer to as the silent and unseen “Fifth Constraint” – thinking on autopilot.

Unlike the other four constraints, this one is self-imposed and, most of the time, invisible. More important, its effects can be clearly seen when problems suddenly spring up due to such things as invalidated assumptions that destroy a project estimate, a premature conclusion that derails a test plan, a undetected risk that destroys a budget, and, my favorite, a bad decision that creates unwelcome stress on a project team.


  • It isn't that they can't see the solution. It's that they can't see the problem.
  • It isn't that they don't have the time. It's that they don't have a process to deal with the issues.
  • It isn't that thinking is complicated. It's that it is taken for granted.

What is getting in the way?

We all know everyone thinks, and it's in our nature to do so. However, much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, ill-founded, or prejudiced. In addition, our mind does not just think, it also feels and wants.

Thinking is part of the mind that figures things out, makes sense of life's events and creates the ideas through which we define situations, relationships, and problems.

Feelings are created by thinking, i.e. evaluating at the gut level whether the events in our lives are positive or negative

Wanting allocates energy to action, in keeping with what we define as desirable and possible.

What's important is that either your rational capacities or your egocentric tendencies will control the mind. Your egocentric tendencies function automatically and unconsciously while rational tendencies arise only from active self-development and are largely conscious. What this means to project managers is that if you leave your mind on auto pilot you are likely to be prone to the following egocentric (self-centered) tendencies:

Egocentric memory the natural tendency to “forget” evidence and information which does not support our thinking and to “remember” evidence and information which does.

Egocentric myopia the natural tendency to think exclusively within an overly narrow point of view.

Egocentric infallibility the natural tendency to think that our beliefs are true because we believe them.

Egocentric righteousness the natural tendency to feel superior in the light of our confidence that we are in the possession of THE TRUTH.

Egocentric hypocrisy the natural tendency to ignore flagrant inconsistencies between what we profess to believe and the actual beliefs our behavior imply, or inconsistencies between the standards to which we hold ourselves and those to which we expect others to adhere.

Egocentric oversimplification the natural tendency to ignore real and important complexities in the world in favor of simplistic notions when consideration of those complexities would require us to modify our beliefs or values.

Egocentric blindness the natural tendency not to notice facts or evidence which contradict our favored beliefs or values.

Egocentric immediacy the natural tendency to over-generalize immediate feelings and experiences--so that when one event in our life is highly favorable or unfavorable, all of life seems favorable or unfavorable as well.

Egocentric absurdity the natural tendency to fail to notice thinking which has “absurd” consequences, when noticing them would force us to rethink our position.

The bottom line is that our thinking shapes and determines how we feel and what we want. When we think well we are motivated to do things that make sense and act in ways that helps both others and ourselves. At any given moment, our minds can be under the influence of our native egocentricities outlined above or our rational control. Unfortunately, without our conscious intervention we slip under the spell of our native egocentricities. It is only through thinking about thinking that we really take control of our minds. For project managers this means taking their thinking off autopilot and thinking critically to free themselves of the “Fifth Constraint.” I call it engaged thinking because when you are on auto pilot you are not really engaged in driving or leading.

Engaged thinking will enable you and your organization to leverage time, talents and expertise and play the bigger game you were meant to play.

The Key Question?

How do you disengage from autopilot given that most of us aren't even sure whether we are on auto pilot or not? The answer lies in a five-step process where each step starts with the letter A.

  1. Awareness – answers the question what is engaged thinking, what does it include and what does it look like.
  2. Assessment – answers the question what is your current level of thinking by providing a four level hierarchy of thinking maturity.
  3. Action – answers the question of how you actual disengage from autopilot.
  4. Application – answers the question of how do you put engaged thinking into play.
  5. Assurance – answers the question of how do you stay engaged as a thinker.

Let's dig deeper on each of the steps:

Step 1 – Awareness – What is engaged thinking?

Here is a working definition I subscribe to because it places the emphasis correctly on taking your self off “auto pilot” by taking responsibility:

…process by which the thinker improves the quality of their thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

No matter where you might place yourself today in the maturity model, thinking critically requires a value orientation around intellectual virtues that will consistently help guide the “taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them” part of engaged thinking.

When ever we think, we think for a purpose, focusing on answering a question or solving a problem using data, facts and experience or making assumptions, based on concepts or theories, within a point of view to make inferences or judgments leading to implications or consequences.

Put in sequence, the process looks like this: (Exhibit 1)

Elements of Thought from Critical Thinking – Richard Paul and Linda Elder

Exhibit 1 – Elements of Thought from Critical Thinking – Richard Paul and Linda Elder

Ultimately, these elements all inter relate in much the same way as the essential parts of the human body – i.e. they are all present whether we are healthy or not and like the parts of the body, the elements function in an interdependent manner.

For example:

  • Our purpose affects the manner in which we ask the questions.
  • The manner in which we ask questions affects the information that we gather.
  • The information that we gather affects the way we interpret it.
  • The way we interpret the information affects the way we conceptualize it.
  • The way we conceptualize information affects the assumptions we make.
  • The assumptions we make affect the implications that follow from our thinking.
  • The implications that follow from our thinking affect the way we see things, our point of view.

The problem is that we don't always understand the interdependence factor or work through these elements of thought as cleanly or effectively as we should. Standards help us neutralize this tendency and help us operate at the level of quality expected and required in our thinking. There are nine key intellectual standards:

Clarity – the gateway standard because if a statement or situation is unclear we cannot determine if it is accurate or relevant.

Implied Questions:

  1. Could you elaborate?
  2. Could you illustrate what you mean?
  3. Could you give me an example?

Accuracy – is representing something in accordance with the way it actually is

Implied Questions:

  1. How could we check on that?
  2. How could we find out if that is true?
  3. How could we test that?

Precision – is giving the details needed for someone to understand exactly what is meant

Implied Questions:

  1. Could you be more specific?
  2. Could you give me more details?
  3. Could you be more exact?

Depth – is getting beneath the surface of an issue or problem

Implied Questions:

  1. What factors make this a difficult problem?
  2. What are some of the complexities of this question?
  3. What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?

Relevance – is when something is directly connected with and bears upon an issue at hand.

Implied Questions:

  1. How does that related to the problem?
  2. How does that bear on the question?
  3. How does that help us with the issue?

Logicalness – is when combined thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination

Implied Questions:

  1. Does all this make sense together?
  2. Does your first paragraph fit in with your last?
  3. Does what you say follow from the evidence?

Significance – is when we concentrate on the most important information and take into account the most important ideas and concepts.

Implied Questions:

  1. Is this the most important problem to consider?
  2. Is this the central idea to focus on?
  3. Which of these facts are the most important?

Breadth – is when we consider an issue or idea form every relevant view point

Implied Questions:

  1. Do we need to look at this from another perspective?
  2. Do we need to consider another point of view?
  3. Do we need to look at this in other ways?

Fairness – is to treat both sides of an issue alike without reference to one's own feelings or interests

Implied Questions:

  1. Is my thinking justifiable in this context?
  2. Are my assumptions supported by evidence?
  3. Is my purpose fair given the situation?

The elements of thought mapped against a set of intellectual standards to live by, create what I call a beautiful mind. Unlike, the movie, A Beautiful Mind, your story can have a happy ending by bringing your thinking in awareness and being guided by the power of the intellectual standards. What does a beautiful mind look like? Here the traits an engaged thinker will display in their day-to-day work and personal lives.

  • Intellectual Integrity:
    Recognition of the need to be true to one's own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold one's self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds their team.
  • Intellectual Humility:
    Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint
  • Intellectual Sense of Justice
    Having consciousness of the need to entertain all viewpoints sympathetically and to assess them with the same intellectual standards, without reference to one's own feelings or vested interests.
  • Intellectual Perseverance:
    Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations
  • Intellectual Fair-mindedness:
    Having a consciousness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one's own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one's friends, community or nation; implies adherence to intellectual standards without reference to one's own advantage or the advantage of one's group.
  • Intellectual Faith in Reason:
    Confidence that, in the long run, one's own higher interests and those of the organization will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties.
  • Intellectual Courage:
    Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing.
  • Intellectual Empathy:
    Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.
  • Intellectual Autonomy
    Having rational control of one's beliefs, values and inferences. The ideal for engaged thinking is to learn to think for oneself and to gain control over one's thought processes..

An engaged thinker is someone you can recognize by their living and demonstrating the nine intellectual traits of a beautiful mind and by the way they bring intellectual standards to bear on their everyday thinking. Once you appreciate what a beautiful mind looks like, you will be primed and ready to take on the most important assessment…at what level of skill do you think.

Step 2- Assessment – What is your current level of thinking?

While the literature tends to portray competency in engaged thinking on a continuum running from the complete neophyte to the ideal, I have borrowed a construct from the trades to simplify a quick and dirty self assessment – novice, apprentice, journeyman and master. (Exhibit 2)

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

Level 1 – Novice

People in this level are referred to as “unreflective thinkers”, who are fundamentally unaware of the role thinking plays in their life. People in this category unconsciously think of themselves as competent thinkers, even when they are not. They have no knowledge of the nature of thinking. They could be described as “not knowing what they don't know.”

Level 2 – Apprentice

People in this level have become aware of their tendencies to make false assumptions and or use erroneous information to jump to unjustifiable conclusions. This knowledge of thinking fallibility is connected to an emerging awareness that they must somehow learn to routinely identify, analyze and assess their thinking. Quite often project managers sow the seeds of the “Fifth Constraint” at this level. This group could be described as “knowing what they don't know.”

Level 3 – Journeyman

People in this level have “journeyed” through a series of phases to develop their thinking skills. At some point in this level they were well aware of the concept of “egocentricity”, the need to check information for accuracy and relevance and how prejudicial and biased beliefs can lead to unjustifiable conclusions. They have however, unknowingly slipped into the jaws of the “Fifth Constraint” by taking their thinking development and application for granted. They consistently work very hard but seem to be stuck at a certain level of achievement or capability. This group is sometimes described as “not knowing what they know” and unable to teach it to others effectively.

Level 4 – Master

People in this level intuitively think critically at a habitually high level across all the significant domains of their life. They are keenly aware of the limitations within themselves and never cease to appreciate the need to grow and learn. From a thinking perspective, they are conscious of the “workings” of their minds and are consistently self correcting. They have broken the bonds of the “Fifth Constraint” and leverage their time, talent and expertise to its fullest. This group could be described as “knowing what they know” and thus able to lead and communicate more effectively.

While people typically move through the four levels in sequence, there is a tendency for people to get stuck in Level 3 indefinitely unless something happens to move them out of their comfort zone. The event that moves them beyond Level 3 can be a serious career jolt or crisis, a book, a manager or even a Corporate Coach. Ultimately, most people have all the information and cerebral horsepower they need to play a bigger game in their job and in their life. Unfortunately, at first, taking oneself off autopilot can be frustrating and difficult.

Step 3- Action – How do you disengage from autopilot?

The first part of Step 3 is turn off the switch. While this is a metaphor, it is a very good one. The switch is literally making a conscious commitment to work in “mindful” mode both as an individual and as a team. Habit is a powerful force in the universe that contributes to the autopilot effect by ingraining the “not thinking” behavior. Success lies not in necessarily having the answers, but more importantly asking the right questions. Therefore, in advance of any activity or project discussion the need is to be conscious of your thinking, were it's leading you and whether it's the right direction to pursue. A template of appropriate questions to ask at various points in a good process can be a great way of disengaging autopilot.

You know you brought your thinking to life when you start noticing even subtle disconnects in other people's thinking approaches.

The second part of Step 3 is to Adopt and Disciple a Process. Discipling a process means “spreading the gospel” about the virtues of that process to almost anyone who will listen. The process that provides the greatest flexibility in my opinion is the Process Design Consultants Inc thinking model. This model is predicated on the distinctions between the left and right brain preferences. (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

The blue (gather) and the red (evaluate) are classic left brain preferences. In fact, most project managers are left brained and are deeply anchored in the left side tendencies. The green (generate) and the yellow (agree) components on the right side are aspects of right brain thinking that allows people to generate lots of alternatives and ideas as well as get agreement to a decision or plan being proposed. Ideally, the direction is gather, generate, evaluate and agree.

Process Design's thinking process is formulated around four interrelated processes – situation assessment, problem solving, decision making, and action planning. The framework:

  • Situational Assessment focuses on what is happening.
  • Problem Solving focuses on why is it happening.
  • Decision Making focuses on which is the best course of action.
  • Action Planning focuses on how we can implement successfully.

Through the use of the following flow chart, engaged thinkers are either reminded of or introduced to the right questions about a situation. For example in decision making it ultimately boils down to two fundamental aspects: - One - the best possible solution or approach and two - commitment of the team to implement. To obtain commitment you need involvement, to obtain involvement you need the team all looking at the same process framework, which the following chart illustrates. (Exhibit 4)

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 4

The power of the process is to help the engaged thinker ask the right question. Here are a set of sample questions from the job aide:

Situational Assessment

What is happening?

What could be improved?

How urgent is this issue?

Problem Solving

What is and is not happening?

What assumptions need to be verified?

How can the cause be confirmed?

Decision Making

What results do you want, need or expect?

What restraints limit your resources?

What are the risks if we implement?

Action Planning

What are the objectives to be achieved?

What could go wrong?

How can we protect the plan?

One of ways a good process is invaluable, is that it helps you determine where to start. The situational assessment does that and then helps you formulate the next step, whether it's problem solving, decision making or action planning.

The third part of Step 3 is Leveraging Technology. Part of the framework for the situational assessment is a template that will walk you through the steps of:

  • Identify and Anticipate Issues
  • Clarify Issues
  • Set Priority
  • Consider Involvement – How, Who, When

This process is also available in soft form which enables electronic recording, processing and distribution to team members. The same advantage holds true for problem solving, decision making and action planning

It's one thing to take action; it's another to actually make progress towards increasing value to the company. One of the key points for measurement of value creation is whether or not it was team induced.

Step 4- Application – How Do I Put Engaged Thinking into Practice?

I have seen many different approaches to this question of how to operationalize an idea or process. For activating engaged thinking either personally or in a team, there is a large behavioral component revolving around individuals teaching and modeling engaged thinking and making it a team game.

Teaching it is the best way of constantly growing the learning. When you teach the principles and process you take your own expertise to another level. This teaching is not reserved for the business environment. Teaching the concepts and process to your children or to other adults at home will have the same effect – teach to learn

Modeling it plays into another arena – leadership. Leadership can be an individual within a team environment demonstrating and modeling the concepts for their colleagues. Leadership can be a manager modeling for their direct reports. Leadership can be a product manager modeling it for their customers and suppliers without anything expected in return.

Making it a team game is by far the best way of leveraging the ideas and concepts. By team game I mean inspiring every person on the team to bring the awesome power of their mental faculties to bear on all problems and opportunities. With every team member trained, a team lead can assign a problem solving action item to a person and have a fair degree of comfort that the person will properly describe the problem, list causes, test causes, and gain support before bringing the item back to the team for discussion.

In addition, there is no reason why all team members can't aspire to and achieve a “master” level proficiency in engaged thinking. It's a somewhat like being a black belt in the Six Sigma process whereby the team consistently demonstrates bold thinking with courage, confidence and objectivity. Remember the three imperatives of team – common purpose, common process and interdependence.

Step 5 – Assurance – How Do You Stay Engaged?

The challenge of training, and for that matter most new change initiatives, is finding the way to sustain the new behavior or approach. In the world of engaged thinking it is easy to fall back to old habits, which have, by the way, been formed over many years and generally are environmental. If you accept this, then it follows that if you change your current environment to one that is supportive of your new behavior then the probability of success is significantly improved. Consciously Designing Supportive Environments is the first key assurance strategy where, for example, checklists, templates, and job aides are always visible to prompt the right questions.

The second key assurance strategy is to become a student of the brain, thinking and how to maximize the 90% of your brain you are not using. Here are some suggested books for your student enjoyment:

How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J Gelb. Gelb is a very prolific writer in the area of human potential and has also authored a great book on mind mapping.

Business Think by Marcum, Smith and Khalsa. These 3 authors do a great job placing the thinking process in the context of the business world. Their model is based on 7 steps. Their first step is my favorite – Check Your Ego At The Door

Thinking For A Change by John C Maxwell. Maxwell writes on a variety of topics including leadership. This book is well written and full of interested quotes to illustrate his points. My favorite from his book – “Ninety-nine point nine percent of all employees are in the pile because they don't think.” – Jack Welch

The third key assurance strategy is get help. Help can take the form a colleague reminding you of some particular element of engaged thinking. It can take the form of direct coaching or mentoring from your manager. It can be a corporate trainer who provides a generic or customized training in engaged thinking or it can be Corporate Coach who works directly with you to help you get “unstuck” or re-energized.

What's Next

My proposition is that engaged thinking will enable you and the organization to leverage time, talent and expertise, and play the bigger game you were meant to play. We have explored a five step process to remove Tyranny Of The Fifth Constraint by disengaging your thinking autopilot and helping you think boldly with courage, confidence, and objectivity. The prize is leveraged opportunities, neutralized problems, energized teams, managed change, and best of all reduced stress. This paper brings me one step closer to my goal with is to put leadership back in project management and an engaged thinking arrow in the quiver of every project manager on the planet.

It's now up to you, but be guided by the immortal words of a gentleman named Aristotle:

“To be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking
is to be conscious of our own existence.”


Paul, R. W (2002) Critical Thinking, New Jersey, USA: Financial Times Prentice Hall

Marcum, D., Smith, S. & Khalsa, M. (2002) Business Think USA: Franklin Covey Co.

Maxwell, J. (2003) Thinking For A Change California: Warner Books Printing

Critical Thinking (2001) Process Design Consultants Inc

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 Bill Richardson
Originally published as a part of PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada



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