The PM with a Thousand Faces

Two recent subject trends have been evident in the LinkedIn discussion boards and in the project management blogosphere.  The first is the simple question: do you have to be a subject matter expert in order to manage a project, or can an experienced project manager handle any project, just using standard techniques documented in the PMBOK and other reference documents?  To me, this is an easy answer: project managers spend the overwhelming majority of their time communicating, so you need to know enough about a subject area to hold up your end of the conversation.  You also need to be able to facilitate communications and decision making both within the project team and with and among the stakeholders, so you need enough knowledge of the arts and practices to be effective.  But a number of other project managers seem to disagree, and at least a few have made interesting, if not completely compelling, arguments.

The other subject might be a bit more esoteric: does the PMBOK document a methodology?  The PMBOK itself seems to say it does not; however, there are a number of folks who apparently believe that the documented processes, organized into specific process and knowledge groups, make a pretty valuable template.  And it’s hard to argue against the point.  A lot of organizations have project templates that use the process group names for project phases, and refer to a number of deliverables called out in the PMBOK processes.  Many of us point out that the PMBOK is merely a collection of frequently useful (and thus commonly used) processes, organized for easy reference and study, but a number of Agilistas carry it even further.  They argue not only that the PMBOK is a methodology, but that it follows a “waterfall” approach, despite the note on page 40 that processes can be useful at different points in a project life cycle, and that some may be executed iteratively.

So I had something of an epiphany this afternoon, when an article I was reading made passing reference to Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”  The book details Campbell’s theory that important myths from around the world that have survived throughout history share a common structure, which he called the “monomyth.”  The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

Now, no one is going to mistake the phases of the monomyth cycle for the Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing process groups described in the PMBOK, but the fact that both abstracts are so persistently present and useful in their respective domains says something about their validity.  They also have a lot in common in terms of the endeavors they describe – temporary, unique, goal-driven, and ultimately about delivering beneficial changes to stakeholders other than the principles.  And just as the monomyth cycle is present in stories ranging from those of Neolithic tribes and the Bible to “Star Wars” and “The Lion King,” so are the basic processes of the PMBOK applicable for projects ranging from construction to product development to IT infrastructure to organizing coverage of the Super Bowl.  They’re both about the common structures of uncommon experiences.

So I’ll continue to argue that the PMBOK doesn’t document a methodology.  But perhaps it does present a common set of themes that will be useful in just about every “unique, temporary endeavor” undertaken with the goal of delivering benefits to stakeholders who aren’t directly participating in the action.  And like Campbell’s monomyth, it will be adapted based on the circumstances, goals, and needs of the culture using it.  And while a construction project manager wouldn’t be very productive managing a software development project, just as Thor wouldn’t know what to do with a light saber, they’d both understand where they are in their respective cycles.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.