Response Crafting

The problem with project management: we’ve got conservators in charge of change.

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The project manager role as it’s currently defined:

  • Be highly detail and task-oriented
  • Define the budget, timeline, scope, project plan
  • Document the budget, timeline, scope, and project plan, as well as meeting agendas, status reports, notes, action items, etc.
  • Manage to these as closely as possible and maintain consistency
  • Apply the prescribed process and nothing but the prescribed process, including prescribed corrective actions as appropriate
  • Document some more. (See: “be highly detail-oriented.”)

The personality that fills that definition:

The Keirsey Sorter is a “self-assessed personality questionnaire designed to help people better understand themselves and others, and is closely associated with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).” It is one of the most common personality assessments in the world, used by major employers including Bank of America, Allstate, the U.S. Air Force, IBM, 7-Eleven, Safeco, AT&T, and Coca-Cola.

The Keirsey Sorter breaks individuals out into four temperaments:

  • Artisans – Seeking stimulation and virtuosity, they are adaptable and concerned with making an impact. Their greatest strength is tactic. They excel at troubleshooting, agility, and the manipulation of tools, instruments, and equipment. Acting as operators or entertainers, their most developed intelligence is expediting or improvising.
  • Idealists – Seeking meaning and significance, they are concerned with personal growth and finding their own unique identity. They excel at clarifying, individualizing, unifying, and inspiring. Acting as either mentors or advocates, their greatest strength is diplomacy, and their most developed intelligence is developing or mediating. 
  • Rationals – Seeking mastery and self-control, they are objective and concerned with their own knowledge and competence. Their greatest strength is strategy. They excel in any kind of logical investigation such as engineering, conceptualizing, theorizing, and coordinating. Acting as coordinators or engineers, their most developed intelligence operation is arranging or constructing.
  • Guardians – Seeking security and belonging, they are concerned with responsibility and duty. Their greatest strength is logistics. They excel at organizing, facilitating, checking, and supporting. Acting as administrators or conservators, their most developed intelligence is regulating or supporting. 

And what happens to each temperament in business (i.e., the skill set they offer day to day):

  • Artisans are crisis managers and troubleshooters. They are expert at solving problems and doing what is necessary, whether they are expressly permitted to or not. They are practical, resourceful, flexible, and risk-taking individuals.
  • Idealists are positive, helpful, and people-oriented. They are expert at dealing with the human resource concerns of an organization, whether these issues are part of their job description or not.
  • Rationals are researchers and strategists. They are expert at conceptualizing and seeing the big picture, as well as architecting and implementing the necessary systems. They are logical, precise, independent individuals who are responsive to new ideas.
  • Guardians are administrators and middle managers. They are wired to seek belonging to a group or community, so are expert at doing what needs to be done in the manner that’s prescribed. They are dependable and realistic.

And of these four temperaments, the personality that is most often staffed in project management roles?


Guardians… who are “careful to obey the laws, follow the rules, and respect the rights of others.” Who desperately want to belong to groups. Who, as students, preferred “that the teacher just tell them what they need to know.” Who want to know what’s expected of them and who will then do exactly as asked. Who seek to preserve the system and protect it against change, and never to change it themselves.

Guardians are fantastic at their primary role: guarding. They are conservators, not creators.

The problem? Projects need a lot more than guarding.  

How many projects have you seen that actually run exactly as defined on paper from the outset? That don’t run into unforeseen issues, require adaptation and pivoting, or creative problem solving? How often is the team’s motivation a non-factor in its success? How many projects exist in a vacuum, utterly detached from any context or big picture?

The reality is that these things pertain to all projects.

And when it comes to responding to crisis (and all change, to the guardian, is a crisis), solving unforeseen problems (especially when the answer isn’t defined in the guidebook), motivating their team members (rather than micro-managing), or conceptualizing the big picture (rather than being tasked with or tasking out actionable specifics), the guardians are completely at a loss. 

Because if the Guardian’s strength is regulating, that means they’re not reacting. They’re not adapting or thinking critically on their feet. They’re always trying to fit the ever-changing situation into a theoretical mould that never actually happens. And they may pride themselves on contingency planning, but the minute anything goes awry – and it always will – they panic and scramble: first trying to shove things back in a box and, only when they realize that’s failing, running to get the appropriate guidance from the group they so dutifully look up to so that they can apply it.

If a project is happening, it fundamentally mean that something’s changing. Projects are change. And things will always change as a result of and in conjunction with them, both planned and unplanned.

Does it really make sense to put people who prioritize consistency and structure in charge of things that challenge it?  

The project manager role as it should be defined:

  • Anticipate changes. Acknowledge changes. Embrace changes. And respond to changes… as they inevitably come up
  • Do so with composure, rationale, and level-headedness (i.e., without panicking or lighting fires)
  • Do so independently and efficiently, without referencing the guidebook for every move
  • Do so independently, but within the objectives of the project and its stakeholders (not just those prescribing the process)
  • Identify and internalize the objectives of the project and its stakeholders
  • Strategize, identify applicable project context, conceptualize, and work within the big picture
  • Deliver against these concepts, including defining more satisfactory approaches or solutions where applicable
  • Think critically and creatively as well as solve problems in new, unconventional ways
  • Motivate the team (rather than micro-manage the team) and invest in morale
  • And yes. Document it all. And keep it all on time and under budget. Of course.

The personality we should hire for it:

What if I told you that you can have it all? They’re out there.

But to get them, we have to stop hiring for and staffing regulators, prescribing the regulations, and then pressuring them to do little more than blindly carry them out.


One thought on “The problem with project management: we’ve got conservators in charge of change.

  1. Pingback: 2015 Review | Response Crafting

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