Published here May 2013


Musings Index

The Power of Definitions

Choosing and using the right technical terms in any discussion you may have, either about project management or in the course of a particular project, can save you an enormous amount of time and grief. That's because, international standards not withstanding, words in English typically have nuances depending on the circumstances and environment of the discussion. Yet how many project managers, leaders, authors, trainers, consultants and practitioners generally, ever bother to define the terms they use in the ensuing discussion or instruction? The fact is - not many.

Case in point

We have found that LinkedIn is a good forum for serious discussion, especially for discussion of the many and various aspects of project management. Moreover, unlike so many Internet "blogs", they do not inevitably deteriorate into personal slanging matches. A good example is the Project Manager Community - Best Group for Project Management, an open forum that any LinkedIn member can join. In this case, the following is a specific example of our issue with definitions.

It all started just two weeks earlier with Andrew Richardson posing the simple question: "Is an arrogant PM better at project management than one that is humble?" Richard then went on to describe his particular situation that gave rise to his question. By the 14th day the number of responses and exchanges had risen to 125 comments and still climbing, with the discussion going this way and that depending on each respondents personal experiences and interpretations.

For example, here is what Ray Funck had to say, which we found most insightful:

"It is amazing how much attention is given to this subject. I am impressed. Not sure how but I am! An example of the difference could be used in some scenario's I'll describe.

First scenario: You are an accomplished PM and have been doing it for years. You have the experience and you have the track record. You have just started with a new company. Even with all of your experience and knowledge can you answer the question of how the new company operates? What internal process they use in reporting? Do you have a broad understanding of all of their policies? Do you have the insight concerning their internal politics and how those unspoken rules of engagement between members work?

I would strongly suggest that you do not. Based upon some common sense and what your real M.O. is either good or bad or indifferent - you will have to take a learning curve and make some observations in order to develop an understanding. At least that is what I would do. In order to be as productive as is possible you would have to do it as quickly as possible. That will take some amount of humility and realizing you don't know everything, which could be an arrogant assumption.

It takes a bigger person to admit those handicaps, than a person who ignores them. Of course I would use some discretion in how you present it. I would suggest that if you ignorantly approach it with arrogance with the delusion that you are the best thing since peanut butter - you are going to make major mistakes in judgment. Your base foundation can be interpreted as more interest in self rather than your understanding of the culture you have been introduced to.

Second scenario: On the flip side of that coin if you are an inexperienced PM or you lack the inside knowledge that is required in order to do a quality job and you approach a seasoned member on a team you are leading - it becomes easily identifiable whether someone knows what they are talking about or not. If it is an arrogant approach there will inevitably be a certain lack perhaps in respect or amount of reliability. Spoken or not it will become known to all.

So it becomes a question of how you wish to present yourself to the group at large. Either handling things with a balance that fosters the seed of trust and confidence in you as a leader or it implants the seed of doubt in your abilities to lead. And the idea that you could present a potential risk to the reputation or integrity of the company or team. Even with those that are under your command (so to speak) they will develop their own idea about what type you are.

If they have the mature experience of foresight doing their job they will be able to see the percentage of success in your decision making. If they detect that your percentage is low because you insisted on soothing your ego during the process they may lose the drive to worry about outcome due to their perception that you are undermining efforts. They may perceive it as "doomed for failure".

Third scenario: How many times have you had interaction with someone in law enforcement for instance and you immediately understood that they were arrogant and egotistical? What was your reaction to that? Were they firm and assertive and confident but respectful to individual rights? Or were they more into the idea that they were the "law" and you had nothing to say about it?

Speaking from a past life in that area the one thing that is a good exercise is to assess the situation quickly and take appropriate actions. Sometimes that means using softer tactics to manage the situation. Some characters you would run into made you realize very quickly that if that person wanted to they could overtake you easily (unless you are arrogant enough to believe it is impossible). So being firm and at the same time having a more humble approach to a situation makes things more manageable.

In short, examples of confidence versus arrogance versus humility spiced with balance.

By Ray Funck

It all came down to whether "humble" is really the opposite of "arrogant" and what do these words really mean in the context of project leadership governing one type of project or another. Along the way, it emerged that "arrogant" was not really the right word to express the feelings of most people but rather the word "confident". This changed the picture considerably. Nevertheless, it was not until 13 days and about 120 comments later that Sriprasad M.R. came forward with two definitions:

"For people finding it difficult to differentiate between confidence and arrogance, this is what Wikipedia says:

  • Confidence is generally described as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct or that a chosen course of action is the best or most effective.
  • Arrogance is making undue claims in an overbearing manner; that species of pride that consists of exorbitant claims of rank, dignity, estimation, or power, or which exalts the worth or importance of the person to an undue degree; proud contempt of others; lordliness; haughtiness; self-assumption; presumption.

I hope this helps"

As Ray Funck indicated, the exchange was both impressive and fun, but 14 days to answer a simple question? That would never do on an actual project. Had Andrew Richardson included his definitions along with his original question, the responses would have been much more focused and concluded within hours, if not minutes.

And speaking about actual projects and those scenarios of Ray's about the experienced and inexperienced project managers new to an organization, and its projects, either way, here is an important message:

"You are new to an organization and its projects. The very first thing to do is to research all the information on the organization and your project that you can lay your hands on. Read it up carefully and thoroughly. If that means sitting up all night reading through the project filing cabinet, so be it. But very soon you will discover that you know more about the organization and the project than almost anyone else."

This way you will be able to pursue your project management responsibilities feeling both confident and humble - and may be even a little bit arrogant, too!

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