Project Expert: Balancing Art and Science in Project Management

Because project management is an art and a science, project managers need creativity and technical skills to keep projects on track.

Is project management an art that you're born with or a science that you can learn? The truth is, it's both.

The artistic aspects of project management include leading, enabling, motivating and communicating. An artistic project manager can direct the team when work priorities shift, resolve issues when they arise, and determine which information to communicate when and to whom.

The science side of project management includes planning, estimating, measuring and controlling the work. The science encompasses the who-does-what-when issues and requires a solid schedule and budget to be managed using tools and techniques. The end goal is to answer sponsors' Big Four project questions: (1) How done is the project? (2) What does the project cost so far? (3) When will the project be done? and (4) What is the total cost of the project?

Project managers at the top of the food chain have both art- and science-based skills. When subjective situations arise, a project manager needs soft skills to discern the appropriate course of action; different employee styles and different scenarios require different management tactics. So too, project managers need factual and objective data to manage an initiative and recommend corrective action.

Project managers who are not well rounded -- those who excel at the art or the science, but not both -- are less effective than project managers with a combination of skills.

One manager we observed, for example, had great scientific skills, but he managed projects from his keyboard. His status reports demonstrated that he was a whiz with earned value but was afraid to work collaboratively with his team. He communicated only by email. The group didn't respect him, and team members weren't as efficient as they could have been with face-to-face interaction. If this project manager had known how to motivate, his team could have finished the project a month early. Lacking the art hurts the entire project.

On the flip side, another project manager we observed correctly negotiated the triple constraints of time, cost and quality with a sponsor. She allowed the sponsor to choose his priorities -- quality and time -- and she had flexibility with the cost aspects of the project. Unfortunately, she didn't monitor and control the work and didn't sound the alarm when the project took longer than originally expected. She lost credibility with her sponsor because she failed to keep the project on schedule. Lacking the science won't work either.

Then there's the individual who embodies both the artist and the scientist. We observed a project manager who collaborated with her team to create a project schedule with all the critical information: tasks, effort, resources and dependencies. Then she created an easy-to-read Visio time line for executives depicting the sponsor's Big Four. When the executives challenged her to get it done sooner, she had the conviction to defend the right plan but also worked with the team to develop alternatives in an attempt to meet the request. Six months into the project, the team was three weeks behind schedule, and she reported that the project was lagging. She had the courage to report the truth, which is essential to the art of project management.

The key is choosing the right person to occupy the project manager role: someone who practices both art and science. One without the other is like a car with an accelerator but no brakes. Your project may get to its destination, but you will leave a trail of dead bodies behind you.


Michael Vinje and Michelle Burke are principals at Trissential, a management consulting firm based in Minneapolis. Write to them at [email protected].

Dig Deeper on CIO strategy

Cloud Computing
Mobile Computing
Data Center
and ESG