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Project Management and Narrative: Romance or Tragedy?

malcomJan21Judging by its use in the popular media, the term “narrative” explains, well, just about everything.  Google “narrative” and  among the 21,900,000  results  are references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mitt Romney’s lackluster presidential campaign,  the doping scandal in Major League Baseball, and the impact of Lindsay Lohan’s personal life on her most recent movie. Buried among these results are a significant number of hits that link project management and narrativity. For the most part, they propose using narrative as a tool to structure progress reporting or to shape change management processes. What they don’t do – and what is the focus of this discussion –  is to compare this new concept of narrative with its more  traditional definition, involving concepts like plot, character, and author, in order to suggest how it might be fruitfully applied to project management and the role of the project manager.

The current ubiquity of the term narrative derives largely from poststructuralist theories – deconstruction, hermeneutics, and feminism, for example – that argue human meaning is not universal but rather a construction that is influenced by a vast number of factors including historical contingency, gender, religion, and nationality. Narrative teleology, a story’s drive towards a conclusive ending, helps humans make sense of their lives which themselves are teleological.  Arguably, projects are no less a means of creating meaning in a world that no longer believes in the master narratives of the past. Like narratives, projects are created by people (authors) and involve individuals performing specific roles (characters) who follow a series of events (plot) that are constructed to achieve a particular goal usually dictated by an organization’s strategic vision. 

Whether intentional or not, the PMBOK can be read as a grammar on narrative, but one that highlights a key difference between the traditional and the more recent concept of narrative. The PMBOK insists as a foundational precept that a project is “a unique endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”   Regardless of how many times previously a road has been paved or the same blueprint has been used to construct a house, the activities associated with their completion are nonetheless unique because they occur at a specific point in historical time and are thus subject to potentially unforeseen circumstances – weather, markets, or political changes for instance – that can impact their progress and success. This conflict between what is planned and what may disrupt those plans parallels the concept of the struggle that the Greeks called agon, and that conflict must be resolved by the conclusion of the narrative.  It probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that agon is the root of the word “agony”, a concept with which all project managers have some familiarity.

Traditionally, this conflict plays out for the consumer  of narrative – the reader of books or the viewer of movies, say,  – as though it is unfolding in time, or synchronically, but of course if you can flip or fast forward to the end, the narrative is, in fact, pre-formed, or asynchronic.  Asynchronic narratives, then, are static and occur outside of time.  They have the power, however, to move not just individual lives but, as in the case of religious narrative, to shape entire nations and the course of history.  Synchronic narratives, on the other hand, are the working out of narrativity in our lives and work including projects and their endings are risky and uncertain.  Psychologist Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life, for instance, argues that “we are all storytellers – we create stories to make senses of our lives.” These stories are so deeply embedded in the decisions we make they are often naturalized or rarely understood at the narrative level. In order to combat this tendency of synchronic narrative, most organizations are structured around some kind of principle or strategic vision which directs their trajectory, whether it be profitability or charity, and as working individuals we enmesh our own stories in these broader asynchronic narratives.

Project management thus attempts to shape the synchronic project narrative into meaningful and profitable stories that come to satisfying conclusions. Without a strong narrative, project managers get stuck in a particular phase without being able to see how to move forward. The PMBOK enshrines project stages that are very similar to the classic narrative structure. Thus the project is a teleological narrative structure that ideally drives towards a definitive conclusion. There are various structuring devices that attempt to contain and control the indeterminate nature of the synchronic narrativity. The contract, for example, is a principal organizational device. It sets out the goals of the project, the limitations as to what each side can or cannot do, outlines the financial obligations of both parties, and so on. There are, of course, various types of contracts that impose different kinds of narrative demands – a fixed price contract, for instance, requires closer attention from the project manager to expenditures than a time and materials one. The contract, though, is a point-in-time document that is often superseded by events and requires amendments. Other narrative devices intended to channel the synchronic project narrative towards the desired conclusion include scope statements, risk analysis, project schedule, and team meetings. 

Although the PMBOK doesn’t discuss narrativity, it insists on a project structure that is very similar to that of a plot. The project has a beginning, middle and ending and the various stages of the project from initiation to closure reflect that structure. Similarly, narrative is composed of a series of events that take a character or group of characters from one point in their lives to another. Often this process is transformative in that the character now sees the world from a new perspective. There are, moreover, four major types of narrative that at first glance seem jarringly remote from project management.  They are comedy, romance, satire/irony, and tragedy. The literary critic Northrup Frye in his seminal work, Anatomy of Criticism, equates them to the seasons of the year – comedy and spring, romance and summer, fall and satire/irony, and winter and tragedy.  Frye uses the term romance to describe a long quest, such as that depicted in the Odyssey, that culminates in the realization of the hero’s goals (we assume that twenty-first century PMs would manage to resolve Odysseus’s conflict with Penelope’s suitors without dispatching all of them), whereas in tragedy such objectives are thwarted.  Although we are unaccustomed to characterizing projects, or the business world in general, in this fashion, a number of asynchronic narratives from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street make this connection between narrative typology and commercial enterprise.  Often, they focus on tragic consequences of characters’ actions rather than the romantic. The goal of project management, at least from this perspective, is that of romance – to realize the projects stated objectives despite whatever hardships are incurred along the way. 

Perhaps most importantly, the project is carried out by individuals who play various roles in it. According to Susan Cain in Quiet, the Harvard Business School recognizes this link to narrativity by using the term “protagonist” in its simulations of business situations or case studies.  Derived from the Greek, protagonist literally means an actor who struggles with conflict. Project protagonists include the Project Sponsor, the Project Manager, and the various workers who actually produce the work. One participant that often gets overlooked in the realm of synchronic narrative is the author. In asynchronic narrative, the product is generally shaped by an individual or in the case of movies groups of individuals who create the narrative and are intimately familiar with all its permutations, particularly its ending.  In the synchronic narrative world of projects, however, there are several participants who control the course of the project, most importantly the Project Sponsor and the Project Manager. The authorial role these characters play in synchronic narrative can be used to shape the narrative trajectory by dealing proactively with changing personnel, the withdrawal of financial support, and any other unexpected changes to the controlling devices in place.  The project sponsor, however, is often too far removed from the action to be able to exert influence on events before they are beyond help. Since project managers should be constantly monitoring all aspects of the project, their role has the greatest degree of authorial agency, or the power to shape the synchronic narrative towards the expected conclusion. “As project management is a critical strategic discipline,” the PMBOK notes, “the project manager becomes the link between the strategy and the team,” strategy being the organization’s narrative vision.   Project managers and the organizations they work for must recognize and accept that the greater authorial empowerment project managers have, the more likely the project will be successful.

I started working as a PM 15 years ago – given the subject of this discussion, it may not be overly surprising that I was an English professor  in my previous job – and recall early on working on a project in my company was partnered with a large multinational consulting organization.  Our goal was to produce a detailed requirements study that would make a case for proceeding with an IT development project. I had written the study; although he had known all along what was happening, when it came to the end the PM on the other side had suddenly decided the document should have been produced by their team. He was in a quandary as to how to deal with this situation. I recall him reaching into his desk drawer and pulling out the company’s voluminous PM manual to see what it had to say in these circumstances.  Instinctively, I knew there was something wrong with this approach but at that time didn’t have the language to be able to describe why. In the end, they rewrote the document to put their stamp on it, thus wasting time, effort, and money. The PMBOK and corporate manuals notwithstanding, there is no definitive asynchronic narrative for successful Project Managers. Of all the participants involved in a project, the Project Manager should have the authority – note the implicit reference to author – to respond to project exigencies with innovative narrative solutions to ensure the project turns out to be a romance rather than, as all too frequently occurs, a tragedy. 

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