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Theory X and Theory Y Project Managers

This article contains a speech originally given in London in December 2015.

Thanks for the introduction, and good morning everyone. It’s nice to be here talking to a community of my fellow project managers. It can be an interesting job being a project manager. But it’s one of those jobs that unless you have done it, or worked very closely with, you don’t really have a good grasp of what it entails. Our discipline has been a domain of huge debate over the last 10 years or so, focusing on the battle between aficionados of Agile and traditionalists keeping the flame of waterfall going.

This debate can often obscure the real point of project management, confusing the how we do it, with the why we do it and what we need to achieve. This confusion spills beyond our domain and I often find sponsors and stakeholders asking for things that aren’t really project management work – or making assumptions about project managers that are false. On the other hand, I sometimes meet quite experienced PMs who don’t really seem to know what PM entails!

Now, as far as I understand you are a mixed group in terms of experience – some of you are very experienced PMs, others less so. So I wanted to find a topic that would be hopefully both useful and interesting irrespective of experience, all within the envelope of 20 minutes. Of course, you will be the judges of how successful I am.

I have called my talk theory X and theory Y project managers – for reasons that should become apparent as I talk.

Project managers learn that one of the sources of risk on any endeavour are the assumptions being made on that endeavour. Assumptions can be wrong – and the possibility they are wrong is one of the key sources of risk on a project.

I am going to start by highlighting an assumption. The fact that we have a job is based on an assumption that we probably rarely ask ourselves, or in fact don’t even assume there is an assumption but treat as some absolute principle, and that assumption is that we actually need project managers. I certainly take the need for project managers for granted most of the time. I expect you do to. Life is a bit uncomfortable if you don’t!

I was put on the spot a couple of years ago by one of my clients, the CIO of a 70,000 people organization. We were casually chatting one day, when she said to me: “well, if I had good people they would all do their jobs, and if they all did their jobs I would not need project managers.”

I was pretty stunned when she said this, and to be honest a little bit offended! But I was also stumped when she said this as although I thought she was wrong, I could not articulate precisely why she was wrong. So, I went away and thought a lot about this – and I want to share some of my thinking about why we need project managers with you. I want to do this, just in case you are ever asked or challenged about the need for project managers – as a stunned silence tends not to give the impression of substantial argument in favour of us or our profession!

Before I do this I am going to make a bit of an aside into management theory. Does everyone here know of McGregor’s theory x and theory y? Just as a reminder - Douglas McGregor was an American social psychologist who published a really influential book in 1960 called “The Human Side of the Enterprise”. In it, McGregor describes two types of management styles based on a manager’s theory of employees – the aforementioned theory X and theory Y.

Essentially, those seeing the world through theory X think employees dislike work, avoid responsibility, need to be controlled, supervised and enticed to produce results. On the other hand those seeing the world through theory Y think employees like to take responsibility, like to work, are motivated, don’t need much direction and consider work as a good part of life.

Enough of my aside, let’s go back to my situation with my challenging CIO but using the language of McGregor’s theory X and theory Y. To be fair I am going to manipulate this language to my own ends in a way McGregor might not have approved of – but I hope you get the message I am going to make.

What did I actually say to my CIO? Of course, I bit my tongue. One thing with experience is you learn that poorly thought through responses said in the heat of the moment rarely help – especially given to someone senior. Doubly especially if they are paying your bills.

Instead I went away and had a think. Having thought about it I believe what she was saying can be translated as “I’ve got theory X employees and so I need theory X project managers. If I had theory y employees then I could make all my project managers redundant – I don’t need theory Y project managers”. Not really one of the most motivational moments in my career, but one that at least made me think.

You may not be surprised, given that I still work as a project manager, that I disagree with her.

I believe I am right and she was essentially wrong. “Essentially” is an important word in that sentence – I use it instead of “completely”. She was not completely wrong, there were some elements of truth in her words. But the spirit or essence of what she said was wrong. Let me explain why.

Project managers are not only required because organizations are full of lazy, difficult, free-loaders who need constant micro-management and chasing. Yet to be fair to her, it was not as if I had never had to micro-manage such people. The truth is a bit more nuanced than a simplistic she is wrong and I am right. So, where is the truth?

The truth is worth finding not just because of challenges from people like my old client, but also because the world is awash with gurus and management thinkers promoting self-managing teams, self-structuring organizations (such as in Holocracy) and generally degenerating anything with the title manager in it. And this affects us as project managers unless we are able to explain why we are required – it can all sound dangerously like a world devoid of project managers.

Let’s start with the theory X side. I think, in most organizations at least, there really are some “theory X” reasons why we need project managers. I’m going to stretch the meaning of theory x and not just apply it to people, but to the organization itself as well. I am going to define a theory X organization as one that is inefficient and sluggish in that the internal processes are a nightmare to work through – and a theory Y organization as one that is smooth and slick and has internal processes that facilitate efficient and effective working rather than getting in the way.

So let’s look at a few theory X reasons for project managers. I’m going to run through 5, and you can see how many you recognise:

  • People are lazy – this is the “if you don’t chase people they won’t work” school of management. Classic theory X – project managers’ role is to make people work who would not otherwise work. We are the ones holding the whip getting others to do the job in hand.
  • People have too many things to do, and need to be forced into focusing – this is the sponsor using a project manager because the prioritisation system is broken an does not actually drive what people do, or more insidiously the sponsor implicitly saying I want you to break the prioritisation system and do what I want irrespective of it. This is the “who shouts loudest” school of management, where the project manager has to develop the loudest shout.
  • The team are not skilled enough – so they need an expert helper and you as the project manager are it! In this role the project manager is less project manager and more subject matter expert. (The clear thinkers amongst you will notice this is not really a theory x reason, but I’m going to lump it here as it is a challenged project managers have to face).
  • The organization’s internal processes are broken – it’s so difficult to get anything done we need project managers as experts it getting around internal processes and controls. This is the project manager as hammer to break the painful knots internal processes can get us all tied up in.

I am going to add a 5th to this list which may surprise you a bit as it does not fit the theory X and theory Y split exactly, but go with me on this one:

  • I just need someone to track and report – This is the project manager as administrator. You may be surprised that I include this – after all isn’t it part of project management to track and report? Yes, of course – tracking and reporting are essential parts of project management, but they are tools not goals in themselves. If all you are doing is tracking and reporting you are not managing in any meaningful sense of the word – at best you are administering. If we only need project managers to track and report that derives to me from the sponsor thinking “I don’t trust the team – possibly including the project manager” sort of mentality and because of this “if I have a report I can keep my beady eye on them and pressurise them into doing the right work”.

The truth is, I don’t think of these really as justifications for project management as a profession – they are not. What they are, are real world issues and stuff that we have to sort out because in truth we all work in a less than perfect world. And it is true that much of our work as project managers is spent sorting out these type of issues: lazy people, ineffective prioritisation, poorly skilled teams, reporting so people can be kept under pressure by senior managers, and finding a way through the maze of badly designed internal processes. Theory X reasons really exist.

You are best placed to judge how much of your time as a project manager is spent on “theory X” sort of issues. Does everyone here spend at least some time on “theory X” issues?

But none of these theory X reasons are the essence of project management. They may all need doing sometimes, but if this was what project management was about my CIO was almost right – if we had good people and slicker internal processes then a big chunk of what project managers actually spend their time doing would disappear.

But is that all? If we could solve our theory X problems and more to a world of organizations with perfect processes and wonderful theory y style employees would all my CIOs dreams come true and project managers be a profession of the past?

No. For the avoidance of doubt I am going to repeat that: no!

There are several reasons I think why we can say no, but they can be summarised into three areas – delivery, complexity and risk. Delivery, complexity and risk. Let’s look at them in turn.

Let’s imagine a world in which everyone is focused, motivated and working in an environment of perfect processes. Would projects just flow painlessly through them? No, at least not for the sort of complex tasks that really deserve the title project. People can get fixated on whether we are talking about management or leadership, or on methods such as Agile or Waterfall. I have a view on what works in which situations, but overall I am not really that bothered. The point is that the project manager needs to make delivery happen, whatever toolkit you specifically use. Groups of even the most highly skilled and motivated individuals won’t make delivery happen in the sense of a co-ordinated aggregation of many different tasks. To bring this all together into a meaningful delivery is our role. 

Underlying the need to deliver is the point that projects are complex. If they were not complex we probably would not need project managers. Fortunately, someone needs to think through this complexity, break it down into simple tasks that can be done by individuals, line up dependencies and interactions, coordinate and integrate streams of work and so on. This complexity won’t disappear just because we have great people. This is one of the main reasons for project management: managing complexity. We might even want to rename ourselves as complexity managers – or even complexity leaders.

The other thing we all know is that in projects we have to plan and predict. We do this for a whole series of reasons – some to do with managing complexity, but also for corporate reasons, such as the need to budget and make commitments. But prediction about the future is far from perfect, and it never will be. The world is awash with unknowns, unpredictables and unforeseens. And no amount of analysis will remove risk entirely. In other words we work in a world in which risk is a reality. Now, in the context of a project you not only need people to do the work to get the project done – you need someone who is keeping an eye on risk from the project perspective. What might go wrong? What might change? What assumptions are there, and which ones might turn out to be false? And so on. The identification, mitigation and management of risk is core to the project managers art, and will remain so, even in the best of theory Y worlds.

These three areas are where the real value as a project manager derives from – our ability to make delivery happen, to make the complex manageable, and to predict, mitigate and overcome risks. No one else does this formally. No one else has the toolkit to analyse and structure the complex into simple tasks, or the experience, tools and sensitivity to think about the risks from changes. These are true value add.

So, next time you are feeling a bit down as project manager. Swamped under the burden of creaking and overly complex internal processes, or fed up chasing someone who seems to take pleasure in doing as little as possible – remember there is a positive side to our role as well. Seeing our way through all that complexity and risk.

If you are at the start of your career as a PM you may well find yourself getting really bogged down in theory X style issues. But the good point is that as you become more senior the more of your role is spent doing this positive theory y side of the role.

Let’s bring on the theory Y project managers. And if you ever meet my CIO – or someone with similar views – you now have a nice answer to respond with.

Thank you for listening. I hope you found that helpful.

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