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If I said the name Malcolm Gladwell, how many of you would recognise it?

He’s written some bestselling books: Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath, and is an author of the same genre as people such as Tim Harford, Dan Ariely, Charles Duhigg and Michael Lewis, to name but a few (all authors I fully recommend, by the way).

Scissors need two blades

It is the book Blink that is the inspiration for this article, which talks about how people make instant, snap decisions. Some of the underlying theory of Blink is taken from another book called Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer, and it was when I was reading this that I coined my favourite analogy about how to make project management work in an organisation. But first, I read:

"Just as one cannot understand how scissors cut by looking at only one blade, one will not understand human behaviour by studying either cognition or the environment alone."

What this is saying is that if you want to understand human behaviour, it is not enough to independently understand how the mind works and understand its environment – you need to understand how the mind interacts with its environment. It is the interaction between the two blades that makes them characteristic of scissors (see left-hand image).

What does this have to do with making project management work?

Well, I consider that to make project management work in an organisation, it is not enough to understand project management knowledge and the organisational environment independently – you need to understand how project management knowledge interacts with your organisational environment (see right-hand image).

For example, attend any project management course and you’ll discuss typical roles: sponsor, project manager, senior user, and so on. Yet I’ve not met an organisation that implements these roles exactly as the book says –  implementing project governance correctly requires knowledge of your organisation. One reason is that the levels of decision-making and authority will be different in, say, the financial sector to the public sector.

In this example, project management knowledge equals understanding of the role of the sponsor, project manager, senior user and so on, whereas the organisational environment equals your company and industry. Understanding these independently will not make project management work – it’s the interaction between knowledge and the organisation that matters.

So, I rephrase the statement above:

Just as one cannot understand how scissors cut by looking at only one blade, one will not understand project management by knowing either the subject or the environment alone.

Does a project manager need technical knowledge?

I talked about this analogy at a conference last year and at the end, I got asked a very valid question:

“How much technical knowledge does a project manager need of the project?” That is, how much does a project manager need to know about, for instance, IT, construction or health to run IT, construction or health-related projects?

I forged my project manager career in the automotive industry and I can reliably state that I know nothing about how cars work. Did I need to have a good understanding of engines and power trains to run projects in this industry? My view is no.

I am running a software project at the moment, and I get communications from the supplier about some really granular technical details. I don’t understand these technical details (ask anyone in my team) – I guess I am a "conscious incompetent" – so my team includes people who do have the technical knowledge and I liaise with them. I like to think I know something about project management, and how my own organisation operates – the two blades of the scissors. The technical details I can find out about.

Think of it another way: Could I be a project manager in your organisation? This is a question I regularly ask organisations when discussing this analogy. Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes, as while I may not know the structures, policies and procedures of your company, I can get to know these relatively easily and quickly.

What are you looking for in a project manager? Experience of running different sizes and complexity of projects? Or experience in running specific technical projects? Or both? I have experience of running multi-million-pound projects in the automotive industry – surely this counts for something other than just car technical knowledge?

Sharpening each blade

So, how do you sharpen each blade and build capability and competency in project management?

Starting with the PM knowledge blade, training is the obvious option here: PRINCE2, APMAgilePM, Change Management, Benefits Management, PMI, etc. These are generic (by definition) and build knowledge in the subject.

How do we sharpen the organisational environment blade, and crucially make the two blades interact?

Competency assessments are a good option to fuse knowledge with the organisational environment – what I see with a lot of companies is competency assessments that are a hybrid of generic project management areas (risk, planning, quality, etc) and some organisation-specific ones (e.g. procurement, company behaviours, values, governance).

I like this approach as people have to give evidence of how they have put their knowledge into practice in their organisation. Then, targeted development can be put in place via, for example, a career framework, learning interventions, coaching and mentoring. The list can go on.

To find out more about how QA can help build your capability and capacity in project management, drop me a line at

[This article was first published on on 16/01/20]

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