Why Projects Are Like Circuses and PMs Are Like Circus Performers

Welcome to PM Leader! I started this blog to present some of my ideas on leadership, project management, ethics, and personal development. I hope to offer unique insights and begin a conversation within the community about these topics. Please feel free to comment, debate, question or flat out argue with me!

I’d like to start with a look at the ways that project managers are different from other leaders within organizations, since many of the challenges of project management come from those differences.

Projects Are Like Circuses

One of the distinguishing features of a project is that it is temporary. Projects have a beginning and an end. When a project starts, it is like establishing a temporary tent city for a circus. Communications have to be set up, personnel assigned, roles and responsibilities defined, etc. — much like putting up the circus tents, situating the animals, finding a water source, designating latrines and everything else that goes into creating a temporary community. If the group comprising the community is experienced then they may operate like a well-oiled machine, but issues associated with the transitory nature of the living arrangement will invariably come up.

With projects, issues can arise from the very uniqueness of the project. Even using templates, lessons learned from past projects, and project management expertise cannot fully eliminate the challenges which come up simply because the project is working on a new product, service or result which has never before been created in the same way.

Project Managers Are Like Circus Performers

Have you been this guy?

When the circus is over, the performers and crew pack up, move on to the next town and prepare to repeat the whole process again. Not only does a project manager resemble a ringmaster at times, but many are nomadic in the sense that once their project is complete, they are without a home until they begin another project. Many project managers float outside of the regular hierarchy of their organizations and are lacking in formal authority other than that which is needed to complete their current projects. Some project managers are even nomadic in the literal sense: they are consultants and once their project is complete, they move on to another company and another project. Project managers often love the freedom and variety gained from working this way, but sometimes this lack of a foothold in an organization can cause issues as well.

Questions can arise like:

Without any institutional authority, how do I effectively lead my team if personal conflicts arise?

How do I influence and negotiate with managers and executives who have power over my project?

When I’m a senior PM who has worked on very large, complex projects, what will I do next to move my career forward?

How do I communicate with members of my project team who are accustomed to the communication styles of their functional managers?

How do I deal with imposter syndrome?

The Answers!

With this blog I hope to offer some answers to the above, or at least some jumping off points. Stay tuned. This circus is just getting started.


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