Learning About Identities

My interest lies in understanding the managers of projects and the nature of their identities. Project Manager identities is an important issue for the profession. Much training is concerned with standards and toolkits as if project managers can be defined in terms of their familiarity with such artefacts.

But the body of knowledge in which embryo managers are tutored tells them nothing of their intended role – the character part they are to play in the drama of organisational life. The person implied by this way of thinking – the master of the project tools, the custodian of the project paperwork, lacking any personal interest or ambition beyond the project – is scarcely human, and not encouraging as a professional model.

The purpose of a project proposal

Proposals are sometimes put forward for a fuller, more rounded notion of identity, embracing leadership, to which a project manager ought perhaps to aspire. However, such ‘oughts’ are often of little help to practising managers, who have to find a mode of operation – an identity – that makes sense and works for them in the context of their own work.

In a complex tribal environment, they are in competition with factional interests and other would-be leaders. To act effectively our project managers need a foundation for their influence, an allegiance to a power base of their own. And without exception, they act with a personal interest – that of protecting their own reputation.

Research to understand Project Manager identities

The aim of my research is to shed light on this subject by examining the possibilities for project manager identities in practice. Key to this aim is an investigation of how managers deal with challenging project situations. If as a manager I am faced with a project challenge I must make sense of the challenging situation in order to act.

The sense I make – where we are and what we are going to do – is dependent on my concept of my identity: who I am, who I am acting on behalf of, and what I am entitled, expected, and able to do. Conversely, my identity in the eyes of others emerges from the manner in which I take possession of a difficult situation, and it is through my action that I claim recognition as a credible project manager. Project managers are made in action, not in the training room, and not in the theories of a textbook.

My research plan is therefore to investigate personal stories, told by practising managers, about their handling of challenging project situations. These stories will provide the evidence for the nature and performance of identities: how managers conceive and act out their role, and the allegiances and resources, both technical and personal, that they bring to this performance.

My personal experience tells me that there is diversity in project manager identities. This view is strongly supported by the work of the Rethinking Project Management Network, and in the evidence, in stories, I have collected to date. On the other hand, we must recognise that we have a highly structured and socialised profession. Our managers are not inventing themselves from scratch but are shaping themselves using a limited set of moulds – those possibilities current in the world of projects and their management.

Benefits to the profession

The outcome of this research, therefore, will be to enrich our understanding of the multiple possibilities for being and acting as a professional in the world of projects. We can use this understanding to support and develop education programmes, and also to help individuals to enhance their awareness as they learn to perform roles and make career choices in this field.

About Guest Contributor

Charles Smith has over 30 years’ industry experience, holding management and consulting positions in engineering, structural dynamics, safety and risk management, project management, business improvement and organisational change. Charles was recently coordinator for the EPSRC funded network Rethinking Project Management. Originally qualifying in engineering, Charles also has a degree in psychology and is a Founder Member of the Association of Business Psychologists.

References and Contacts

The conceptual framework that supports this research is set out in a paper: Smith, C (2011) ‘Understanding Project Manager Identities:  a Framework for Research’, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 4/4 (in press)
The conclusions of the Rethinking Project Management Network are set out in Winter, M., Smith, C., Morris, P. W. G. and Cicmil, S. (2006a). ‘Directions for future research in project management: The main findings of a UK government-funded research network.’ International Journal of Project Management.  24 (8): 638-649.

Charles Smith is the author of ‘Making Sense of Project Realities: Theory, Practice and the Pursuit of Performance’, Gower 2007 Contact: [email protected]
Website: www.projectcraft.org.uk