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The Seven Deadly Project Sins: Part 1 – Elitism (#1 in the series The Seven Deadly Project Sins)
By Tim Bergmann

Early Greek theologians originally identified eight wicked life characteristics that the individual should avoid lest they be punished in the afterlife. Christianity modified these eight elements into a shorter list that has been euphemistically labeled the “Seven Deadly Sins”. By theological assertion, the individual who practices the deadly sins or who falls into temptation from these deadly sins will be punished eternally in the afterlife.

Project Management has a group of “Deadly Sins” that the project manager can be tempted by. Punishment for practicing these sins often does not wait for the afterlife or the after-project. Punishment is many times swift and career changing.

In this narrative, I want to focus on some of the “soft-elements” of the project, some temptations that the project manager needs to be on the lookout for in order to foster success on the project.

The Seven Deadly Sins as defined by theologians are:

  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Gluttony
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Greed
  • Sloth

This document is the first in a series about the Seven Deadly Project Sins. Our first deadly project sin is “Elitism”.

Elitism affects many projects and many project managers.

On the Internet at www.wikipedia.com you can view this definition of elitism:

“Elitism is the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite — a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are mostly likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern. Alternatively, the term elitism may be used to describe a situation in which power is concentrated in the hands of the elite.”

Right after reading this definition, I almost know what you are thinking. You are thinking about a project manager that you know who has fallen into temptation from the project sin of elitism. You probably know someone in your organization. Not to pick on any specific group or association, but in many professional associations the practice of elitism is apparent. Organizational leaders – whether in a professional organization or a typical corporation often get caught up in an elitist view of their world – they are the one in power, they believe that they have the knowledge, skills and intellect necessary and that they need to surround themselves with similar individuals.

Sound familiar yet?

Elitism is not limited to project management. I have a friend who is a Baptist minister. He told me once that the hardest thing to do was to not be overly proud of his own accomplishments and to be humble. He expressed to me that every time he thought of all the things he had accomplished, he got so proud of what he had done that he totally lost his perspective on what he needed to accomplish next. This same loss of focus can occur to the project manager when working on a project.

Elitism in the project environment usually exhibits the symptoms described in the Wikipedia definition: power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals and these individuals feel that they are somehow “ordained” to hold that power. The individual project manager believes that they hold the personal knowledge, the intellect, the special training and experience that makes them suitable to hold and wield the power associated with the position of project manager. Many times the project manager who becomes an “elitist” will surround themselves with project participants who believe as they do; participants who believe that they also have the knowledge, the intellect, the special skills and experience to do master the project. These participants validate the elitism and usually cause a close-knit group or a “clique” to form. The clique usually moves forward in lock-step to execute the project as they see fit.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? These people all see the same thing and they are all working together in harmony to accomplish the project.

The problem with elitism in the project environment is that projects are intended to be inclusive, not exclusive. When you learn about project management in “Project Management 101”, one of the first things we learn about are stakeholders. Stakeholders have an interest in the project and the project outcomes. Stakeholders should be consulted, communicated with and included during the life of the project. If a “project clique” exists on the project, then the stakeholders are often not included or, if they are, their opinions and inputs are many times not accorded an appropriate level of value – since the clique knows better than the “common stakeholder”.

As a certified Project Management Professional, as a practicing project manager and as a project management instructor, I can tell you that lack of adequate project communication is the leading cause for project failure. Almost every customer that I have had the opportunity to work with over my career has cited communications issues as their largest impediment to success. Communications issues arise when everyone is not communicating on the same level. Communications issues arise when one group excludes another group from the project.

Think back, when you were in High School (or even worse – Junior High) was there a clique of people that you avoided like the plague? If you were a person who liked English and reading books, you probably did not go over to the football team table in the cafeteria. If you were a band person, you might avoid the people in the science club. Little cliques, little groups of people who all thought somehow that they had more specialized knowledge and were somehow “better” than the people who approached them were usually the rule rather than the exception as we all grew up.

Is it really different now? As alleged adult professionals, do we ever (or often?) encounter the corporate clique? Do we encounter groups of elitists who somehow think that they know more than their fellows and are better suited to running the company or the project and deciding direction and outcomes for everyone else? Of course we do. In many organizations management becomes a clique. I know that this not normally the intention of the organization – or even the participants in the management clique. Most of the time it is an inadvertent outcome of associating with like individuals – individuals that we are comfortable with.

Let’s focus on the inclusive versus exclusive discussion. Elitism is exclusive. The project manager who has fallen victim to elitism often forgets the corporate and project goals and is more focused on their own individual goals. This is often bad for the organization and many times subverts the goals of the project in order to pursue the goals of the individual. This can also be defined as a conflict of interest (which is defined as a highly negative part of the PMI Code of Ethics).

It is the intent of most organizations and most projects that the project be managed and executed in an inclusive manner. All of the participants and stakeholders views need to be included and evaluated.

Is managing the project in an inclusive manner more difficult than being an elitist with all of the answers? Of course it is. Is it the right thing to do? Yes, it is. Does this have value to the organization and the project? Yes, it does.

How can being inclusive to all of the participants show value on the project? Value is achieved by exposing all of the potential views and variations that the project might entail. If one is operating in an elitist mode and excludes many views, there is the potential that only one viewpoint for the project will be exposed. Alternatives may be missed, synergies may be hidden – in simplification – you might not be able to “see the forest for the trees”.

Here’s hoping that when you manage your projects, you will remember to include all of your stakeholders and communicate effectively with them. I would encourage every project manager to avoid this “Deadly Project Sin” of elitism in the project environment.

This article was first published as a series of articles from August 2007 through February 2008 entitled “The Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management”. This series of articles were published as “Project Management Tips” on PM World Today and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

The author, Tim Bergmann, is Chief Learning Officer for True Solutions Inc. in Dallas, Texas. Mr. Bergmann is a highly qualified project manager with three decades of experience managing a wide variety of information technology projects. Mr. Bergmann’s experience includes project management, operations management, infrastructure planning and implementation, business continuity planning, customer service and business development.

In 2006 he co-authored the best selling “CISA Study Guide” marketed by Sybex. Mr. Bergmann’s credentials include Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP) and Disaster Recovery Institute’s Associate Business Continuity Professional (ABCP).

Mr. Bergmann has seen a progressive management career with several Dallas-based companies such as Compass Computer Service, Zale Corporation, Chief Auto Parts and B. R. Blackmarr/BrightStar Technology Group. His most recent engagement prior to joining TSI was as Director of Education for another D-FW based training company where he developed multiple course content and delivered project management and business continuity training.
As a consultant, he has worked with several Fortune 100 companies in a project management role. Mr. Bergmann has performed premier projects for the world’s largest auto manufacturer, a leading global insurance and investment provider, a regional power generation company, the world’s largest specialty jewelry retailer and a Dallas based transaction network and financial services provider.

He can be reached at tim.bergmann@truesolutions.com

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