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Optimizing the Brain when Managing Project Tasks and Teams

  Ahmad M. Rashid | Partner

  28th January, 2015

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In 2010, Meirc lead a regional research that covered 12 countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt). The purpose of the research was to have an in-depth look at success ingredients of Arab executives and managers residing in these countries. The research involved interviewing more than 300 top-notch managers and executives who were identified based on predefined selection criteria. The result of the research was published in a book titled “Developing Multi Cultural Leaders” written by my colleagues, Dr. Farid Muna and Dr. Ziad Zennie.

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Diagram 1: Picture of Meirc Research Book.

I was part of the research team that interviewed the candidates and the interesting part for me was the similar answers that were provided by all when they were asked about their recipe for managing projects successfully:

  •  “you need to balance your time between project tasks and project teams”
  •  “you need to be task-oriented and people-oriented”
  •  “a successful project manager is someone who can take actions related to both: project tasks and project teams”
  •  “successful project management is all about caring for your project team and coaching them on their tasks”

The above comments stimulated in me an interest to research how project managers can focus at both aspects of project: tasks and teams. Upon completing my research, I came to the conclusion that successful project management is all about making sure that both parts of the brain, left and right, are activated while working on projects.

Much research was conducted on the left/right parts of the brain that included detailed functions of each brain. Diagram 2 shows the functions of each hemisphere. In this article I will discuss the importance of using both hemispheres to succeed in managing projects.

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Diagram 2: Functions of Brain Hemispheres.
So which part of the brain do we need to manage project tasks? And which part the brain do we need to lead project teams? Based on the above-mentioned functions, the answer is simple: use the left brain to manage project tasks and the right brain to lead project teams. Managing project tasks includes planning, organizing, drawing network diagrams, developing bar charts and analyzing data. To succeed in managing all of these tasks the left brain comes into play because it has to do with data analysis, logic and reasoning. On the other hand, leading project teams includes communicating with project members, motivating them, showing empathy, exercising good negotiation and influencing skills. To succeed in leading project teams the right brain comes into play because it has to do with communication, empathy and negotiation.

Many times I encountered in my seminars and training sessions project managers who were experts in their field with high IQs (Intelligence Quotients). After a few psychometric assessments they appeared to have low EQ (Emotional Quotient). This of course resulted in them being more left-brained at the expense of having balance between both parts of the brain. The result (as shared by most participants) was high employee turnover and short-term results only. This was due to their inability or failure to lead and motivate their teams. I personally would not blame these project managers for their shortcomings in leading their teams but would place the blame on their superiors and top management as well as on the department responsible for career planning and development. A high percentage of participants shared with me how they were promoted from being technical people to project managers without having any formal training on management and leadership. So what happened? The Halo Effect which states that we tend to assume that a person with good technical expertise (a high IQ and left-brained person) will succeed in leadership and management roles (which require high EQ and a right-brained approach).

They used to say in the old days: cheap, good or fast, pick two! Almost all project practitioners are familiar with the triple constraints concept (scope, time and cost). To assume a project will be successful by delivering its deliverables within the agreed scope, assigned budget and assigned timeframe is really an underestimation of the role of the right brain in projects. Delivering successful projects by only managing the triple constraints could have been possible when projects were small in nature and short in duration. But with today’s complexities we cannot afford to manage the three basic constraints that have to do with the left brain. We also need to address other constraints which require our right brain, such as: risk and resources. Even the Project Management Institute (PMI) 0noticed the need for focusing on more constraints other than the three basic ones. In its 3rd edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), PMI listed project constraints as scope, time and cost. However, starting from the 4th edition, project constraints were listed as: scope, time, cost, risk, resources and quality – emphasizing that many constraints will require the deployment of the right brain as well as the left to handle them.

Let me emphasize the above by sharing with you the project definition as it appeared in the UK-based project management standard: “Managing successful projects with PRINCE2, 2009 edition”: “Project management is the planning, delegating, monitoring and control of all aspects of the project, and the motivation of those involved, to achieve the project objectives within the expected performance targets for time, cost, quality, scope benefits and risks.”

Obviosuly the first part of the above definition has to do with task management activities which relate to the left brain (planning, delegaton, montioring and control). However, the second part of the defintion has to do with team leadership which is done primarily by the right brain (motivation, communication and such).

The PMBOK definition of a project is simpler than that stated in the PRINCE2 Guide, where project is defined as: “a temprorary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” - PMBOK Fifth Edition. This “endeavour” element in the definition is further explained in details in the PMBOK Guide by introducing ten knowledge areas a project manager needs to master in order to effectively and successfully manage the project. These areas are:

  1. Integration
  2. Scope
  3. Time
  4. Cost
  5. Quality
  6. Human Resources
  7. Communication
  8. Risk
  9. Procurement
  10. Stakeholder 

As a trainer for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and from practical experience I would safely state that the first five areas will require dependence on the left brain since they include technical tools and concepts, such as: Critical Path Method (CPM), Project Review and Evaluation Technique (PERT), Gantt/Bar Charts. The rest of the areas will require more dependence on the right brain since they have to do with communication, empathy, creativity, and understanding the needs of stakeholders.

Now for the one million-dollar question: how can one become a “complete project manager” who uses both brain hemispheres? The answer is simple: by continuous self-development initiatives such as attending training courses, reading books on leading and managing, and enrolling into workshops aimed at improving people management skills such as Emotional Intelligence, Communication Skills, Managing Conflict and High Performance Teams. As for programs which stimulate the left brain, I recommend workshops on Project Management, Managing Projects using MS Project, and Project Risk Management.

There are also some physical exercises which can assist in activating both brain hemispheres. The following links can be a good starting point:

For left brain exercises: http://www.livestrong.com/article/343823-exercises-to-stimulate-the-left-side-of-the-brain/

For right brain exercises: http://www.learningrx.com/right-brain-exercises-faq.html

We always state that true leadership is about “doing the right things” and true management is about “doing things the right way”. This also applies to project management; project managers need to learn how to unleash their brain powers by doing the right things using their right brain and doing things the right way using their left brain.