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Empathy, Systems and the PMBOK® guide !


There is a classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry wants to get together romantically with Elaine and he is looking for a set of ‘rules’ to govern the relationship (friendship and sex). He gets excited about the idea of a rules based relationship exclaiming that they now have a ‘system’ to reduce conflict and awkwardness. Typically this leads to comic results when the rules are disputed.


Simon Baron Cohen (Ali G’s brother) in his book ‘ The Essential Difference’ states bravely that ‘The male brain is predominantly hard wired for understanding and systemizing.(building systems) and ‘The female brain is predominantly hard wired for empathy’.

He defines empathizing as ‘the drive to identify another persons emotions and thoughts and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.


He ‘defines ‘systems’ as any ‘input/ operation/ output’  (repeatable) relationship.


And so how might this connected to the latest changes to the PMBOK® guide?


The 1996 version had 37 steps that could be linked (step to step) together in a  ‘system’ which frequently drew the ‘eureka’ comment from male students in PMP Preparation classes as they see a spatial representation of the all the 37 steps on one graphic.


 ‘Now I get it’ they would say and proceed to add the inputs/ outputs and tools and techniques to the individual steps. This graphical relationship was preserved in the 2000 version even with the addition of the extra steps (for copies of the graphics see www.pmpulse.com)


We now have 44 steps and the roadmap links are harder to draw and explain to students. Could it be that the PMBOK® guide has become less of a ‘system’ in the recent upgrade and could Baron-Cohen’s ideas have been at work?


In essence is there more empathy and less systemizing in the new version?


A study of the lead developers/ contributors of the previous PMBOK® guide’s upgrades points out an interesting statistic. It was 100% male group in the 1981 version reducing to 95% male for the 1986 version to 66% males for the 1996, 2000 and 2004 versions.

Note that Baron-Cohen’s assertion relates to male and female brains (it is possible for a male to have a female brain and visa versa)


Baron Cohen suggests that the average male is worse at empathizing but better at systemizing than the average female. This may be heresy to say in certain universities in the USA however it is a topic that is getting more and more attention in the media.


A recent BBC documentary in the UK backed up a lot of his work and provided some very interesting insights that we need to consider if we are to be effective project and team managers.


A particular aspect of his research that relates to our field is that the success of a project depends on the firm hand of the leader. “The project manager must manage to critical path activities and not allow personal feelings to prevail unless they return productivity within the project. In which case they have become part of the system”


Project managers can be anywhere on a sliding scale from pure empathizers to pure systemizers with most of us nearer to the middle. Recent studies suggest that empathizing is in part heritable and may have been adapted as beneficial. An example would be a Good Systemizer/ Low Empathy person as a project mangager is likely to gain respect (weather prediction, herbal medicine, astronomy?) and the Low Empathy makes it easier to make tough decisions (in effect they are not tough decisions for them).


While this may be funny for Jerry and Elaine – these are factors that we will need to address on our projects to improve performance, repeatability and ultimately success. We have reopened the nature/nurture debate that is discussed in a following paper.


May you live in interesting times?

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