Reframing project management – a person centred approach.

17th December 2020 21:04

But what do you actually do?

At this point in a normal year, you’d find me steeling myself for a season of awkward gatherings. Smiling patiently while distant and aged relatives perform their annual interrogation:

“So, you’ve finished university now?” [1]

“Still in Manchester?”

“What is it you do again?”

It’s at this point the conversation really deteriorates as I try to explain what market research is, before giving up and telling them I;

“sort of lead and/or manage projects(?)”

And while I’m glad that I can forego this particular gauntlet in 2020 I am left reflecting [2] on what project management is and what it should be.

The Two (Agency) Cultures

In his lecture, article and subsequent book C. P. Snow [3] argued that the intellectual life of western society had bifurcated, and that the two cultures - of science and the humanities - now operated independently to their mutual detriment. While not a perfect analogy my own experience of agency life has revealed a similar divide: approaches to project management.

The old guard: Waterfall project management

Beloved of lawyers and procurement professionals, waterfall project management has for decades been seen as the gold-standard in project management approaches. It is rigorous, comprehensive and provides a clear audit trail of decision-making, accountability and delivery against commitments. But anyone who actually does it knows that its cumbersome, legalistic form is often antagonistic to the very fabric of agency life. It’s slow and painful and sometimes we’d all rather just crack on with the actual work. 

The young(er) blood: Agile project management

Agile is Waterfall’s rebellious half-cousin. Disruption! Uncertainty! Flexible! Responsive! It is understandably popular in design and software focused environments, where the phased approach helps manage vague briefs and expanding client expectations. But it can be hugely problematic for clients with fixed budgets and rigid procurement processes. And worse, I would argue, when it’s done badly it can create a creeping dissatisfaction. Did we actually achieve what we’d originally wanted? Have we really finished a race or just been for a good run?

A view from the frontline:

I’m not going to advocate for one or the other approach, or attempt to bridge the two. Instead, I think there’s value in reframing project management. All of the best PM’s I’ve ever had the privilege of working with have had incredible interpersonal skills, some sort of intangible magic that makes their teams excel. But it isn’t magic, it’s some simple principles and behaviours that we can all learn; and that have nothing whatsoever to do with quality manuals or process handbooks. So, can we change how we think, and talk, about project management? I hope so. And I’d like to offer some thoughts to help us focus on what is really important.

What is a person-centred approach?

The notion of person-centred approaches comes from Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychology [4]. Without delving too deeply into the theory, it argues that human beings thrive when they are treated with genuine understanding and acceptance. It asserts the validity of an individual’s perspective, and counsels against judgement, however clear the “objective facts” seem to be. So far, so warm and fuzzy. But what relevance does this have to agency life, to budgets and deadlines and deliverables and KPIs? How are understanding and acceptance going to help me meet my targets?

Person-centred approaches have a decent track record outside of counselling/therapy. They’re widely applied across medical and nursing care [5] where a strong body of evidence shows how they improve outcomes and reduce the amount of investment required for interventions, because individuals manage their own health better. It has also been argued that they deliver dynamic and highly effective teams in business [6].

I think we would benefit from reframing project management, to that end I would like to offer a three-word maxim which embodies the hard-deliverables while maintaining a person-centred approach. Project Management is:

  • Getting.
  • Stuff.
  • Done.

1. Getting (the best from your team).

While the under-resourced PM can frequently feel like they ‘have to do everything’ our role is actually to get other people to do stuff. And its how we do this that determines how effective we are. 

Taking a person-centred approach means taking the time to recognise the strengths of your team. Even if they don’t think or work like you. Especially if they don’t think or work like you. And then working with them to figure out how they can best contribute to your shared endeavour.

It also means understanding what motivates them, accepting their motivations and working within them to encourage them to perform.

Taking this approach also brings additional benefits, because it values diversity [7]. And diversity is essential.

At the micro-level, welcoming a diverse range of perspectives makes a team far more effective at problem-solving [8] because they identify more alternatives and find better solutions. And at the macro-level, businesses with diverse leadership do better, as McKinsey’s excellent 2018 article [9] quite comprehensively demonstrates.

2. Stuff.

The first precept of any successful salesperson is listening [10]. To give a client what they need you must first hear what they want. So, we listen, we plan, we cost, we write our compelling proposals and we pitch our innovative ideas.

But how often do we really take the time to explore how our client understands our proposal and its implications? We’ve spelled out what we’re going to do, and it’s been commissioned. Done.

Taking a person-centred approach means taking the time to develop a clear and explicit shared understanding of the project, it’s scope and deliverables. Not just ‘stating the facts’ of a proposal but listening to how a client has translated that information. Exploring what they mean by “short” or “summary”, reflecting your understanding back to them, looking for concrete examples, and checking their expectations against your own.

Change management expert Richard Newton [11] devotes a whole chapter to listening and talking, and I think he’s right to. Because if you don’t have a shared understanding of what you’re doing the project will fail. Regardless of what’s documented or notarised. 

3. Done

Anyone who’s worked on a tracker or a big segmentation project knows that the concept of ‘done’ can be every bit as elusive as the notion of beauty or truth. But it is the cornerstone of good delivery – that your project is:

  • On time
  • On budget
  • To the required standard

And how do we, as professionals, respond to the pressures of the fabled project management triangle? Well, we do sometimes scowl, and even share a sarcastic meme or two…

Poster saying: "We offer three kinds of service: Good, Cheap, Fast. But you can only pick two."

I’ve taken this one from [12] but there are countless others.

The subtext here is that the client is being unreasonable and that our job is to rein them in. But in reality; there is a balance to be struck and to find it we must we understand how our client sees things:

  • Does one day’s delay render the project pointless?
  • Is your client’s performance review, bonus or promotion riding on the polish of the final deliverable? 
  • How much autonomy and flexibility does your client have over their budgets and resources?

Not only is it hard for us to know exactly how our clients are weighing these considerations (and they are), but the balance we strike at the start of the project is not necessarily where we end up.

Taking a person-centred approach means understanding your client’s priorities and constraints, as well as their explicit ‘requirements’. It means involving them in the decisions you make about the project; and being honest and transparent about their consequences, even if it is uncomfortable.

And this sort of pro-active client engagement also helps us to catch problems early. Returning briefly to Calvert Markham [13]:

“You have to listen carefully to hear softly-voiced criticisms.”

And the sooner you realise you are off track, the quicker and better you can put things right. Unhappy clients almost invariably lead to extra time and extra work, compromising efficient delivery.

TL;DR - Because who doesn’t like a pithy graphic…

Being a person-centred project manager means

Why does this matter?

Most researchers are interested in people. But when we talk about project management, we often describe it as a series of processes, forms and software. All of which feel like an endless and thankless uphill struggle, one that takes us away from our real passion. Taking a person-centred approach not only leads to better outcomes; it’s also infinitely more rewarding and satisfying.


In addition to the specific references below, this article (and indeed my professional practice generally) is heavily influenced by Richard Newton’s outstanding book “The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery”.

Thanks are also due to Elliot Simmonds, my unofficial editor and critical-friend.

[1] Reader, I graduated in 2008.

[2] Yuletide reflection is a common DJS-affliction; as my excellent colleague Alex McCluckie demonstrates here:

[3] Snow, C., & Collini, S. (1993). THE REDE LECTURE (1959). In The Two Cultures (Canto, pp. 1-52). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Rogers CR (1951) Client-centred Therapy. London: Constable.


[6] Plas, Jeanne M. (1996) Person-centred Leadership: An American Approach to Participatory Management. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc., pg. 79. In

[7] Here I mean diversity in the broadest sense. Market Research has long struggled to achieve an ethnically diverse workforce; and CORe are doing fantastic work to change things. And we of course need to be better at giving senior roles to other minoritised groups like (but not limited to) D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse researchers and LGBTQAI+ researchers. But beyond this, I refer to a diversity of cultural backgrounds and ways of thinking and working.

[8] In week 5 of his free online course, Professor Scott E Page perfectly illustrates how diverse perspectives make groups more effective problem solvers. The key point for this article is the “Mount Fuji Landscape”, but the whole course is great.


[10] Markham, C. (1993) The Top Consultant Kogan Page Limited, London. P69.

[11] Newton, R (2005) The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. Prentice Hall Financial Times, Harlow. P19-60.


[13] Markham, C. (1993) The Top Consultant Kogan Page Limited, London. P206.

Get more DJS News: 

Review of the year 2020: it’s been a very different year!
Fundraising in the age of Covid-19: Our 25 on the 25th Challenge for the Thomas Theyer Foundation
We've been awarded the WRAP qualitative services contract!

Share this article...

© DJS Research 2021