The Tao of project management

Allison Matlack · 2016-02-25

The Tao of project management

The Tao Te Ching, believed to have been written by the sage Lao Tzu in the 6th century BCE, is among the most widely translated texts in existence. It has inspired everything from religions to funny movies about dating, and authors have used it as a metaphor to explain all kinds of things (even programming).

This text is what immediately comes to my mind when thinking about project management in open organizations.

That might sound strange. But to understand where I’m coming from, you should start by reading The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance​, Red Hat president and CEO Jim Whitehurst’s manifesto on corporate culture and the new leadership paradigm. In this book, Jim (with a little help from other Red Hatters) explains the difference between conventional organizations (a “top-down” approach, with decisions coming down from central command to employees motivated by promotion and pay) and open organizations (a bottom-up approach, with leaders focused on inspiring purpose and passion so employees are empowered to be and do their best).

This concept—that employees in open organizations are motivated by passion, purpose, and engagement—plays directly into where I think project managers should focus.

And to explain, I’ll return to the Tao Te Ching.

Don’t let your job title define you
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things. 1

What exactly is project management? And what does a project manager do?

As you might expect, part of being a project manager is managing projects: gathering requirements, managing stakeholder communication, setting priority, scheduling tasks, helping the team resolve blockers. Many institutions can teach you how to manage projects very well, and these are good skills to have.

However, literally managing projects is only part of what project managers in open organizations do. These organizations require something more: Courage. If you’re good at managing projects (or if you’re good at any job, really), then you can start to feel safe in your routine. That’s when you know you need to find the courage to take a risk.

Do you have the courage to step outside of your comfort zone? The courage to ask important people challenging questions that might raise eyebrows, but that might also uncover a better way forward? The courage to identify the next thing that needs to be done—then the courage to go and do it? The courage to call out communication gaps and take initiative to fix them? The courage to try things? The courage to fail?

The opening passage of the Tao Te Ching (which I cited above) suggests that words, labels, and names are limiting. That includes job titles. In open organizations, project managers don’t just perform the rote tasks required to manage projects. They help teams accomplish the organization’s mission, however defined.

Connect the right people

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move. 11

One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn as I transitioned into project management was that not having all the answers was perfectly acceptable, even expected. That was new for me. I like having all the answers. But as a project manager, my role is more about connecting people—so the ones who do have the answers can collaborate efficiently.

This does not mean dodging responsibility or ownership. This means being comfortable saying, “I don’t know, but I will find out for you,” and closing that loop as quickly as possible.

Picture a wagon wheel. Without the stability and direction provided by the center hole, the spokes would fall and the wheel collapse in on itself. Project managers in an open organization can help a team maintain forward momentum by bringing the right people together and cultivating the right discussions.

Trust your team

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!” 17

Rebecca Fernandez once told me that what differentiates leaders in open organizations is not the trust people have in them, but the trust they have in other people.

Open organizations do a great job hiring smart people who are passionate about what their companies are doing. In order for them to do their best work, we have to give them what they need and then get out of their way.

Here, I think the above passage from the Tao Te Ching speaks for itself.

Be effortless

The Master does nothing
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done. 38

Do you know the type of person who is always extremely busy? The one who seems frazzled and stressed with too many things to do?

Don’t be that person.

I know that’s easier said than done. The thing that most helps me keep from being that person is remembering that we are all extremely busy. I don’t have a single co-worker who is bored.

But someone needs to be the calm in the middle of the storm. Someone needs to be the person who reassures the team that everything is going to be okay, that we’ll find a way to get things done within the parameters dictated by reality and the number of business hours in a day (because that’s the truth, and we have to).

Be that person.

What this passage of the Tao Te Ching says to me is that the person who’s always talking about what she or he is doing has no time to actually do those things. If you can make your job seem effortless to those around you, then you’re doing your job right.

Be a culture coach

When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao. 41

Last fall, I enrolled an MBA business ethics class with a bunch of federal employees. When I started describing my company’s culture, values, and ethics framework, I got the direct impression that both my classmates and my professor thought I was a naive young lady with a lot of lovely daydreams about how companies should run. They told me things couldn’t possibly be as they seemed. They said I should investigate further.

So I did.

And here’s what I found: Things are exactly as they seem.

In open organizations, culture matters. Maintaining that culture as an organization grows makes it possible to wake up and look forward to going to work in the morning. I (and other members of open organizations) don’t want to “work to live,” as my classmates described it. I need to feel a passion and purpose, to understand how the work I do on a daily basis directly contributes to something I believe in.

As a project manager, you might think that your job has nothing to do with cultivating your company’s culture on your team. However, it’s your job to embody it.


In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone. 48

The general field of project management is too focused on the latest and greatest tools. But the answer to the question of which tool you should use is always the same: “the simplest.”

For example, I keep my running to-do list in a text file on my desktop because it serves its purpose without unnecessary distractions. Whatever tools, processes, and procedures you introduce to a team should increase efficiency and remove obstacles, not introduce additional complexity. So instead of focusing on the tools, focus on the problem(s) you’re using those tools to solve.

My favorite part of being a project manager in an Agile world is having the freedom to throw out what doesn’t work. This is related to the concept of kaizen, or “continuous improvement.” Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Failing is the label we’ve put on the process of learning what works and what doesn’t. But it’s the only way to improve.

The best processes arise organically. As a project manager, you can help your team by supporting them and not trying to force them into anything.


Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep. 67

I believe in what open organizations are doing. What open organizations are doing for the field of management is almost as important as the actual products and services they offer. We have an opportunity to lead by example, to inspire passion and purpose in others, to create working environments that inspire and empower.

I encourage you to find ways to incorporate some of these ideas into your own projects and teams to see what happens. Learn about your organization’s mission and how your projects contribute to it. Have courage, expect to try some things that won’t work, and don’t forget to share the lessons you learn with our community so we can continue to improve.