Systems thinking – expanded

A while back at a networking event I was talking about my business and how for the most part I have remained the database developer for several companies for decades. The person I was talking to was surprised that I might mention this to a new client. He suggested that no new client would want to hear that I might not leave! He thought that most clients would want me to write a system to sort out their business and then leave them alone – for ever. 

But all things change and need to. The chances are that the business model and strategy that you have in place today is very unlikely to be the one you are using just a few years from now. Your systems need to change along with your strategies.

Everything is changing and so having the ability to modify, tweak and update your office management system is essential. The idea of a custom database system is that it runs your company as it needs to be run – now. Not as it was 5 years ago or even last year.

Attached is a wonderful distillation of why systems need to change. 

10 Project Manager Traits – 5 – Obfuscator

5 - Obfuscator


An Obfuscator sees every possibility and wants to cover all bases. For each proposed solution there are several options and all of them, they feel, needs to be addressed. At each meeting there are many more ideas and they keep on coming.

The intention

When this is positively intentioned the obfuscator wants to be sure that the project has considered all possibilities.

When this is negatively intentioned the obfuscator wants to complicate the project to either prolong it or demonstrate their skills and knowledge.

The Good

This type can make a huge contribution at the early stages of a project. They see all the things that a project could accomplish and can remember all the situations where are currently not ideal and which could be remedied. As this stage the motivation can be seen as them attempting to make things better.

The Bad

When an obfuscator is involved throughout a project they can seriously derail it. Each issue or topic gets subdivided into sub topics which then get divided into further sub-topics and there is no discernment or attempt to prioritise any of them.

The project gets confused and so wide ranging that the key objectives get lost.

The Story

I worked on a project that suffered from many changes in project manager but it took a real turn for the worse when a new project manager came on board who was an obfuscator. I did not realise it at first as all the ideas were sound and appeared to be constructive, but as time went on it became clear that the intention was to prevent the project from completing. 

In this case it was an architectural project and the “project manager” role was taken by the site foreman. Things were going wrong on site and to cover the problem the foreman started pointing out issues that appeared to be important. As I went about addressing each one he would come up with yet more issues that needed my attention and which, unless done, prevented any work from taking place. When the project manager’s staffing issues were finally resolved, the issues dried up and we got back on track. It took sometime to appreciate that the adding of complexity had been a ruse to buy time and distract me from what was really going on.

Remedial action

An obfuscator is best countered by always having a very clear brief, but even with one in hand, it is experience that is needed to spot when the obfuscator is at work. 

At first it is hard to believe that a person will deliberately go out of their way to create pointless complexity or redundant work. With experience one knows that this is a possibility and you can quickly dismiss ideas being put forward that do not meet the main goals of the project.

When this type is at work and the technique is not stopped when revealed and discussed, it is time to replace the project manager. This can be tricky as the ideas put forward can appear to be reasonable and useful, so one has to be sure of the motivation and intention first.

If obfuscation is being done with good will then the action required is to help the person carryout their own evaluation of the ideas before they are presented so that they can validate the idea before meeting with others and so ensure that the ideas are “on point” and contribute to the success of the project.

10 Project Manager Traits – 11 – Conclusion

Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 13.21.08


When I started this series I mentioned that none of the traits explored were either right or wrong. It is clear that they all have their benefits and can have serious negative consequences if not understood and managed. It is obvious that this list is incomplete.  It is also true that no one has just one of these traits and indeed we do display each of them under different circumstances. 

By understanding that these traits exist and can have beneficial or deleterious effects on the outcome of the project, it helps to understand when the trait should be purposefully employed and when it would be wise to quell the need to engage it.

There are key roles and key moments in the life of a project where the traits described above can benefit the outcome.


Starters are an obvious positive influence in the creation of a new project. They can see the need for a “thing” to be created and they have enough energy to overcome inertia and bring a project to life.

Obfuscators can help expand ideas producing both wise and slightly mad ideas from which a core theme can be identified and honed in on.

Starter Finishers can help refine the idea and from their knowledge of project delivery can see what ideas are just overly complex or are not essential in the early stages of design. Get them to unify the project to ensure that the goals and objectives are relevant, aligned and meet the original objectives.


Specialists need to be consulted on what is essential for each aspect of the project. They will quickly identify what is really needed, what has been missed and what is just “fluff”

Perfectionists can identify where current systems or designs fail and could be improved.

Get the Starter Finishers to keep things moving and not let things get overly complex or bogged down in detail. 


As the project evolves, get the Obfuscators back in to check the scope of the project  – they will have ideas that are outside of the box. Some of these ideas will be brilliant. 

Then get the Specialists back in to refocus on what is still the core of what is needed.

Deployment and Follow-up

This is the time of the Completers. They are good at picking up on lagging energy and willpower. They will produce the checklists that wrap up loose ends and sort out the snagging list until the project is done.

Some projects have a clearly defined conclusion, an end point. Some fade out. Fading out is the nature of software development. It rarely ends with a big party – it ends when the snagging list has been completed. Snagging lists can also become the start of the next project as the previous one hints at what else could be done. This is the start of a new project phase and so back to the initiation phase.

The four missing traits

Saboteur – the reason for the need to sabotage can be illuminating. There is an issue that is not in the open and this may hint at personal issues, personnel issues, at conflicts on strategic decisions and maybe even about morality. They are are worth bringing out into the open as, if they are not seen or handled, the sabotage may succeed.

Procrastinator – here the fear may be legitimate. Maybe the reason for holding back reveals a significant risk or, at the very least, a need for further training or counselling. Not handling this situation means the project will result in a loss to all parties.

Confrontation – This can range from passive aggression to outright open warfare. It will not go away. The circumstances that create the conflict need to be explored and handled. If the situation is handled just by removing one side of the conflict, it may well reappear when new team members are recruited. 

Swap outs – this is about the best use of scarce and valuable resources or the mishandling of poor resources. When this is about good people who are needed in several places at once, the goal has to be to find more people that have similar traits to the valued staff member and as a matter of urgency. Be clear what those traits are and deliberately seek them in new recruits. 

Where a staff member is under-performing then the situation will not be resolved by moving them from one location to another. The manager becomes the saboteur by not handling the personnel issue. 

10 Project Manager Traits – 10 – Swap outs

10 - Swap outs


This is a situation arising from an 

– absent or

– disinterested or 

– distracted or

– overloaded boss. 

The project brief is created and the goals are set. As the project moves forward, the project manager is suddenly needed elsewhere or the boss decides that another manager who was not previously available would be better suited to the task. When this swap out is repeated several times the project disintegrates and/or goes way off track.

The intention

To make the best use of the staff available to manage a crisis of growth, collapse or poor recruiting systems.

The Good

Where a project lasts for years it is inevitable that mangers will come and go. New managers can revive the energy of the project and bring fresh ideas and new ambition.

Where a project is new it can be that by swapping out managers you are able to establish who is best suited to be involved with the project and this may not always be immediately apparent. However in this situation the swap outs need to come to an end pretty quickly.

The Bad

If this situation is allowed to persist, the project is likely to go way off track or veer from one aspect to another with previous objectives left incomplete as each new manager steers the project towards their own vision. 

The original scope of the project will be lost. Other parties involved with the project may lose momentum and focus and in turn they move their attention to other projects. The project is likely to have spiralling costs and could be so fragmented as to lead to it being abandoned.

The Story

I have seen this situation arise under two conditions:

1. The company is expanding rapidly and the project manager originally assigned to the project is considered too valuable and so is moved on to more important tasks. Then, either another staff member is asked to take over or worse a new staff member is brought in to run the project. 

2. The company is failing and staff members need to be laid off. The project may be part of the recovery process but the attention is clearly stretched or elsewhere. Or it may be too late.

In both instances the importance of the project has diminished and its purpose (and the expected benefits) need to be re-quantified. 

Remedial action

If this situation is occurring, the project is at risk and all investments made to date are likely to be wasted. The ideal is to review the objectives of the project, determine how important it is and what are the beneficial consequences of it continuing are, as opposed to either it being abandoned or having the project put on hold.

If the project is important and swapping out the manager is also considered vital, then it is essential that the new project manager understands the scope of the project and the reasons why the project was developed as described in the brief. If the new manager brings fresh ideas then these need to be be inserted into the brief and work may need to be halted until this has been done. Any new ideas are best run past the original project manger in case the ideas were considered but rejected for reasons that remain valid but which have been forgotten.

If the new manager is a new recruit, even with near identical past experience in another company, they need to adopt and adapt to the culture and ethos of the company they have joined. With new companies this may be harder to define, but the risk is that the new manager attempts to re-create the style of their previous place of work which may not be desirable.

This situation is created by the boss and therefore it needs some of their attention to resolve the priorities.

10 Project Manager Traits – 9 – Confrontation

9 - Confrontation


A confrontational project manager has a disagreement with 

– the purpose of the project or 

– does not have the skills required to see it through or 

– has a personal dislike of one or all of the members of the team working on the project. 

They need not necessarily be the lead project manager. What they do is stop everything by withholding their labour, attention, information or approvals. They may postpone meetings, block the purchase of key resources and they can undermine your reputation with the boss.

This person can be the boss of the company. If this is the case then they have reached their ceiling of competence and the new project, though necessary, is beyond their current abilities to implement and there is a risk that it will expose a fear of having a perceived flaw in their character. 

The intention

Stop this at any cost and blame the circumstances or others.

The Good

This is a cry for help. This person is successful and they have a need for the project, but they do not have the knowledge needed to carry it through. Given the right support and help this can be turned around and this can create a friend for life.

The Bad

If the person is not willing to discuss the situation or accept help there is no future for the project and if this is the boss the whole company is in jeopardy. At a personal level this is a high risk to be a part of. When the project fails, it may be hard to discern why it went wrong and you may be tempted to take on the blame. You might get stuck in the loop of “if only I had…” It may be that the project manager deflects blame onto you.

If you are the person creating the confrontation – seek help – if you do not you will either be forever avoiding this type of situation which will hold you back or you will be forced to endure similar situations over and over again.

The Story

For the most part I work with non IT people. They are managers and designers, accountants and administrators. They know that they do not know how to create a system and so they are willing to hand over control to me to get the work done. 

In the case of one project, my “client” was the head of IT and he felt that he needed to know how things worked to the extent that if he chose to, he could do the work himself. He was a very busy guy and managed a network of over 100 PC computers on his own. He did not have time to learn database development and as the project moved forward he felt more and more out of control. Even though I was the person responsible for the work, he was worried that if the system failed it would fall back on him to take over. A thing he could not do.

It took a while for me to work out why the project was so hard to move forward, it seemed to be thwarted at every stage and the attitude of the other staff members changed in unexpected ways. I finally managed to have a one to one meeting with the manager and I managed to bite my tongue, stay quiet and listen to his concerns.  Then, and with the essential agreement of the manager, I arranged a three way meeting between the IT manager and his boss  and myself. We clarified what aspects of the system each person would be responsible for and produced a document stating the conclusions. Having this open discussion with the boss, the IT manager could be absolved of any responsibility that he felt unable or unwilling to assume. The blocks were removed and the project was delivered.

Remedial action

Find out who is blocking the project, find out gently what the fear is. It could be fear of exposure of absent skills or abilities, fear of being made redundant, fear of being overworked or replaced. Talk it through – privately! If you get this right you are unlikely to be thanked, as this needs to be very much behind the scenes, but all parties will benefit.

10 Project Manager Traits – 8 – The Procrastinator

8 - The Procrastinator


The project is complete, amendments have been carried out, user feed back has been obtained, but somehow the project does not go live. The procrastinator always finds a reason for further delays.

The intention

Don’t press the button!

The Good

It is important that the project works and, if a delay is legitimate, then it makes sense to delay the push of the button until the project is ready to go “live”. 

The Bad

The procrastinator project manager or boss is worried but cannot express their concern. They have had a great idea but now it means testing it in the real world. Once it is out there then it is harder to withdraw it. These concerns could be well founded, in which case more research and feedback may allay the fears but sometimes there is no way of knowing if the project works until it is put to the test. 

The Story

I created a system in partnership with a client, it was a sophisticated marketing tool connecting precisely defined marketing material with customer profiles based on the very latest downloaded data. There were to modes of operation – spam or targeted e-mails. The targeted version matched a product with a specific client type based on time sensitive data. We are now used to having adds pop up on LinkedIn and facebook after visiting a non-related web site – this system served this function before facebook had really taken off. At the time if felt very intrusive and “big brotherish”. Now we take it for granted. It also had a campaign feature where the prospective client would be fed a series of emails over a period of days building a story of the services on offer.

When the system was ready the client never quite used the targeted version and so the real benefit and head start we had over the competition was never put to use. The fear was that the prospective clients would be alienated by the degree of perceived intrusion and insider knowledge even though the data was in the public domain. The button never got pressed.

Remedial action

With a custom solution the idea is that nothing like it exists, making it go live is exposing yourself to criticism and judgement. There is no avoiding it and no matter how hard you work you will always be criticised. It goes with the territory of the new. My clients are used to the exposure of their own work and can counter any criticism or objections thanks to their expertise. But when they involve me then they are being judged by the work I have done. This is unfamiliar territory and requires one further step of “letting go”.

Where procrastination is discovered, explore with the manager the reasons why the project should not go ahead. Use past experience to run through all the the possible reasons why a project of this type might want to be delayed. R remember that this may expose a fundamental vulnerability or sensitivity within the manager or company. Do this in a one to one meeting and tread lightly.

10 Project Manager Traits – 7 – Saboteur

7 - Saboteur


A saboteur has been handed, or is involved in, a project that they dislike or 

– they feel it is beneath them, or 

– they do not understand it or 

– they have bad intentions for the company. 

What happens in each of these cases is that the manager redirects the project towards another purpose either in direct conflict with the original purpose or a purpose which they consider to be better. The key element is that it has not been pre-agreed with the boss.

The intention

I know better or 

I need to hide my in-abilities or 

They will suffer!

The Good

The only good option here is where it just so happens that the saboteur project manager does know better than the boss, they proceed with the project without being stopped and when complete the boss sees that they were right all along. This is a very high risk strategy. 

The Bad

With a saboteur, the fall out can be widespread. If you are involved with a person who you suspect is running this agenda you need to alert the boss as soon as you can be confident of your assessment. If you do not, and the conflicting agenda is eventually exposed, it will be assumed that you agreed to be a part of it and you will be equally held accountable for it.

The Story

I saw this situation arise with one client where a new recruit was brought in to complete a recently started project. The company was growing fast and the boss needed to be managing other parts of the business. The new recruit reviewed the brief and decided that he knew better and redirected the work to meet his perception of what should be created. Thinking that this new agenda had been approved by the boss I complied with the new instructions. When the boss found out that he system had gone down a new path which he did not like,he sacked the project manager and I was instructed to bin all the work and return to the original brief. Since that was what was in the contract that is what I was compelled to do.

Remedial action

Remember, the project manager can only be labelled a saboteur if they are not revealing their agenda to the full team. 

If you are working on a project and a new project manager takes over you need to review the entire brief with them. If they propose to take the project in a new direction you need to ensure that the previous project manager and the boss are made aware of the proposed changes and that the changes get signed off. If there is a contract, the old one needs to be cancelled and a new one created. You cannot allow yourself to be fobbed off with the “too busy” block. You also need to review the timeline and the budget as these will have changed substantially.

If you decide to continue without these new instructions being agreed you are likely to suffer a financial loss and a loss to your reputation.

10 Project Manager Traits – 6 – Specialist

6 - Specialist


A specialist is highly skilled in their aspect of a proposed project. They may have been asked to oversee a large project of which their department will be the major user, but other departments will also benefit from and therefore need to be involved.

However it soon becomes clear that they are less than interested in the parts that do not directly affect them. They concentrate all their attention on their own elements and the other sections get ignored. It can be that they spend enough attention on the part of the project that does not directly concern to them but is needed in order for them to be able to perform their duties.

This results in a highly developed core but with withered extremities.

The intention

What do I need?

The Good

A specialist project manger is likely to be very precise in what they need for their area. They will have thought it through and know what works and what does not. They will have a clear idea on what needs to happen before they get involved but little about what happens after they have done their part. It is likely, but not certain, that their part will be one of the best parts of the total design.

The Bad

If the specialist is the project manager for the whole system then it will not work. The part that they care about will be excellent but, as they have not allowed for the needs of others to be addressed, these other parts will most likely be deficient or not even addressed. Since this is the case the project will most likely not be used or will be seen as a failure by the others users/departments and rightly so.

The Story

In my experience in software development this happens most often when the accounts department are the project managers. Sorry – but that has been the case in at least three projects. The accounts department sometimes believe that they know about everything that goes on in a business. But there is, of course, a lot that happens that does not relate to the movement of money.

In one case, a lot of time was spent getting the data arriving in the accounts department to be accurate, timely and ensuring that the producer of the data could be clearly identified. This meant that if the data was wrong the accounts department knew who to seek out. 

They had little or no interest in how the income was generated and very jealous and questioning of any expenditure. Accounts departments are usually very busy and so they had very little interest in knowing more. They were very happy with the system but the sales, marketing and fulfilment departments wondered why the system existed as they were not getting much benefit from it. When the project manager was replaced with another from one of the other departments the same was repeated in their area of expertise.

Remedial action

Specialists are gold dust. As I have mentioned, they are most likely to know immediately if an idea is good or bad and they know if the idea, once implemented, will be used or  just be “fluff”. However, they will only know one aspect of the business and so they cannot be allowed to be the lead project manager. There is need for a generalist to project manage a number of specialists, each of which can contribute ideas for their area of the project and, essentially, the interface between their area and the preceding steps and consequential steps.

If you have a specialist in charge of a project, and their skill set covers only one aspect of the project, you need to find a new lead. The lead project manager needs to understand the purpose of the project and make use of the refined knowledge of a specialist from each department involved with the project. 

10 Project Manager Traits – 4 – Perfectionist

4 - Perfectionist


Perfectionists will be heard saying:

“Nothing is complete until every aspect is just right.” 

 “We cannot move forward until it is flawless.” 

“Give in one more go”

Getting a project to be functional, great looking, intuitive but within a budget and within time constraints, means that it will not be perfect.

If time constraints and budget were not an issue there would still be a moment in time where removing any more flaws would be so expensive for the marginal gain that everyone, even the perfectionist, calls it quits. 

The issue is: when is the right time to compromise and when to push for a better result?

The intention

This has to be perfect

The Good

If a project is full of bugs the users will either reject it or the functionality will not provide the benefits that were described in the brief. The project does need to achieve the objectives of the brief and this person will make sure that happens.

The Bad

A determined perfectionist is a major obstruction to progress. If your project is to get a crew to the moon and back safely then there is no option but to get things to be as near to perfect as is humanly possible. 

If the objective is less sensitive, then there needs to be level of perfectionism that allows for progress, for refinement over time and that allows concepts to get ironed out. 

If the perfectionist stops a project moving forward until all aspects of the first stage are perfect then there is a risk that later stages undo this hard won perfection. As each stage is created there can be impacts on previous stages and so with a strict perfectionist in charge a project can get into a tighter and tighter loop of change and corrections that brings the project to a standstill.

The Story

In my early days as a software developer I worked with a perfectionist. He worked for an architectural firm and the work they produced was exquisite. It could only be that way because of their attention to detail. 

In those says I also had quite a lot of attention to things being just so and together we spent hours on refining the layouts of the system being created to manage all of the administrative tasks of the company. We spend more than hours, we spent days. Then finally we were able to move onto the next stage. We then found that some new requirement had to break the carefully set up rules from the previous stage and so we went back to and reworked the layouts. This would happen with each new administrative subject. 

A second requirement was that the whole system had to be ready and it was to be implement over the whole company in one overnight procedure. So all parts had to be perfect.

We never got there. The re-workings went on for months and then it was realised that the whole company could not risk one, over night, switch-over. What if it went wrong. The cost of making all parts perfect killed the project,

Remedial action

Perfectionists are needed – they see things that others do not and they make things not only function better but look better. A full time perfectionist project manager will cause projects to overrun or get abandoned. If, however, a perfectionist is asked to contribute to a project, cast their eyes over what has been done and add their comments, then the project can be improved without grinding it to a standstill.

Plan to bring in your perfectionist to pre-set and time constrained meetings. Accept that a lot of what you have done will not meet their standards and when they leave (a kindness as they being present as you purposefully decide not to be perfect may upset them) decide which of their suggestions will be addressed and which ones you are willing to live with.

Do not let them be the ones to decide when the project is complete. It is unlikely to get there.