IPMA International Project Management Association
22 May 2019 / 9:00

Unleashing human potential – antecedents, potentials and threats

In modern times it is often demanded that the human potential should be let off the leash. The Manifesto for Human Leadership for example postulates “Unleashing human potential over employing human resources” and states the following: “Whoever sees organizations as machines and treats humans like cogwheels in them must not complain that people only work to the rule. Under these circumstances, more than working to the rule cannot be expected. Wherever people are used as resources, this is how they behave. People then develop their individual potentials in their leisure time – or fall short of their possibilities. The leadership can make a decisive difference for all sides.” Furthermore, in agile approaches the self-organisation of individuals and teams is highly encouraged. It requires leaders to change their leadership style and unleash the human potential…

This raises the question of what is the leash, who put the leash on and what happens, if a human being really gets unleashed? In his bestselling book “Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind”, Yuval Noah Harari surveys the interesting history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, with focus on Homo sapiens. He sees biology as setting the limits of possibility for human activity, and sees culture as shaping what happens within those bounds. His main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. He further argues that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, and that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions – owe their emergence to Sapiens’ distinctive cognitive capacity.

During the Middle Ages, Workmanship became a focus of human (labour) activities. It can be seen as a human attribute relating to knowledge and skill at performing a task. Workmanship is also a quality imparted to a product. The type of work may include the creation of handcrafts, art, writing, machinery and other products. Workmanship or Craftmanship is considered to have been a valued human attribute even in prehistoric times and in the opinion of the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, the sense of workmanship is probably the single most important attribute governing the material wellbeing of a people.

Later in history, industrial revolution as the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the US, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840 changed a lot. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. For workers of the labouring classes, industrial life was full of privation – dependent work, child labour, dirty living conditions, monotone processes and long working hours, to name only a few. Karl Marx perceived productive activities as essential for human beings and that it can be rewarding when pursued freely. However, Marx was always clear that under capitalism, labour was something inhuman, and dehumanising. “Labour is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.”

Scientific Management was applied to industrial processes for improving economic efficiency, especially the labour productivity. It was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management. Scientific management is sometimes known as Taylorism after its founder, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Four principles were the foundation of his work: 1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks; 2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves; 3. Provide detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task, and 4. divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

Michel Foucault addresses in his publications the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. In one of his latest books “Discipline and Punish” he traces the cultural shifts that led to the predominance of prison via the body and power: “Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, every day, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines.” Foucault’s main argument is that discipline creates “docile bodies”, ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age – bodies that function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms.

What changed during the last couple of years? During an era of VUCA it is difficult for an individual to control all developments, thus for leaders it is difficult to stay in control, command people to respond to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Or as Peter F. Drucker put it: “Even if employed full-time, fewer and fewer people are „subordinates“ – even in fairly low-level jobs. Increasingly they are „knowledge workers.“ And knowledge workers are not subordinates; they are „associates.“ For, once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does.“ On the other hand, younger generations at work are self-confident, they expect more space to manoeuvre, otherwise they quit and do their “own thing” or start with an organisation that offers what they are looking for. And building on the above mentioned argument of Yuval Noah Harari that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers enables them to be more successful, collaboration requires all people to be open-minded, to contribute in mutually beneficial relationships and to set the hidden potentials free.

In one of my blogs I have described the advantages and disadvantages of passion at work (in projects). On the one hand side, passionate engagement of people in projects may have positive effects on people. They feel happy, performant, satisfied, being in a flow, they also may see more opportunities, achievements and self-growth. On the other hand, people may feel frustration, stress, burn-out, they may be dependent on what they do or follow those activities in a rigid persistence. Conflicts may arise together with negative emotions and suffering.

A new leadership approach is needed! We need to thoroughly select (the right) people for a project and provide enough space for them to manoeuvre. It means to select people with an intrinsic motivation for the project and the right competences, including but not limited to the competence of self-reflection and self-management (see IPMA´s ICB4). We need to clarify expectations (hard and soft) of stakeholders involved and provide purposeful work to people. We should build on diversity and overcome conformity, challenge and support the team and its members and cherish success and continue on the learning path. On the other hand we need to take care that people engaged in projects find the right balance and avoid adverse effects of passionate behaviour.







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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.