Phronesis – A key attribute for project managers

Phronesis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis) is a type of wisdom described by Aristotle in his classic book Nicomachean Ethics. Phronesis or practical wisdom[1] is focused on working out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance. Aristotle understood ethics as being less about establishing moral rules and following them and more about performing a social practice well; being a good friend, a good manager or a good statesman. This requires the ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and the encouragement of practical virtue and excellence of character in others.  But in a post-truth world, the ability to use ‘practical wisdom’ to discern what is real and what is ‘spin’ in rapidly becoming a key social and business skill. So prevalent is this trend, the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ its 2016 word of the year.

This problem pre-dates Donald Trump and ‘Brexit’, but seems to be getting worse. How can a project manager work out the right way to do the right thing in the particular circumstance of her project when much of the information being received is likely to be ‘spun’ for a particular effect.  There may be a solution in the writings of Bent Flyvbjerg.

Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, Chair of Major Programme Management at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University, has a strong interest in both megaproject management and phronesis. A consistent theme in his work has been the lack of truthfulness associated with the promotion of mega projects of all types, worldwide and the consequences of this deception. To help with the challenge of cutting through ‘spin’, and based on his research, he has published the following eight propositions:

1. Truth is context dependent.
2. The context of truth is power.
3. Power blurs the dividing line between truth and lies.
4. Lies and spin presented as truth is a principal strategy of those in power.
5. The greater the power, the less the truth.
6. Power has deeper historical roots than truth, which weakens truth.
7. Today, no power can avoid the issue of ‘speaking the truth’, unless it imposes silence and servitude. Herein lies the power of truth.
8. Truth will not be silenced.

There is, of course, a book, Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice[2] that goes into more detail but just thinking through the propositions can help you apply the practical ethics that underpin phronesis.  Being virtuous is never easy, but regardless of the power brought to bear, sooner or later the truth will be heard.

The problem is which ‘truth’, understanding and perception will influence what people see, hear and believe to be the truth. Nietzsche, a German counter-Enlightenment thinker of the late 19th century, suggests that objective truth does not really exist; that objective absolute truth is an impossibility. The challenge we all face is the practical one of understanding enough about ourselves and others (we are all biased[3]) to achieve a reasonable level of understanding and then do our best to make the right decisions (see more on decision making), and to do the right thing in the right way.

___________________

[1] From Practical Wisdom, the right way to do the right things by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp.  Riverhead Books, New York 2010.

[2] See: https://www.amazon.com/Rationality-Power-Democracy-Practice-Morality/dp/0226254518/

[3] See,  The innate effect of Biashttp://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1069_Bias.pdf

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2 responses to “Phronesis – A key attribute for project managers

  1. So true, Pat, but also so sad…… Seems to me like Orwell’s “1984” is happening right before our aging eyes…..

    BR,
    Dr. PDG, Jakarta

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