Project Management

What Can the Project World Learn from Neuroscience?

From the Shifting Change: Insider Tips from Project Leaders Blog
by , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Today's world is influenced by change. Project managers and their organizations need to embrace and sometimes drive changes to keep up with the pace in highly competitive environments. In this blog, experienced professionals share their experiences, tips and tools to manage and exploit changes and take advantage of them. The blog is complimentary to the webinar series of the Change Management Community Team and is managed by the same individuals.

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Luisa Cristini
Nic Jain
Ruth Pearce
Abílio Neto
Vitaly Geyman
Walter Vandervelde
Steve Salisbury
John ORourke
Ronald Sharpe
Angela Montgomery
Tony Saldanha
Ryan Gottfredson
Joseph Pusz
Kavitha Gunasekaran
Ross Wirth
Carole Osterweil

Recent Posts

SCARF a Brain–based Model for Managing People on Projects

The Power of Purpose

Is Your Organization Primed for Future Success?

How to drive greater value by listening

What Can the Project World Learn from Neuroscience?

Welcome to the first blog in a series of four, where I explore what neuroscience has to offer the project world.  In a nutshell, understanding how the human brain works makes for higher productivity and better project outcomes with less complexity and less stress.

Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience - a Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog

A bold claim I know, so let’s start by getting real.

Projects don’t behave the way textbooks say they should

Project Management is all about carving a clear and visible path to the future.

The trouble is more and more projects are tricky in unconventional ways.  The environment is shifting constantly around us, key stakeholders change their minds for reasons which are hard to comprehend. Politics flare and your project morphs into something quite different yet you are expected to deliver it anyway.

The project managers I work with frequently find that their projects don’t behave the way the textbooks say they should.

The profession is latching onto this.  It now recognizes project managers need to develop their leadership and strategic business skills alongside their process skills.[i]  We’re told the secret is to become adept at working in an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

But what does this mean in practical terms?

The blogs in this series set out to answer this question, so keep an eye out for the following titles:

The VUCA environment is causing profound disconnects between how organisations and projects are supposed to function and what happens in practice.

Walking in Fog

This disconnect often leaves highly talented and experienced project professionals feeling stuck, frustrated, and unable to put a finger on what is going wrong or why.  At times it’s as if a thick fog has descended yet they must keep on walking - even though the way forward is far from clear.[ii]


©Visible Dynamics

Traditional project management has paid scant attention to human experience dismissing it, and almost everything on the people-side as ‘soft and fluffy’.  Look where it has got us!

The stats on project success rates tell us we’ve plenty of room for improvement.  Figures from PMI suggest that only 52% of projects are delivered on time and just 69% meet their goals and business intent[iii].  In the UK a report into major government projects observes that less than 50% have a green or green/amber rating.[iv]  The case for paying attention to the people-side of projects becomes even stronger when we add in recent research into well-being and stress levels amongst project professionals[v] .

One of my colleagues, Stephen Carver at Cranfield University, cites a survey of 250 project professionals.  70% of those asked said socio-political factors (i.e. things to do with relationships, personalities and behaviours under stress) cause them the most trouble on live projects.  Yet this was the focus of only 10% of their training.[vi]

Carver also speaks about being ‘constantly amazed at how much time, effort and money is thrown at structural issues (time, pace, scope etc) and how little at the messy socio-political where the vast majority of problems occur.’

I used to be just the same.

However, since writing Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog and hearing people’s reactions to it, I am less surprised by the lack of investment.  I’ve come to a different understanding of why we’ve neglected the people stuff for so long and why so many find it so tricky.

It seems touchy feely because historically we’ve lacked basic building blocks.

We’ve Lacked Basic Building Blocks

Scientists would be at sea without a grasp of molecular structure.  Engineers would be in a bind without the laws of physics, and just imagine being a linguist without grammar.  Yet we’re asking project managers to demonstrate great leadership and people management skills without a model that’s robust enough to make real sense of why people behave as they do.

I’m not blaming PMI, APM or anyone else. The science was not there.  But with recent advances in neuroscience things have changed.

Neuroscience Changes Everything

We now understand how the human brain works and how emotions drive behaviour.  Yes, you read that right – emotions drive behaviour!  We have compelling scientific evidence that clarifies what constitutes good leadership in a VUCA world.  It demonstrates how emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness can help us contain complexity and manage stress levels[vii].    

I know, I’m making it sound easy.  But give me a chance - if you want to be adept at working in a VUCA world look out for my next three blogs and PM Point of View podcast. They’ll give you

  • a model of how the human brain works, so you can understand why people behave as they do
  • tips on reducing stress and project complexity and
  • practical advice on dealing with uncertainty

Next Up

  • SCARF a Brain–based Model for Managing People on Projects, blog 2/4
  • Change Requests – Your Response to them Matters, blog 3/4
  • Your Project is Fraught with Uncertainty – What should you do? blog 4/4
  • PM Point of View Episode 69: Neuroscience in Project Management  Carole Osterweil in conversation with Kendall Lott ( starts 40 mins in)

I’m looking forward to sparking rich conversations.  What in this resonates with you?  What is exciting and what do you find more challenging?


[i] PMI (2014) PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: In-depth Report: Navigating Complexity, Project Management Institute (PMI)

[ii] Osterweil, C (2019) Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, London: Visible Dynamics, p13

[iii] Project Management Institute (2018) Research Highlights by Industry and Region, Project Management Institute (PMI)

[iv] UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority (2018) Annual Report on Major Projects 2017-18

[v]  Well Being of Project Professionals, APM

[vi] Project Management Paradise [accessed 3 December 2019] Episode 42: Interview with Stephen Carver,  Project Management Paradise [Online]

[vii] Belack,C (2019), Cognitive Readiness in Project Teams: reducing project complexity and increasing success in project management. C Belack , New York: Routledge 







Posted by Carole Osterweil on: December 17, 2019 09:47 AM | Permalink

Comments (7)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item
Dear Carole
Interesting this approach on the topic
Thanks for sharing

I had the opportunity, some years ago, to follow the work of Antonio Damásio from "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain" to "The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures" .

I also learned that VUCA can be about:
- Vision
- Understanting
- Clarity
- Agility

I acknowledge that I was excited about this article of yours.
I will surely accompany the next with all my attention

Dear Carole
Where can I find "The PM Point of View podcast with Kendall Lott"?

Hello Luis

I'm delighted it's sparked your interest!
Damásio's work is so important

Kendall told me the podcast is due out later this week or early next. I'm looking forward to hearing it too.


This is a fascinating field - how the human brain works! I am really curious to know more about this and look forward for future articles.

Thank you for sharing.

The PM Point of View podcast with Kendall Lott is now live.
Find it with the link below (whilst my contribution starts 40mins in, there is some fascinating material in the earlier section)


You make me really curious. Next SCARF.

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"Love your enemy--it will scare the hell out of them."

- Mark Twain