The Wetware of Project Management



By Tobe Phillips

Texas, USA




Project management is typically an exercise in guiding a group of individuals to completion of objectives. Each individual involved in the project brings a unique skill set or perspective a PM actively works to merge into a coherent approach toward the desired end state. While each project participant brings unique facets into play, we also possess general traits and patterns of behavior. Research in fields like psychology, neurology and behavioral economics shed light onto these patterns. These predispositions we possess to varying degrees can be based on the operations of our brain – our wetware. Understanding trends, or limitations, of our mental operations and behaviors equips a project manager to better ensure project success, as enhanced understanding of human behavior enables the crafting of approaches best suited to the project team.   This paper highlights research findings in human behavior that, when practically applied into every day projects, could enhance project manager effectiveness.


It’s been said project management methodology is the accumulation of thousands of years of getting things wrong, and doing the opposite on the next project. And since the creation of pyramids, humans have been involved in those projects. We all participate in projects of some variety, whether in work, civic, or personal environments. For this reason, a case could be made that our project methodology is a massive, longitudinal effort to harness and unite the efforts of project participants to ensure a positive impact on projects. Operating under this presumption, it follows that an increased understanding of people, and in particular trends in our behaviors, should improve the frequency of project success. This knowledge should help reinforce those aspects of project management we do well now, help us to avoid common pitfalls, and potentially suggest novel methodologies.

While this paper speaks of projects methodology broadly, we all individually fall along some continuum of project management maturity in our personal practice and within our organizations. At one end is strong maturity – well defined scopes, tight governance, and ready access to stakeholders, for instance. At the other end is weak maturity – poorly conceived timelines, lack of risk assessment and inadequate demand management.   For those with strong project maturity, it is likely positively impacted by some combination of your personal effort, the support of leadership, and an organizational context conducive to project management. You work at it, you focus on it, you are always looking for new information and tips. For those at the end of lesser project maturity, you likely know where you want to be and probably even how to get there, but life (and maybe your organizational culture…..or leadership….or…..?) intervenes. Most of us fall somewhere between the two ends and, no matter you lie on that spectrum, you are not alone.   An enhanced understanding of the human impact on projects should enable a more mature approach to projects.

The science of human behavior – whether couched in terms psychological, economical or neurological – continues to grow. We know increasingly more about how we are built and wired at the level of our brain, and how this influences our manifest behaviors. Thus the driving question for this paper: How do our behaviors reflect the makeup of our brain and how can we address our ingrained abilities and predispositions to reinforce best practices, make better project decisions and avoid common mistakes?

This paper highlights the practical impacts of human behavior on project management in terms of:

  • 1 key principle
  • 3 properties of our brain
  • 4 patterns of thought and their subsequent behaviors


To read entire paper (click here)

Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally presented at the 9th annual University of Texas at Dallas Project Management Symposium in Richardson, Texas, USA in August 2015. It is republished here with the permission of the authors and conference organizers.



About the Author



Tobe Phillips, PMP, PhD, MS, SPHR

Director, Office of the CIO
Baylor Scott & White Health Care System Information Services
Texas, USA



Tobe Phillips
serves as Director of the Office of the CIO, where he oversees the standardized approach to IS human factor initiatives and management approaches, including organizational change management, performance monitoring, communications, and administration. Previous roles at BSWH include Director of the Program Management Office and Strategic Initiatives for Baylor’s Information Services Department and Manager of Project Management for Baylor’s Electronic Health Record initiative, Manager of Training and Communications in the Office of Clinical Transformation, and HR consulting.  Prior to this position he was employed in both private and public-sector initiatives where he used his extensive change management and project management experience to develop and implement process improvement initiatives.

Tobe received his Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Abilene Christian University and his PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of North Texas.  He holds also maintains his Senior Professional in Human Resources and Project Management Professional certifications.

Tobe can be contacted at [email protected]