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Plotter or pantser: what kind of project manager are you?

Adeline Teoh ed.
February 21, 2014

Are you a pioneer project manager comfortable with uncertainty? Or do you need a detailed plan to go forward, and a customer who knows what s/he wants?

In the world of fiction, plotters and pantsers are the two main categories of novel writers. A plotter is someone who knows exactly what’s going to happen in the novel and structures the work accordingly. Each chapter, each decision a character makes, serves the end game.

A pantser, short for someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants’, has a vague understanding of a theme, or a sketch of a character and writes to find out what happens next. The next sentence comes from the one before it.

What’s interesting is that there is no consensus in the writing community on which method is better for the craft. Both ways have produce terrific, award-winning writing; both types of writers have seen their fair share of rejection slips.

If you’re not a writer, the process won’t really matter to you: as a reader you read the outcome and you’ll have your own opinions about the plot, the characters, the writing. But for those interested in the craft, being a plotter or a pantser is fundamental to how you go about the process of writing.

I was surprised, then, to discover that project managers tend to be plotters or pantsers too. Those working in industries such as construction are plotters—there is a building that needs to look like the architect’s drawing by the end of the project and we need to follow these steps in this order—and those in IT and creative industries are pantsers—we know what this needs to resemble but there are a lot of unknowns in how we get there and it might look different to what we thought.

So what makes a good project manager? I used to think it was someone who was organised, but now I believe it’s someone who has the skill to deal with whatever shape the project takes. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

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Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of ProjectManager.com.au. She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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