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When project managers join the circus

Adeline Teoh ed.
October 22, 2012

Project managers are often depicted as jugglers, but what would happen if they dropped the balls to become acrobats or ringmasters?

Cirque du Soleil is in Sydney at the moment. This Canadian circus troupe travels around the world bedecked in gaudy costumes under a Grand Chapiteau (the fancy French name for Big Top) performing barely believable feats of physical contortion, balance and exertion. Or that’s what they want you to think.

My partner and I went to see their show ‘Ovo’ the other day. As expected, the performance—centred on a loose narrative about an insect falling in love with a ladybug and featuring a giant egg—was a playful riot of colour and effervescent energy. But there was something missing. Where I used to rate Cirque du Soleil performances at the top end of the ‘amazing’ scale, I suddenly found myself unable to give any set more than a ‘pretty cool’.

What changed? I wondered. Had I seen so many Cirque du Soleil shows that I was now unimpressed? “I want to see them do things that they can only do half the time,” my partner remarked—and that’s what it was. I had seen them perform at their limits and the new show didn’t show me the performers challenging new limits.

If you’re a project manager, I already assume you can juggle. This skill set is about timing and controlling tasks. If you drop the balls, it means you’re still striving to perfect this skill. But if juggling has become all too familiar, consider dropping the balls to leap into an acrobatic role. Suddenly the performance is bigger and more complicated: you need to rely on other resources—people and equipment—to help you choreograph and achieve your performance. The project managers who can do this are at home with complexity, they can see the bigger picture of what the audience sees while playing their part in smoothing over the details.

Then there’s the ringmaster, the leader. Without the ringmaster, the show has no focus and the stakeholders—the circus performers as well as the adoring audience—get lost in a jumble of miscommunication. Project leaders provide a vision for the performance and a clarity of direction, it’s how to get people on board so they can roll up ready to help the project succeed.

So which circus performer should you be?

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of 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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