A Zen Koan Perspective for the Creative Project Manager

A koan for the creative Project Manager

First there is a project , Then there is no project, Then there is a project…

A koan is meant to bring about deep reflection on a topic with the intent of taking the practitioner closer to the goal of enlightenment. These concise and clever proverbs contain gems that afford a better perspective on complex topics. In this post I will use the mountain koan to dissect the phases of a project and illustrate three key points:

  1. We should not lose “beginner’s mind” and the lofty idealism of the project plan
  2. It is difficult to see the forest through the trees while “inside” the project
  3. There are missed opportunities by ignoring project postmortems

But first, another analogy: A Project Manager With a Thousand Faces

The mountain koan calls to mind Joesph Campbell‘s hero’s journey: the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return. This thrice segmented journey is reminiscent of the path of a project where there is Planning, Executing, and Closing. While it may seem like hyperbole to compare a Project Manager to a creation myth hero, the similarity I am calling upon is the journey and the vantage points that exist at each phase.

First there is a project: Project Planning

Our Project Manager hero sees a business opportunity like a mountain on the horizon, and begins the first steps of working to surmount it. This is the novice stage where stakeholders and key team members set about the tasks of initiation, planning, and design with a sense of lofty idealism free from the pragmatic realities they are about to encounter. They do so with “beginners mind” and layout detailed plans and processes to get to the other side that will soon be met.

Too often these idealistic plans are discarded as projects devolve into bedlam. There needs to be specified places to review the project with “beginner’s mind” set into a project.


Then there is no project: Project Execution

Our Project Manager hero is now embroiled working through the perils and tribulations of completing the project. The view of the project, like being on the actual mountain itself, is lost. The Project Manager has lost the ability to see the forest through the trees because there is simply no time to see the big picture while dealing with the individual details.

There is a wealth of instruction being received here but we are often too busy doing to be thinking. There needs to be easy ways to categorize and log project issues that occur and cause plan deviation in order to review them in a postmortem.


Then there is a project: Closing

The Project Manager returns with the boons of a completed project. They look over their shoulder and see the completed project. And then as soon as the project is completed the hero of our tale is called upon to the next harrowing tale. Foregoing a project closing postmortem denies the project team the opportunity for mastery. What is the hero’s journey without the return? Where is the catharsis? What is gained? Yes, you have a completed project but are you going to do the next project better?

There must be time set aside to review the lessons of the project. Only then can there even be the possibility of mastery.



First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is a mountain… There is an opportunity to learn, there is learning, then there is mastery. This is a lesson needed in managing creative projects. We cannot spend all of our energy putting out fires without attempting to gain mastery.

Comments? Come on now, Zen koans and Joseph Campbell… That has to illicit a comment or two.

2 thoughts on “A Zen Koan Perspective for the Creative Project Manager

  1. I wonder if there is an analogue that accommodates our hero being on multiple mountains at once. I find the arc-like feeling of plan-do-review is muddied by my reality of constantly being at various mountain ascents and summits simultaneously. At times it feels like hopping from one wave crest to another.

  2. I like to look at like this – there may be multiple projects being juggled at the same time, but each one is different. One project is a mountain, another is a river. They’re all part of the same landscape, but are also separate from one another. Find commonalities and in theory, you can even work on two things at the same time!

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