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Spencer Holmes


Managing Director and Training Consultant

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Trainer’s Tip: The barefoot project manager


Spencer Holmes has a story for the community from last year's marathon.
This time last year I had just completed the London Marathon, barefoot. Since then I have been cogitating on a comparison between running barefoot and project management.
I sometimes use a method known as 'metaphorical attribute listing'. This involves using the attributes of a metaphorical object e.g. a pushbike, to explore an old issue from a new angle.
I will use this technique to link barefoot running, our own project leadership tool, and project management training.
Our unique approach breaks project leadership into seven behavioural facets, listed in the analogy below. Last week the test underwent its latest reliability and validity analysis by Goldsmith College Psychology Department. I am pleased to say it passed with flying colours and some interesting early validity data has emerged.
For example, two of the seven facets positively correlate with the size of budget managed by project professionals. Those are:
Positive Intolerance – the ability to make tough calls at the risk of personal unpopularity
Pragmatism – doing what the project requires and drawing from experience
So, below I have linked our facets with barefoot running and how they have made me think about project management training:
Barefoot link
Implication for PM development
Humans were born to perform without shoes - stripping down to basics is ultimately pragmatic and removes dependence on pseudo-science that can do more harm than good
Humans are problem solvers. Project managers can sometimes lose a pragmatic view through an over-reliance on sticking to process and methodology
No shoes means you have to get creative about your route, this recalls fundamental planning and problem-solving skills as you can not just blunder through protected by spongy shoes – you have to use and trust your senses
We observe limited creativity as PMs either stick rigidly to process or feel forced to compromise due to insufficient planning and external pressures
Positive Intolerance
Running unshod raises eyebrows and challenges traditional thinkers, many of whom use labels like 'fad' to dismiss a concept they fear to properly explore
Project managers need positive intolerance most out of all facets, there is a reluctance to make assertive calls on projects because of a variety of fears
Barefoot running requires emotional strength as those around you suggest you may be losing the plot and often requires positive problem solving on the spot
There is a need to invest more in dealing with project managers' ability to cope with stress (always present on tight projects) and stay creative when the chips are down
One aspect of barefoot technique is increased 'cadence'. Feet touch the floor more often but much more gently in response to direct bio-feedback
Project managers need to increase the degree and frequency of empathic communications and move away from Gantt charts and emails
It helps to have a compelling reason to make this sort of change but once the first move is made the benefits create huge motivational energy
Too many project managers feel beleaguered and would benefit form being liberated to run projects in a more creative and intuitive way
Group Orientation
Far from being a solitary pursuit, barefoot running taps into a group of people with shared values who support each other technically and emotionally
Project managers in communities of practice can gain a great deal from each other and gain pragmatism quicker
Long distance running gives you a lot of time to think. The more I dwell on the links between barefoot running and project management the more I see connections (maybe confirmation bias?)
All I can say from a quantitative basis is that with expensive, over-engineered running shoes on I eventually had to stop, in agony, after about three miles. Stripped down to my natural assets, distance has become easy, running enjoyable. I can't help believing, from several years working in project management, that a comparable move back to our natural abilities, communicating, problem solving and energetic creativity, projects too could be much more rewarding.
Spencer Holmes is the managing director of Global Project Leaders Ltd. He runs projects, trains and consults globally on the subject. His passion is for helping project managers develop the resilience required to thrive in an increasingly pressurised world. His company can be found at

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Spencer Holmes

Managing Director and Training Consultant

Read more from Spencer Holmes

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