by Dr. Gerald Mulenburg, PMP

In reading some metaphors that describe leadership, I began to think of metaphors I’ve seen for project management and wonder whether any really capture the essence of what happens in projects.

Sports metaphors are among the most common ones used for teams, but those types of teams spend a lot of time training and planning strategy. Their goal is not just to move a ball down the field/court/etc., but how to outwit, outplay and outscore an opponent who also wants to prevent them from doing the same.

Projects, first of all, aren’t usually made up of teams who practice and work together as intensively as sports teams do, and they don’t (hopefully anyway) have opponents challenging and blocking each and every move they try to make.

The metaphor of an orchestra with a director and many musicians sounds reasonable for projects, except when you think about how they do what they do. Orchestras practice, practice, practice – as do sports teams – for a perfectly executed performance. An orchestra during rehearsal, rather than while performing, is closer to what projects are.

A team of orchestra members, each with their individual skills, abilities and roles, rehearse their part of the music to make the whole happen smoothly and efficiently. During rehearsal, when everyone is trying to perform as directed by the conductor, with missed entrances, wrong notes played, etc., it is much more like a project getting up to speed, and by the time everyone is working in sync, the orchestra is now ready to perform.

Making a movie or filming a television show is another metaphor sometimes used to describe projects. It certainly has the elements of defining the scope, doing the planning (script) and then executing the plan (acting) within a limited time period and budget, with a group of people who may not have worked together before, to create a good outcome.

If you consider the coordinating and integrating involved in such an endeavor, it often does look like a project. Some things that make it different from a project is the ability to stop and repeat a scene, and later cutting out the bad parts and rearranging what’s left during the editing process to make the whole look good. You can’t do that with projects.

Then there’s the military metaphor. Again, this involves a group of people getting something done, but due to the authoritarian military hierarchy, the relationship among those involved is quite different than for a project. There is much more given authority involved in military work than in projects. Leadership is needed in both cases, but once a decision is made in the military model, everyone works to meet the decision’s outcome and there is not a lot of give and take among those involved.

We may also like that to happen in projects, but the project manager is not a military commander, and therefore, a military operation is also only partially like a project.

Emergency work done by the police, fire fighters, and other first responders also looks like a possible metaphor for project management. But these teams and individuals train hard to be able to do what they do without much time to plan for what they’re going to do when they do respond. They must quickly assess what needs to be done and get it done efficiently and effectively because lives are at stake, including their own.

Similar to the military in some ways, they train hard, practice a lot with a tight hierarchy of command that defines who does what, and who controls what happens at the scene.

A medical emergency room operates similar to first responders in many ways that other emergency teams do to save lives. But, how about a medical operating room? At first glance an operating room seems a good metaphor for project management. The surgery is planned in advance (other than emergencies), there is a dedicated team with separate specialized skills and roles working together toward the same goal (a successful operation), limited by time and resources available, and led by a chief surgeon.

And this is where the operating room metaphor begins to break down.

Projects of medium size and complexity, and larger, depend on a project manager who, unlike the surgeon, is not doing any of the work of the project but integrating each aspect of the work into the whole. Both the chief surgeon and project manager depend heavily on the team, but their roles are quite different, with the surgeon being the key worker whereas the project manager is not.

After exploring possible metaphors for project management, the question arises whether we need a metaphor for projects, and, if so, why?

I’m not convinced that a metaphor for the entire project management process is available, necessary, or important. Some of each of the metaphors mentioned above fit a portion of project management and can be used for that portion if desired or needed. To recap:

  • The orchestra conductor guides the members of the orchestra so they all play the same music.
  • The sports coach creates a smooth working team of individuals with various skills and roles, which works as a metaphor for project management only to a point. One thing similar to projects is that the coach never touches the ball, just as the project manager does no work of the project.
  • Likewise, the conductor makes no noise, and the fire chief does not fight the fire.
  • Creating a movie also uses a director (similar to the orchestra conductor and somewhat like a sports coach) who, in most cases (Clint Eastwood and George Clooney being two exceptions), don’t normally participate in the film but only guide the actors through their scenes. And, as we know, project managers often do this also. The number of things that must be done to make a movie happen in a coordinated manner is definitely, however, similar to integrating all the parts of a project into a final product.
  • The military commander fits the role of an authoritarian project manager, who depends on staff input for decisions, but when made are not challenged as they often can be in projects. Again, the military, but especially the first responders to emergencies, including the ER staff, work in similar ways through training, practice and experience to make the right decisions that produce the intended outputs.
  • The operating room is similar to project management in its organization and activities, with the major exception of the surgeon being an intimate player in the action.

So I’m not yet convinced we have a metaphor for project management. We can use different ones for the different parts of a project if we want to, but maybe project management should be the metaphor for these other situations, with minor adjustments for their specific needs.

What are your views on this? Do you know of other metaphors for project management? Do you think a metaphor for project management is even necessary?


10 replies
  1. Mark Smith
    Mark Smith says:

    This is a great topic for a project mgmt blog. The field of project mgmt is a very broad system of thinking and organization; the principles of this field can be applied to most life endeavors. As such, creating a single metaphor for project management is probably not possible, or necessary. In our company, the use of metaphors is applied to individual projects and we do it to make clearer to the participants, parts of the situation they may not have known about. Sports metaphors help, especially when trying to characterize competitors who are trying to win market share. Military metaphors become helpful when the project is running behind or has encountered quality issues that need urgent attention. Medical metaphors help when a project encounters unexpected architectural challenges and careful precision must be applied to recover. Metaphors help in various situations, but probably do not help to illuminate a topic as broad as the field of project management.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, I had not thought of metaphors in this way, even though we use them every day.

  2. Rosemary Hossenlopp
    Rosemary Hossenlopp says:

    Merriam-Webster states a metaphor is a word for one thing (Orchestra, Military) that is used to refer to another thing (Project Management) in order to show or suggest that they are similar.

    Project Managers need conversational connection, created by metaphors to establish trust, collaboration and support with our many varied stakeholders. Metaphors, examples or experiences can all point to the behavior and outcomes we need on projects.

  3. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    Thanks Rosemary,
    As you mention, using metaphors often helps explain project management concepts in more understandable terms to those unfamiliar with some of the jargon used in projects.

  4. Aji Rajappan
    Aji Rajappan says:

    Nice Article Jerry. After thinking through this for a while, I am inclining to what you have mentioned at the end “We can use different ones for the different parts of a project if we want to”.

    Also, no intention to be industry specific, how does this align to the Agile and DevOps way of delivering capabilities or creating products?

    Jerry, perhaps you could publish this in LinkedIn for more visibility and conversation?

    • Jerry
      Jerry says:

      Aji, Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
      I am not sufficiently fluent in Agile or DevOps to answer your question directly but would be interested in hearing about the metaphor aspect of them. Agile I do know does not emphasize the traditional approach of a firm definition of the end product, careful planning the path, schedule, and budget to get there, and a focus on documentation of traditional methods. Perhaps a metaphor for Agile is closer to a Skunk Works approach?

  5. Satish Subramanian
    Satish Subramanian says:


    Thanks for authoring this article. My perspective is that the arena of project management is so vast, it may be challenging to find a single metaphor that can well represent the full project life cycle and/or all the processes. I enjoyed reading your article.


  6. Frank Habermann
    Frank Habermann says:

    Congratulations for the inspiring article! In a similar context, we have undertaken some qualitative research. Over a period of two years, we asked people from more than 50 professions (and all continents) how they would explain “a project” to a kid, i.e. which easy-to-understand metaphor they’d use. It turned out that the most common project metaphor is “a journey to the unknown”. We applied this metaphor to create a Project Canvas, that helps interdisziplinary teams to develop a shared understanding of their project.

    You can find the tool and more at the “Over the Fence” website at (it’s open source / free of charge). The “project journey” metaphor is described in the “Book” chapter in greater detail …

    • Jerry
      Jerry says:

      Frank, thanks for your comment. Rather than “a journey into the unknown” however, I would probably prefer “a journey into the not yet completely known” as in my experience that is how most projects begin.

  7. Gregory Brown
    Gregory Brown says:


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