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Atlas Shrugged: 1Q18 PM Book Club Review

Atlas Shrugged Book CoverTitle: Atlas Shrugged
Author: Ayn Rand
Year: 1957
PMEvolution.com Book Club Review: 1Q18
PM Evolution Amazon Store Ordering Link: Atlas Shrugged
Videos: Ayn Rand Institute

Ayn Rand presents a philosophy for life for guiding not only the day to day behavior of individuals, but also for influencing political policy and business practices. In a very lengthy read, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is explained through a cast of well defined characters set in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. With a powerful female lead, Atlas Shrugged challenges conventional thinking throughout.

Tip: Skip the radio address near the end to save yourself some time, it almost kills the book and is extremely repetitive.

What is the philosophy?
Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be highly polarizing with over-simplified concepts such as “selfishness is good” and “altruism is evil.” In less volatile terms, Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be loosely summarized as “Every person should find their highest purpose and devote their life to it while respecting the right of others to do the same.”

As is the norm for our reviews, we’ll ignore some of the broader and controversial implications of the philosophy and focus on what can be applied to the real world of project management.

Thinking –> Engagement –> Success
Ayn Rand proposes that every individual must be an active thinker, particularly about what is right and wrong, and that such thinking is as important in the workplace as in one’s personal life.

During the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of workers were expected to do as told while a minority thought about what they should be doing. Today, that is much less common, but project teams can fall into that old way of thinking, especially in certain environments. Ayn Rand would suggest that as project managers, encouraging our team members to think critically about what they are doing will generate better outcomes. When our team members simply follow orders they will be less engaged and project success is limited to the wisdom of a limited group of individuals instead of the collective intelligence of the team.

Selfish Individuals Make A Good Team? 
We’ve all heard the cliche “There is no I in team.” Ayn Rand would definitely spell team differently as she proposes that when individual team members consider their highest purpose first, the teams they are a part of are more successful. An important qualifier here is that each individual must fully respect the right of everyone else to pursue their own highest purpose.

Personally, I find myself closer to this line of thinking than I thought at first pass. One of my personal approaches to team building is to gain a personal understanding of what is important to each individual team member. Not only does this help me get to know the team members, but I actively try to align project objectives with the motivations for each team member. When individual team members can see how the project vision aligns with their personal motivations, conversations change because there is a deeper personal connection to achieving the project objectives.

For example, consider the following two situations (forgive the IT-specific examples!). First, an application developer known to be a difficult team member because he constantly criticizes the code written by others as not being up to standards. Through individual conversation, it is learned that this individual is highly passionate about the value of quality code because it reduces security risks, shortens time required to troubleshoot and simplifies on-boarding new team members. With this understanding, a skilled project manager can turn this “problem” of a team member into an asset by aligning this passion for quality code with the project’s vision.

Conversely, a QA tester known to be really good at their job seems disengaged in team conversations, but always meets their deadlines. Through individual conversation, it is learned that this individual took the QA role to get into IT, but is frustrated that they haven’t moved to an application development role, which is why they got into IT in the first place.  It is fully possible that the project can be successful without the project manager knowing this information, but risks such as this person leaving their job or getting sloppy in their work would exist. When the project manager can consider this individual’s personal motivations, these risks can be mitigated or avoided. In some cases, the project manager may be able to help this individual transition to application development through the project. In other cases, it may become clear that this individual should leave the project to pursue a different role and a plan can be created to do so without significant impact to the project.

Altruism is Evil

While there are many, many threads to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the last we’ll address related to project management is the concept that altruism is evil. The basic through process here is that when we give charity, we aren’t doing anyone any favors. First, we are hurting our personal growth and ability to achieve our highest potential. Second, we are cheating the receiver out of the various emotional and cognitive rewards associated with earning what one receives.

From a project perspective, this seems to align most closely with the self-sacrifice of team members for the team. I’m not fully bought into the concept that altruism is evil, but situations such as certain team members consistently playing the hero role by working constant overtime may be an example of what Ayn Rand is trying to caution us against here. We all know the risks associated with burnout and that constant heroics tend to have short term benefits, but long term negative impacts such as high turnover.

Discussion Questions

  1. Would you rather have team members who think critically or simply follow orders?
  2. Do Agile concepts align with Ayn Rand’s philosophy more than waterfall concepts do?
  3. Previous book club titles Grit and Start with Why both discussed benefits of a “higher purpose.” How does Ayn Rand’s philosophy agree with or contradict these other authors?

About Patrick Quirk

Founding Member of PMEvolution.com President & CEO of FOQUS Partners, LLC PMP since 2005

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