What Western Project Management Can Learn from Chinese Culture, Philosophy and Management Approach

Chinese civilization is characterized by the quite different philosophy, culture and management approach. The paper looks at the Chinese philosophy and management, differentiating between Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, trying to find out what western project management can learn from Chinese culture, philosophy and management approach.

Referat przedstawiony na XXI IPMA World Congress, Kraków, czerwiec 2007

Autorzy: Dr. Jerzy Stawicki, Prof. Ding Ronggui, Management School Shandong University, Otto Zieglmeier, Oz-Consulting


Twenty 21st century brings new challenges to projects and project management. The economy is changing, the globalization extends its scope and the network society is becoming closest vision than ever. Projects, especially in hi-tech industry are becoming more complex, project team members better educated and have also bigger requirements. Due to globalization the number of international, cross-cultural projects is growing. Project management extends from managing one project and group of projects to program management and to project-based organization and to portfolio management, having close integration with company strategy.

Though the project management is also changing, there are still many failed projects, with budget overruns, delays and not keeping the planned scope and even not delivering the expected business value. Therefore the project management community is strongly seeking some new ideas and concepts, which could be used in project management in XXI century.

One of the areas sought through is the Chinese civilization with quite different philosophy, culture and management approach. Sometimes we even hear, that XXI century will be the century of East. Therefore the paper looks at the Chinese philosophy and management, trying to find out what western project management can learn from Chinese culture, philosophy and management approach. The paper starts with review of the key elements of Chinese philosophy, culture and management, continues with comparison of Chinese and Western management and concludes with lessons learned for Western project management.


Chinese management is based on the three pillars – three approaches embedded in the philosophy of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. These three approaches also reflect the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) circle.

2.1 Confucianism – how to make plans and how to manage

The most influential contribution of Confucius is so-called "Li", which provided principles for Chinese to build and deal with lots type of Guanxi. One of the most important tasks to make a project plan is to arrange a kind of suitable Guanxi among stakeholders. "Stakeholder" is playing a very important act in modern project management principles. It is well known that the requirements and expectations of stakeholders should be clearly defined and involved in project objectives, and the relationships should also be written in business contracts accordingly. However, business contracts cannot include many elements that make stakeholders happy or satisfied.

An effective organization for a project is a well built Guanxi network rather than a lifeless organization chart. There are no pure business relationships among project stakeholders. Guanxi is a very subtle word, which cannot be simply replaced with "relationship" although they are similar to some extent. Relationships can be comparatively clearly defined, while Guanxi can only be felt among people sharing the same culture or the same sense. In other words, Guanxi can never be written in business contracts. An ideal Guanxi is to make a psychological environment where people can feel nature and go without saying. Without Guanxi, a project is difficult to be executed smoothly and even more difficult to make stakeholders satisfied.

2.2 Taoism – how to act in accordance with nature

Taoist philosophy and principles are rooted in an understanding of the Way or Tao. Tao is the shapeless force or Non-being which brings all things into existence and then nurtures them [1]. Tao manifests itself through natural principles. One of them is the concept of complementary opposites – yin and yang elements. There is no life without death, no good without evil, no day without night and the normal operation of universe needs all these elements to be in equilibrium. Another Taoist principle is the circular movement or reversion of all universe elements. According to that principle universe elements – animals, human beings, various forms of matter – ultimately return to their natural state. Wu-wei or "non-action" is the next principle. Wu-wei means to let events take their natural course of action, just restrain from action to let the things happen in a natural way. So perfect match with the nature through "non-action" enables accomplishment of impossible.

The important part of Taoism deals with leadership and leaders characteristics. According to Taoists the ideal leader maintains a low profile and leads people mostly by example. According to Lao Tzu [1]: "The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, "Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves"".  Taoism also puts high value on flexibility of the leader and his adaptation to the changing situations and changing demands. The Taoist leader should also recognize the dynamic nature of reality and constant and circular nature of changes.

Taoist philosophy also takes a holistic, system view on the universe and all other systems, treating universe as a whole, not as a collection of individual parts.

There is also final aspect of Taoist philosophy worth to be mentioned as a summary. Taoism can be treated as a specific approach to perception, learning and acting with and within everything, which happens in every-day life. It is an approach giving people joy, fun and internal harmony, and also happiness.

2.3 Buddhism – how to review everything

One key word of Buddhism is leniency, which provides a subtle principle for Chinese while they are reviewing people’s work. Hating to be managed and liking to manage are human nature to some extent, especially for Chinese, so that it is very important to make concessions to avoid trouble.

A big mistake in management is that the performance appraisal has been over used. Talking about performance appraisal, we usually mean "people’s performance appraisal", i.e. we do this kind of work based on a wrong assumption that all performance are made by people and good performance could be realized only if people work well. According to systems thinking however, good performance can only be got based on the harmonious systems consisting of people, processes and tools etc.

Because of leniency, we have to make concessions to avoid trouble. And because of having to make concessions to avoid trouble, we are forced to shift our attention from people to systems to find the real way to improve performance.


Taking into account the three pillars of Chinese management presented in p.2 and comparing them to the traditional Western thinking, we end up with quite different management approaches, which are used in Chinese culture region and in the West. Some of the differences are presented in the following paragraphs.

Unlike the Western, Chinese usually prefer Guanxi to the money rewards. Although many Chinese are not as rich as people in developed western countries, they pursue higher spiritual satisfaction from their work. "Face" is one of the most important words in Chinese public relationships.  While the Western work according to pre-defined rules, Chinese act according the roles they accept. While the Western take results as objectives, Chinese enjoy the process getting the results. While the Western doing things independently, Chinese work happy in interactive teams. While the Western try to define requirements, Chinese consider how to uncover the hidden expectations of stakeholders.  While the Western look at things analytically, i.e. to find what is inside it, Chinese are more interested in its whole attributes and the relationships among its elements. While the Western take work and life are different, Chinese take work as a part of life. While the Western think the best result is high performance, Chinese think it is most valuable to make people happy. While the Western take tasks as the object of managers, Chinese take people as the core of management.

The Western management philosophy and approach is based on thoughts and beliefs deeply rooted in the whole Western civilization. One of these is rational approach. Therefore Western management adopts "precision" methods and is trying to obtain all the relevant information, make the detailed analysis and make decisions based on these detailed analysis. The decisions are based on hard facts rather than soft factors and intuition. And the focus is the result.

Typical for the Western approach is also focus on analysis and details, not on the whole system and synthesis. Managers are looking for local optimum, overlooking global one. Focus is often on short term solution, not the long ones. Management is closely connected with rules and law, quite the opposite to the renzhi approach, used in East. Legal contract is the key for preparing and making business, while it kills every business in the East. What counts most in business is efficiency and professionalism.

In Western approach the strongest individuals and companies will survive, while in the East the most flexible with ability to adapt to the situation will survive. For the western management the individual interest is the most important. For the Chinese the group interest is the most important.

There are also differences in communication style. The communication style of Western management is direct and very precise, there is no room for insinuations and not clear phrases. The message should and usually is concrete: "Yes" means yes and "No" is commonly used.

The summary comparison of the two approaches is presented in table 1.

Table 1: Differences between Western and Chinese management


The analysis of the Chinese philosophy and management approach and also of the requirements for western project management in XXI century leads to conclusion that lessons learned for western project management can be discussed under the following points.

4.1    High level thinking, approach and philosophy of project management

One of the most important – in author's opinion - lessons learned is the necessity to take a higher worldview, by combining a western things-oriented, divided worldview with a Chinese human-centered, integrated worldview [2]. It means in practice a combination of western approach using starting with parts of the system, analyzing these parts using logical analysis and seeking one, absolute truths with the quite different Chinese approach. The Chinese philosophy, based on Confucius and Lao Tse, is trying to find solution to human problems. It is also based on the assumption, that human behaviors are driven by human feelings (Confucius). According to Lao Tse the ultimate reality (Tao) can never be an object of reasoning and he advocates human harmony with cosmos. What western project management should adopt from Chinese approach is the system approach: analyzing the whole system, treating various elements as inter-connected, using intuitive synthesis. In practice it means, that we should treat project management as a system, consisting of portfolio management, program management and project management and start every activity in PM with that system picture in mind. The other point is that western project management should really forget to try to look for one, best solution. One of paper authors is already practicing the Chinese approach by giving the answer "well, it depends" to various questions put by his customers from project management world.

The other high level lessons to be learned from Chinese approach are importance of seeking the balance and harmony and equality in every activity and balance and harmony between various elements of the system. One of the consequence of these approach should be also a change of "a black and white" or "good and bad" approach, deeply rooted in western culture. Western "tyranny of OR" makes the people, including project managers think in terms: either A or B and exclude the option both. In Chinese world right and wrong are treated as something relative rather than absolute. As [2] put it: "right or wrong depends on who sees it and when and where". That approach has deep consequences in human resource management area of PM and will be discussed further within the paper.

4.2    Human factor in project management:

The recognition of importance of human resources and human factor in modern project management is growing in the last decades. It seems however, that one of the challenges of XXI century project management is understanding human nature more deeply and stronger capturing of hearts and minds of project stakeholders, especially project team members and team leaders.  Here also the Chinese approach can be of great value.

In opposition to the western approach, assuming management of people and arrangement of work, the Chinese view is that we can manage work and we can arrange – not manage – people. The arrangement can be understood as keeping people happy and making them want just what the leader also wants.

Also people, relations between them and interactive teams are the core components of the Chinese approach (see p. 3). The roles are more important than rules, teams than individuals and what is most important: relations more important than rewards and bonuses. Thus the whole approach is human-centered and as such should also be adopted by XXI century western PM.

Managing projects means managing people in project. Due to project nature, project management is more difficult than just managing organizational unit. Management consists mainly of human aspects subtlety. And Chinese approach helps understand that.

4.3    Increasing importance of leadership

Very interesting lesson can be drawn from the analysis of Chinese characters constituting words "management" and "leadership" [2],[8]. In the first case the focus is on things, in the latter focus is on people. Following these line of reasoning and taking into account just presented discussion about human factor in PM (4.2) we end up with the conclusion that project manager in XXI century should be more a project leader, than manager, though both aspects – leadership and management – should stay in balance and harmony, as discussed previously.

The most important aspects of leadership and management are presented in the following table.

Table 2: Leadership and management aspects

Source: based on [2]

4.4    Taoist wu-wei principle

One of the Taoist philosophy principles – wu wei – advises the non-active approach, non-acting with no intervention into the outside world. According to [1] "Contriving, you are defeated; Grasping, you lose. The sage doesn't contrive, so she isn't beaten." Wu-wei means, that though there are no activities, everything is done. The trick is that everything is done and done very easily, because it is in harmony with nature – with the normal state of things.

The practical implication for project managers is as follows: the starting point of the project should be identification of the nature of project elements: stakeholders, project team, culture of the organization in which the project is to be executed. Then the gap analysis should be conducted to identify the biggest gaps between the "normal" state of project elements and the state planned at the end of the project. If there is no big gap, i.e. we can expect project being done in harmony with its elements, than we can also expect, that things – project will be done quickly. When there is a big gap a strong resistance to change can be expected. In such a case various change management approaches, like developed by E.Goldratt [3] should be used.

The other practical implication is connected to the inherent project variations. If the level of variation is such, that it can be treated as statistical, controlled variation, so called common cause [4], being intrinsically part of the process, meaning the normal, nature state of process, than no action – wu wei – is required from project manager. The key ability of project manager become the ability to identify the source of variation: special, generating instability, not normal state of the system and common – just controlled variation. In the first situation no action can worsen the situation, but in the second any action can result in the same situation, i.e. project problems.

4.5    Push vs. pull in project management – wu-wei implementation

Another example of wu-wei principle practice is connected with the push vs. pull approach in management. Production management applies pull approach in Kanban way of managing production. Instead of using pull approach – just pulling the parts into production cell, Kanban is using the opposite approach: the parts are delivered – pulled – just when they are demanded.

The same "pull" approach can be used in project management. The traditional project environment is a "push" environment, in which work is pushed into the system as quickly as possible. In practice this means that project task will be started asap. Such system is characterized also by quickly outdated schedules, not resolved resource conflicts and lack of precise prioritization mechanisms. In the "pull" system work is released as late as possible (alap), with consideration of the ability of the whole system to realize it.

The other example comes form the multi-project environment. The common practice in many companies is just "push" approach – pushing new project into organization, resulting in "bad multitasking" and constant shuffling of resources, priority changes and delays of all projects. Those companies, which try the opposite - "pull" approach – staggering projects and taking into consideration the whole project system and its ability to process all the projects get unusual results [ 7].

4.6    Yin-Yan dialectics and harmony in project

Another Taoist principle tells about the dialectics of yin and yan elements. Both are interrelated, too much of one of these elements leads to its collapse and increase of the other.
Surprisingly that principle applies perfectly to the world of project management. Too much control over the project lead to disaster and loose of control. Too precise schedule is indeed worthless: it is not possible to manage project with such a schedule. Too much documents and bureaucracy generates mechanisms to avoid them and make things easier.

Simple lesson for the project manager is as follows: avoid extremes, keep project elements in harmony.


The paper after presenting the key concepts of Chinese philosophy, culture and management, made a quick comparison of Chinese and Western management and concluded with some lessons learned drawn from Chinese approach.

It seems, that in the era of networking society some of the Chinese concepts, especially those addressing the human factor in project management can and should be adopted by Western project management. Team work, strong leadership and detailed stakeholders management belong to that category.
The other concepts that should also be at least a source of inspiration if not directly implemented are:

  • non-acting (wu-wei) approach
  • strive for harmony between various project elements
  • etc.

Also the "pull" approach to project tasks and whole projects, substituting traditional "push" approach, should be considered as an alternative approach to releasing project work into the project system.

We should be conscious, that every management philosophy and approach is directly connected to the culture and way of thinking adopted by the society in which it is based. Therefore the obvious conclusion: what works well in one environment, can not work in the other.

Another conclusion is connected with the fact, that at least some of Chinese management elements are used by the TOC project management [6]. Holistic, system approach of the whole project system, looking for global optimum, not for the local ones and "pull" principle are examples from TOC approach.

Conclusion part of the paper is also a good place to ask the question about practical experience with such a mix of Western and Chinese project management methods. One of the paper authors is practicing some of these methods and some experience – on the project portfolio level – are described in [5].

[1]    Laozi, Tao Te Ching, chapter, 64, www.mindgazer.org/tao/#Tao.
[2]     Wei Wang. The China Executive. 2W Publishing, 2006
[3]    E. Goldratt, Project Management the TOC Way, The North River Press.
[4]    W.E. Deming, Out of he Crisis, Cambridge, MA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986
[5]    J. Stawicki, R, Mueller , From Standards to Execution: Implementing Program and Portfolio Management, paper submitted to XXI IPMA Congress, Cracow 2007.
[6]    R. Newbold, Project Management in the Fast Lane, St.Lucie Press, 1998.
[7]    Realization ‘s Annual Customer Conferences, CD, Realization 2006
[8]    C.E.Johnson, Emerging Perspectives in Leadership Ethics, Proceedings from 1999 annual conference for International Leadership Association,, October 22-24, Atlanta, Georgia USA.

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