Aristotle teaches project management

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, understood human nature and how to focus on requirements that are essential to completing a project on time and on budget.

Based on the headline of this column, you're probably wondering how an old Greek guy who lived a couple thousand years ago could know anything about modern project management. Believe it or not, Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, understood human nature and how to focus on requirements that are essential to completing a project on time and on budget.

In his classic work "Rhetoric," Aristotle outlined three basic principles that are absolutely essential to managing people. I can't come up with any better words for the principles, trying to translate from original Greek to English, so please let me outline them here and offer them as labels of his key principles. To effectively manage your crews, your suppliers and your bosses, you already use (even if you don't know it) the principles of "ethos," "pathos" and "logos."

Ethos is the principle that in order to be effective, you must be credible and must continually reinforce that credibility by your thoughts, words and deeds. Without credibility, no one will bother to give you the proverbial time of day, let alone follow the examples of your project leadership. Without the sense that you are ethical, i.e., if your bosses suspect that you might be padding your expense account or that you're stealing copper from the job storage trailer to sell as scrap to feed your $100-a-day eBay habit, you won't have a job for long.

If your fellow project manager compatriots know that your word is not your bond and that you'll say or do anything to cover your own rear at their expense or the expense of the overall quality and fiscal health of the job, you won't be able to elicit their cooperation in sharing cable tray or hanger space or coordinated spaces above ceilings.

If your crews know by your previous track record that you're such a liar that you'll promise them anything to get them to do whatever and then never deliver on said promises, then they will take the attitude of "I'm going to do exactly how much work I need to do to keep my job and not a ounce of effort more," which will send your labor costs way the heck over budget.

On the other hand, if you try to live by "The Golden Rule;" if you always truly try even if you show you're human and occasionally falter; and if you always keep your ethics, your ethos at the forefront of words and actions that you commit to, then everyone who knows you will admire you and respect you, and will give you your due in which the demands of living such a principled life day to day is well worth it, for both you and your employees.

You'll be able to accomplish all your goals whether those tasks are installing a mechanical system in less time than budgeted, getting your materials to the jobsite on time despite the fact that there's a six-week wait for the chillers for all other customers, or freeing up a crane from another jobsite that another project manager wanted to keep, but really wasn't needing right then, ultimately fulfilling your duties as project manager.

Pathos is the art of creating positive emotional motivating factors. Once you establish your ethos credibilities, most people will instinctively trust you. This is when giving praise, thanking someone for a well done job or a generous act, such as picking up the lunch tab for the job meeting, creates feelings of professional likeability and even moderate personal affection. By using the first principle of ethos to define yourself as a worthy candidate for success, you then use the accompanying principle of pathos to motivate others to help you achieve that success. By giving them a principled reason that they should help make you a "champion," they will do so.

Lastly, logos is a bottom-line principle, which should be used only with grave brevity. When all else fails, read them the riot act.

If you catch an employee drinking a beer on the jobsite, you don't need to go into a long-winded explanation of the potential of alcoholism or the dangers of being even a little tipsy while working around the constant dangers that all jobsites pose. You simply tell him that if he is caught drinking on the job again, he will be fired. If a subcontractor of yours threatens to slow the pace of work down and eventually throws the job into liquidated damages because he originally underbid the job and wants more money or else, then break his will by reminding him that the mechanical contracting community is a very small one indeed and payback can be indeed its own form of "Tartarus" i.e., "living hell." Logos is the weapon of pure logic created in the combined hearth of ethos and fires of pathos, which should be used only when your previously established credible professionalism fails to persuade.

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at [email protected].