Marcus Buckingham, in his 2005 Harvard Business Review article “What Great Managers Do,” said that average managers play checkers, great managers play chess, and great leaders rally people around what is universal and capitalize on that (Buckingham, 2005). As someone who prefers leadership to management, I agree with this sentiment.
The average manager plays checkers because they see every person as the same, with the same capabilities, really doing the same kind of work. Great managers playing chess can see the differences between people and use those people appropriately for their strengths. A great manager sees those different strengths, different skills, and helps each individual to succeed in his or her own way. Leaders look past those individual differences to move people using stories and other motivation, communicating a vision, and tapping into shared needs (Buckingham, 2005). Checker-playing (average) managers come to mind, as well as chess-playing (good) managers that I have worked with over the years.
Buckingham’s analogy is apt, regarding managers, however, it is focusing only on human management and not conceptual nor human management. There are four main functions of a manager: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. These apply to all forms of management, whether managing a company, team management, product management, or project management (Quinn, 2010, p.12-13). Managers use conceptual, technical, and human management skills, where conceptual management is managing using the vision, mission, and objectives, formulating the big picture. Technical management is managing using specialized expertise. Human management is being able to manage individuals and groups (Quinn, 2020, p.14). This human management skill is what Marcus Buckingham referred to as the checkers or chess. Leaders leverage the conceptual and human management skills most.
These same qualities are important for project managers. Like chess players, a project manager has to determine what resources are best to deploy to accomplish the project’s objective, considering risks, impacts, costs, and quality. Different people have different skills and dispositions. It is a project manager’s responsibility to determine how to use those people the best way possible in projects. It is indeed a game of chess. A checker player would make a poor project manager, unable to identify what resources to deploy where, and when, to do what tasks.
Buckingham, M. (2005, March). What Great Managers Do. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2005/03/what-great-managers-do
Quinn, S. (2010). Management Basics. Bookboon.com. Retrieved from https://bookboon.com/en/management-basics-ebook