4 Types of Projects — Which Kind Are You Leading?

Lone man walking in the fog.

Walking In the Fog — 4 Types of Project

Learning to trust your instincts is an important leadership skill. Use this wisely and it will give you a head start when project planning.

Read on and I’ll explain …

Shape Your Leadership Styles

When embarking on a new change project, project managers and project sponsors often get a gut feeling about how things will proceed.

Let me ask you this: What mental impression are you left with when appointed project manager? A feeling of confusion or bewilderment? Confidence? A sense of purpose? Excitement?

Understanding how you feel about a project will assist you identify the type of project you are running and how best to deal with its challenges.

What’s more, it will help you to chose the right leadership style for your change project.

Here’s why …

4 Types of Projects

Eddie Obeng, a British educator, author and motivational speaker, reckons there are 4 types of projects. I’d agree with him.

In All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook*, Obeng also describes how our feelings about a change project helps us to identify with the idea behind the project.

A person who is going nowhere can be sure of reaching his destination.

For example, if you are unsure of what is to be done and unsure of how to go about doing it you are likely to feel as if you are caught in the fog.

Your gut feeling may be one of fear, loss, confusion or uncertainty.

Walking in the fog is the first type of project Obeng describes. The others are making a movie, going on a quest, and painting by numbers.

Understanding the 4 types of projects can help you to predict problems and put measures in place to avoid them. And the leadership styles needed to deliver organisational change are closely related to each type of project.

Walking in the Fog

If you don’t know what you want nor how to achieve it you are likely to have a walking in the fog type of project.

Typically, the organisation is attempting to do something different. Something that hasn’t been attempted before. These projects are started because of a change in circumstances.

For instance, introducing a new business strategy in response to political, legislative or socio-economic organisational change. As such, this type of change project calls for certain leadership styles — tight control, strong communication and innovation and creativity.

These projects require teamwork and a desire to work and learn together.

Walking in the fog projects should proceed cautiously. If not, you risk delivering nothing of benefit to the organisation.

Making a Movie

Graphic showing the relationships between the 4 types of projects.

4 Types of Projects

If you know how but not what you need to do you have a making a movie type of project.

In this situation your stakeholders are very certain about how the project should proceed but not what needs to be done.

Your organisation has built up significant expertise and capability in the area the project will tackle and has many people committed to the methods needed to deliver the change.

During the early stages of this type of project you need to focus your attention on solving the what ― preparing a robust business case ― not the how.

That is, mobilise problem solvers from within your organisation or using external sources to develop and generate ideas. Once you have your script the movie will make itself.

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible. – Jonathan Swift

Making a movie type of project evokes positive emotions and a sense of purpose and openness.

Going On a Quest

In contrast, the going on a quest type of project is where you and most of your stakeholders are very sure of what should be done.

Long-range purposes keep you from being frustrated by short-term failures.

However, you are unsure how you will achieve it.

If you are involved in this type of project you will no doubt feel challenged, excited or single-minded. Projects involving information technology tend to fall into this category and are often criticised for cost overruns, being late, or not delivering the expected benefits.

Consequently, your leadership style needs to balance strict control of time and cost with the freedom to innovate and solve problems.

Above all you need a team of self-motivated people ― “knights” ― who work tirelessly to seek and then deliver the solution.

Painting By Numbers

The painting by numbers type of project is where you always want to be by the time you start investing lot of time and money in the change project.

You and most of your stakeholders are sure of what to do and how it is to be done. These change projects tend to have clear goals plus a clearly defined set of activities needed to complete the project.

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

What’s more, this type of project is characterised by the organisation’s project management maturity ― written methods, procedures, and systems describing what and how things are done is evident.

By the time you start a painting by numbers project you will feel confident. You will probably want to demonstrate your competence by delivering the project early or under budget.

If you reach this stage of your project and your gut feeling tells you something different take note. You really don’t want to commit serious resources to until you are very clear about the what and how.


On a final note, recognise that the level of risk varies depending on the types of projects you embark. It should be your objective to eliminate risk as the change project proceeds.

Also, projects can change from quest, movie or fog to painting by numbers as they progress through the project life-cycle.

Use your head to interpret how well things are doing and adapt your leadership styles to best suit the type of project you’re leading.

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Want to know more about leading change projects?

Great. But first, what types of projects do you manage? Please join in the discussion.

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Creative Commons image courtesy Dinesh Maneer.

Last updated 6 May, 2014 3 CommentsShare the knowledge …


  1. says

    I find this model too simplistic.

    In my experience most IT projects walks deep into the Fog. We discover both What and How while working.
    I have found that in such environments it can be valuable to focus more on Why. If you get everyone to care for the Why amazing things tend to happen. Innovation!

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Geir. I’d be very interested to learn why you think this model is too simple.

      The objective of any project is to understand the what and how. A foggy project lacks clarity in both these areas, which I suspect is the reason you are questioning why the project is being done at all.

      Finally, remember that the model is there to guide. At best it is a map. It’s meant to be a simplification.

      As ever,


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