Theory X Software Project Managers

I’m going to make a very specific case today.

Let’s review the Theory X / Theory Y models, knowing full well they are just models. There is no purely Theory X or Theory Y manager.

Theory X

Assumes project team members:

  • are lazy by default
  • will avoid work if they can
  • inherently dislike work
  • will show little ambition without an enticing incentive program
  • will avoid responsibility whenever they can

Assumes project team members need:

  • to be told what to do, given structure
  • to be closely supervised
  • comprehensive systems of controls developed
  • respond best to threat and coercion (carrot and stick)

Results in:

  • blaming people before systems and processes
  • culture of CYA (cover your a$$)
  • hierarchical structure
  • focus on compliance
  • top-down decision making

Theory Y

Assumes project team members:

  • find satisfaction in doing a good job
  • enjoy challenging and meaningful work
  • are self-motivated and responsible
  • are creative problem solvers

Assumes project team members need:

  • to be able to learn new skills
  • to accept responsibility on a regular basis
  • to exercise self-control and self-direction

Results in:

  • evaluating systems for flaws before people
  • flat organizational structure
  • climate of empowerment and trust
  • culture where mistakes are opportunities to learn
  • focus on commitment
  • shared decision making

Knowledge Work, Specifically Software Project Management

My verdict is that software project managers exist out there in numbers who are heavily geared towards the Theory X side of things. And that the more they are, the more their teams succeed in spite of them rather than because of them. And even when they do succeed, it’s far below the potential of the team.

Now, what’s your verdict?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Henry Brown

Would agree with you that Software Project Managers are generally speaking are Theory X type of managers…

Would offer that there are probably 2 primary reasons for this…

A. Most software projects, due to the nature of the beast, do not allow much “wiggle” room as far as goals, timelines etc…

B. Most Software managers were “raised” in this very structured enviorment and saw that in a significant number of cases it worked and it is a whole lot easier to accomplish goals in a way that you “feel” comfortable than trying something new…

And because of these two reasons, I tend to disagree with you that team success is minimal.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I think most people in any profession operate according to Theory X. Go getters are outliers. Hence, the Pareto Principle where you have a top 20% that are the Theory Y peeps…but the balance is Theory X.

Josh Nankivel

The problem is worse than I thought!

You guys think that most software project managers lean heavily towards theory X?

Ahhhhh!!! Run away!!!!!!

Josh Nankivel

In my experience, Theory X thinking is embedded in the processes and culture of many federal agencies. (At least mine).

The hallmark is processes that clearly assume people operating them are lazy, stupid, etc.

Henry Brown

as Andrew says 90/20 rule applies although I would lean toward the 90/10 definition… The real test for a manager is how he deals with the 10 or 20 percent exception to the rule… to lump them all into the typical group is really setting oneself up for failure

Mihail Sadeanu


Theory X and Theory Y both conceived by McGregor and the other new Theory Y conceived by Maslow were fashioned approximatively between 1945-1970 along the the 3-rd and 4-th generations of management. So, it is delicate to apply today their concepts and statements for characterization of SW project managers behaviour, as we are passing through a totally different management generation. Between 1978-1981 the Theory Z proposed by Gellerman in 1978, then strengthen by Ouchi in 1981 was the first one to be aligned to the 5-th generation of management. Followed by the Theory W (“win-win”) since 1991, both of them became characteristic for this 5-th management generation, yet available and used in many companies today. Of course, Theory W is the newer one since 1991.

Theory Y is implementing a real organizational philosophy focused on reaching the objective of making major decisions by a common agreement based on shared values. Both Theory Z and Theory W were conceived also towards the total quality management (TQM), but especially Theory W was designed to be at the same time very simple to be understood and immediately applicable, being considered to possess two remarcable charcateristics:

  1. General, being oriented to address the technical situations, as well as the management and the human issues being the most probable to be met;
  2. Specific, by immediately providing, at hand, the solutions or decisions useful in issue/problem resolution/solving.

The most useful reference I used for the SW development practice and team management in SW project management was: “Theory-W Software Project Management: Principles and Examples”, by Boehm B.W. and Ross R., IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, Vol. 15, No. 7, July 1991, p.902-916.

I have authored a book dedicated to the IT&C Strategic Management, published in 2003 in which I have detailed the Theory W usage and I described the pro and contras of the four Theories X, Y, Z, and W.

As a useful note, the Theory W became one of the most widely used as an additional consequence of the development efforts for the supporting technologies, as well as due to one of its main goals respectively the risk management after 1985. Together with the concepts of the TQM processes after 1990 it represents one of the most successful theories towards the IT&C strategic management and the e-business processes.

That is why for the proposed subject related to the specifically SW project management and SW team managers it is recommended to have knowledge, understand, and use the Theory W characteristics and statements, instead of those from older Theories X, Y.