5 Best TED Talks About Project Management

I’m a big fan of business books.

My favorites are: Drive by Daniel Pink, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. I’m currently reading Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Why do I love these books so much, especially when there’s a host of textbooks readily available with case studies, equations, and detailed analysis?

These books make me think. They challenge my preconceived notions and tell me all the reasons why I’m wrong… and they teach me how to fix my problem. The secret to a successful business isn’t just good leadership, it’s good leadership with an understanding of organizational psychology.

My bet is that my reasons for loving business books  mirror why people love TED Talks so much. The entire premise of the organization is discovering “ideas worth spreading.”

Some of those ideas apply directly to project management. And a select few just might evolve your way of thinking.

I went through available TED Talks and looked for big names in productivity, project management, and management in general. From there, I selected talks that truly lived up to the promise of having an “idea worth spreading.”

The five talks below are organized by the speaker’s last name.

1. Shawn Achor: The Happy Secret to Better Work

Shawn Achor is the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness, and is well known for advocating for positive psychology. He founded both the The Institute for Applied Positive Research and GoodThink Inc. Both institutions were created to sponsor research into how happiness ties to positive work performance.

“The Happy Secret to Better Work” is a short (12-minute) presentation that is one of TED Talks’ 20 most-viewed speeches of all time. He talks about a common belief  in Western societies: if we work harder, we become more successful, and we’re more successful, we’ll find happiness. He then shrugs off this way of thinking and advocates for something simple yet innovative: flip the equation. If you’re happy, you’re more likely to be successful and more willing to work harder.

How does this apply to project managers?

Achor claims, “Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed. You’re 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19% faster and more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.”

I’m sure the mention of increasing productivity by a third is attractive to most project managers. Use the examples presented in this speech to encourage your employees to have more healthful, positive worldviews, and reap the reward in their work.

2. David Allen: Getting in Control and Creating Space

David Allen is one of the most respected thinkers in productivity and project management. He’s the author of Getting Things Done, a seminal book on “stress-free productivity” from the early aughts. An independent study published in the International Journal of Strategic Management (Long Range Planning) found that “psychology and cognitive science support and extend GTD’s recommendations.” Since then, Allen has gone on to found a series of consulting businesses centered on his time-management methodology.

“Getting in Control and Creating Space” is essentially a rundown of GTD’s methodology and application in under 20 minutes (if you’re curious and don’t have time to watch, check out our explanation and recommendations for free Getting Things Done software). Allen provides an exercise for the audience—and, in turn for you, the watcher—to learn and apply his time management philosophy.

How does this apply to project managers?

Getting Things Done is a powerful methodology that should be in project managers’ wheelhouse alongside agile and waterfall. As the brevity of this TED Talk shows, your team can learn GTD in a half-hour meeting. And if you can get them used to that process, onboarding them to project management software will be even easier.

3. Yves Morieux: As Work Gets More Complex, 6 Rules to Simplify

Boston Consulting Group, known for being one of the best management consulting groups in the world and having a long, complicated career path, is surprisingly home to Yves Morieux, the man who thinks that complex work environments lead to disengaged, unproductive employees. The senior partner and co-author of Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated has a PhD in industrial marketing and a DEA in decision analysis and organizational sociology.

The talk starts with debunking the two-pillar system that most businesses try to use to quantify success: “hard” and “soft” metrics and skills. He says that system is entirely irrelevant in today’s corporate structure. Instead, managers and industry leaders need to 1) understand what people do beyond their job description, 2) reinforce managers to have both the power and interest to have others cooperate, 3) increase total quantity of power distributed amongst all employees, 4) expose workers to the consequences—positive and negative—of their actions, 5) remove buffers that make people self-sufficient instead of cooperative, and 6) reward cooperators. If managers use this six-step system, he advocates, KPIs, scorecards, committees, hubs, clusters, and requirements become obsolete.  

How does this apply to project managers?

Show me a project manager who doesn’t think her organization and workload needs improvement and I’ll dress up like a burrito and beg for free Chipotle. Morieux’s process is directly applicable to team and incentive building. If you’re struggling with morale and productivity, take the twelve minutes to watch this video. It may just inspire you to restructure completely.

4. Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Simon Sinek is the author of Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last, and Together is Better. He has commented and contributed to several major publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and NPR. He’s best known for his approach to human motivation—a system based on “The Golden Circle” that derives, he argues, not just from psychology, but from the fields of neuroscience and biology.

In this TED Talk, Sinek explains the “world’s simplest idea:” The Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is made up of three bullseye layers: the what, the how, and the why, from outer to inner. When it comes to leadership or trust, most people start with “what,” or what services or plans they might have. Those who have the “how” figured out might explain how they’re different from their competition or why their product is special. The “why” tends to go unsaid, even though it’s the most important part of buy-in. “Why” doesn’t come from building profits—it comes from a vision of the world that is unique to your business or leader.

How does this apply to project managers?

Toward the end of Sinek’s presentation, he seems to speak directly to project managers. He applies The Golden Circle’s model to leadership. Using Martin Luther King Jr. as an example, he shows that people didn’t show up at Washington for a five-step process to establish racial equality or even to see MLK himself. They showed up because they were motivated by his vision—they did it for themselves, regardless of race. It was “I Have a Dream” and not “I Have a Plan,” after all. Project managers can apply these motivational strategies to inspire their teams to want to do the work and to follow their managers’ leadership.

5. Tom Wujec: Build a Tower, Build a Team

Tom Wujec works at Autodesk, a huge software company that spans the realms of architecture, manufacturing, entertainment, and more. Plenty of Autodesk’s successes may well have derived from Wujec’s insights as one of the company’s long-term planners. He’s the author of four books (soon to be five), and is a regular presenter on “innovation, creativity, and technology disruption.”

Wujec’s TED Talk lasts just under seven minutes, but there’s plenty of information crammed in to feed your mind. He takes a look at The Marshmallow Challenge, a simple game for teams. It calls for teams of four people, eighteen minutes, and 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. From there, the teams compete to build the tallest structure, of which the marshmallow has to be on top. While analyzing those who compete, or try out this challenge, Wujec realized that a) kindergarteners are surprisingly good at building spaghetti structures and b) business students aren’t. Why? Because business students—and likely everyday people like you and me—look for the “right” answer. Kindergarteners simply look for what works.

How does this apply to project managers?

The Marshmallow Challenge is a demonstration of how powerful iterative project development can be. Kids are less afraid to fail because they don’t see it as a test, they see it as a challenge. Recent B-school graduates sees this as code for, “You are going to be CEO of Marshmallow Spaghetti Corporation. Proceed.” They shy away from prototypes, whereas kindergarteners are happy to try, note what works, and then proceed. Redefine failure for your team and encourage iterative development for project success.


From TED Talks to business books, there is an ever a growing field of business ideas that project managers can and should tap into. Which TED Talks did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!

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