Intelligent Disobedience : The Difference between Good and Great Project Managers

By Bob McGannon, PMP

The job of a Project Manager (PM) is often described as managing the triple constraints; scope, resources and schedule. In reality, this represents the GOAL of the PM. The PM must manage the production of the defined deliverables (scope), while being mindful of both the cost as well as caring for and feeding the people working on the project (resources). These must all be done within project timeframes (schedule).

However, the presence of risk, business concerns, technical issues, individual perceptions and priorities present frequent obstacles to the PM, who is pursuing success as measured by the triple constraints. Many of these obstacles can be overcome with diligence and communication, which usually comes naturally to those in the PM role. In some instances however, these obstacles are formidable and can involve:

    • Proposing unpopular options/opinions
    • Standing up to senior management
    • Crafting compelling arguments/justifications to garner business support
    • “Bending” rules and processes when appropriate
    • Applying non-traditional techniques to create “unexpected” impressions as a means to change stakeholder perceptions
    • Using communication and influence skills to protect the organization from itself!

Performing these challenging tasks is what separates great PMs from average PMs. So what do the great PMs do to succeed at this formidable list of tasks? Great PMs utilize “intelligent disobedience”.

What “Intelligent Disobedience” is not!

Engaging in “intelligent disobedience” does not mean that PMs become “flaming-haired, bulging-eyed” radicals. It certainly is not an excuse to tell half-truths, withhold information or intentionally break corporate rules without communication to management. Nor is “intelligent disobedience” counter to the principles of the Project Management Institute (PMI®). In fact, “intelligent disobedience” supports the principles promoted by PMI®; especially in the areas of risk, human resource management and ethics. This will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

What is “Intelligent Disobedience?”

“Intelligent disobedience” DOES mean being “different” – with specific purposes. PMs should not behave counter to processes, or ruffle feathers without a specific intent and goal for doing so. Effectively applied however, acting or behaving differently than is expected can yield significant results. “Intelligent disobedience” involves using skills pivotal to “seeing-eye” and other assistance dogs. All dogs must go through training prior to being certified as assistance dogs, and only those with “intelligent disobedience” capabilities pass muster and become certified. It is the dogs that know when to “disobey their masters”, such as refusing to cross the street when a car is coming, that succeed in becoming seeing-eye dogs. Can you imagine a seeing-eye dog that didn’t possess “intelligent disobedience”; venturing into the street because its master commanded him to do so, despite the oncoming car?

Can you imagine a PM diligently pressing forward with a project or a development approach that he knew would fail or be contradictory to organizational objectives? Although the seeing-eye dog story has a more fearful outcome; the project managers pressing forward towards failure occurs with far too great a frequency.

For PMs, “intelligent disobedience” is knowing when and how to depart from the norm in opinions, cultural standards, and processes. “Intelligent disobedience” means understanding the politics of an organization and maneuvering around the “land mines” that can diminish the project and its value to the organization. “Intelligent disobedience” means having strong beliefs in the project objectives and the sponsoring organization. “Intelligent disobedience” means taking the leadership responsibilities of a PM very seriously. It means having courage, fortitude and being determined to do right for your team, yourself and the organization. “Intelligent disobedience” is tough. It also is vital to ensuring the alignment of projects with organizational objectives, especially in today’s business climate.

Why Use “Intelligent Disobedience”?

In the February 2003 issue of T+D Magazine, Patricia A. McLagan says “If you want to shut down an organization, the best way is for people to stop working. The second best way is for everyone to just follow the rules.” This theory has been proven many times. For example, instances where police officers protest by enforcing every law fully results in huge numbers of jaywalking arrests and other offences; effectively “shutting down” their town.

The presence of standard processes does help in creating consistency across the organization and aids in effective communication. However, standard processes aren’t perfect. The processes’ authors do not have the capability of predicting future conditions with perfect clarity. This will have a bearing on the process’ usability as the environment changes. Conditions will inevitably arise where standard processes, common sense and principle do not converge. These are just the sort of instances where the PM must invoke “intelligent disobedience” and divert from standard process.

Warren Buffett, the highly successful financier, was discussing his role as an independent director in the March 22, 2003 issue of Business Week magazine when he said “Too often I was silent when management made proposals that I judged to be counter to the interests of shareholders…collegiality trumped independence.” Clearly, he wasn’t engaging in “intelligent disobedience” and believes he should have been. PMs who reflect on past experiences and realize they should have engaged in “intelligent disobedience” should know they are in good company!

When to Apply “Intelligent Disobedience”

“Intelligent disobedience”, as just discussed, should be applied in specific situations with specific intent, and a specific result in mind. Examples of pivotal instances where intelligent disobedience might be appropriate include:

  • Dealing with unresponsive sponsors or key customers
  • Managing culture clashes that inhibit project progress
  • Needing to shake up lagging teams
  • Overcoming resistance to changing processes
  • Challenging “time versus quality” decisions
  • Considering intuitive versus fact-based decision making

Techniques to apply “intelligent disobedience” in each of these situations will vary from environment to environment, and the relationships that exist between the PM, stakeholders and the project sponsors. The PM’s own personal style should be taken into account as well.

Supporting PMI® Principles

Certainly, engaging in “intelligent disobedience” involves some degree of risk. The PM must correctly read the political climate amongst stakeholders, understand the limits of the corporate culture, and quickly develop trust-based relationships. Misreading any of these while engaging in the “different” behaviors and approaches discussed here can be less than successful. However, h olding back and not sharing what you know – or strongly believe – to be true presents greater risk taking on your part, and could inappropriately introduce or prolong risk to your project. Examples of this are:

  • Proposing a new alternative that challenges the “status quo”
  • Choosing to take a risk when you consider it worthwhile for the business as a whole
  • Taking over a troubled project and demanding expanded authority within the organization
  • Saying “no” when your experience and knowledge suggest the proposed approach will fail
  • Deciding you need to propose killing a “pet” project as a “proactive alternative to failure”

A cursory examination of “intelligent disobedience” might lead one to believe that the approach is counter to business ethics. Engaged properly with appropriate communication, this could not be farther from the truth. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “ethics” as – “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation”. This means the PM should:

  • Readily share bad news
  • Readily ACCEPT bad news, (and possibly reward those sharing it) and do so gracefully
  • Recognize that the best way to be “nice” is not to be “nice” –
    • Point out shortcomings directly
    • Present your perspective and convey your experience through constructive criticism

Venturing into Intelligent Disobedience

“Intelligent disobedience” requires taking risks, creativity, flexibility and perseverance. We need to engage in conversations with stakeholders that are often difficult – ones that often cause us to “toss and turn” at night. Many avoid these conversations or “sugar coat” them in an effort to preserve the current relationship with stakeholders. According to Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations, what many of us don’t fully realize is “the conversation IS the relationship”. If we are having “padded or careful” conversations with our stakeholders, than the nature of our relationship with stakeholders will never be fully truthful, never fully above board, and our probability for success diminishes.

Take a risk and consider executing “Intelligent Disobedience” as you approach difficult project situations. The results can be well worth it: engaged project teams, loyal team members and a reputation for “telling it like it is” and focusing on what is right for the customer and the business at large.

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a company providing project management training and consulting, leadership workshops and team building programs throughout North America and Europe . Bob can be reached at MINDAVATION via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463).

PMI is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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