Intelligent disobedience

Discussions with project managers about the key causes of failed and challenged projects always raise two primary issues: half-baked or harebrained ideas becoming projects, and excessive scope creep.

Traditionally, senior management is charged with conceiving ideas that will drive the organization toward profitability and industry leadership. Hence, there is immense pressure on executives to deliver innovative ideas that can be turned into products and services for profit and competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, these visions are often intertwined with any number of half-baked and, at times, harebrained ideas. When half-baked and harebrained ideas get communicated to them, many project managers don’t object because of a culture of not questioning the senior people. The general thinking is, “How could they be wrong?”

Another big contributor to failed and challenged projects is the inevitable scope creep. We all know that at times customers can be unreasonable and unrealistic in their expectations, but they’re also subject to external pressures they can’t control — government regulations, competitive positioning, emerging opportunities and the classic “silver bullet” syndrome, also known as Management by Magazine. (This occurs when the customer reads an article on an airplane while 35,000 feet over Kansas and forms a new vision.)

But forcing the team to agree to continuous scope creep is clearly not the solution. And you get hit with a double whammy when projects are built around half-baked ideas. A half-baked idea that turns into a project with extensive scope creep is a nightmare.

What can project managers do to minimize these problems? Simply stated: Learn to say no.

Of course, project managers may feel that they don’t have the ability or wherewithal to say no and that their only option is to do as they’re told, even though they know that the outcome may harm the organization. This begrudging compliance is an unfortunate attitude in any circumstance. In the extreme case, it can lead to disaster.

This is where the concept of intelligent disobedience comes into play. Intelligent disobedience is a trait clearly illustrated by guide dogs for the blind: At an intersection, based on traffic sounds and a general sense of safety, the blind person initiates the move to cross the street, giving a signal to the dog. If traffic is blocking the crosswalk, however, the guide dog will disobey the move-forward command.

In guide-dog training lingo, intelligent disobedience is the dog’s response when it senses that the path ahead is dangerous. It disobeys even though the owner wants to proceed.

Now consider a different scenario: The dog disobeys the owner’s command because it sees traffic blocking the intersection. The dog’s owner punishes the dog for its disobedience until the dog finally proceeds. You can imagine the consequences.

It’s important to note that dog owners are trained to trust their guide dogs because the two have to work as a team for the protection and safety of the owner.

The essence of the intelligent disobedience behaviour as it applies to project managers is to say a firm “no” to the demands of executives and customers when such demands will put the project, and hence the organization, in harm’s way. Humans are supposed to be smarter than dogs, but it’s amazing how difficult it is to teach humans to exercise intelligent disobedience.

Intelligent disobedience requires empowerment and trust. It’s important that project managers be well trained in reading the danger signals and empowered to push back when they believe that a proposed project will put the organization in harm’s way or that the requested scope creep will create undue risk. Project sponsors and customers have to learn to trust their project managers to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, project managers can’t change the culture on their own because many lack the political chips and the skill to negotiate with overbearing executives and unreasonable customers. They need the sponsor’s help and support.

For intelligent disobedience to become accepted, sponsors must work to establish an environment of open and forthright communication with trust and respect for their project managers.

Whether project managers react with intelligent disobedience or begrudging compliance largely depends on the organization’s culture. Are project managers in your organization encouraged to practice intelligent disobedience?

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification (Prentice Hall, 2005). Contact him at [email protected].

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