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What is a rebel project manager and how do you become one?

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Much has now been written about project delivery, and compliance with the ‘guidance’ or process can become the aim rather than the delivery.  The British Standard for Project Management, BS6079 says, “Governance and management should be appropriate and proportionate”.

Or how I see it, dump the stuff that isn’t going to help you deliver.

Sometimes processes cannot be circumvented, e.g. in safety-critical projects, but most projects can benefit from some tailoring of the governance. Project teams are flexible and have to adapt to changing situations and demands; they can be trusted to challenge the norm and make adjustments to suit their needs when appropriate.

The production and sale of processes and rules has become a business in its own right. It started many years ago with Prince 2, a process of over 100,000 words.  More recently we have seen the rise of Agile (just 182 words) which has the opposite approach to Prince. There are now thousands of words written about Agile - can nobody see the irony?  We now also have ‘Prince2 Agile’ which is like implementing a capitalist system in a communist state. Or the other way around of course.

I believe there are various things project managers should do to challenge the norm and be better leaders. Project managers and teams are often compliant, too compliant to processes they’re presented with. So ask questions about your project, your team and the processes you are using and to “prod, poke and challenge” the norm; to understand the culture in which you are working and to look at the bigger picture.

I discuss various topics in my book, The Rebel Project Manager and examine topics such as the curly wig test, humour and what does a project manager actually do. Here are some examples:

  1. Administer the curly wig test: Before sending a letter or e-mail always apply the curly wig test. Before you send it, ask yourself how you would feel if you had to read the message out while standing in a witness box, under oath, with somebody in a curly wig sitting just a few metres away and listening intently. Do you still want to send it? 
  2. Avoid groupthink or ‘don’t make waves’ syndrome, or ‘harmony over conflict’, or ‘the Abilene paradox’ or ‘clone over rebel’ – you choose. Groupthink is where a group of people will vote for or support something they disagree with to avoid conflict and maintain harmony. Have you ever chaired a meeting and triggered this behaviour? Are you sure? How do you know? Is it detectable?
  3. Use humour: It’s 24 hours before going live and you have discovered a problem. Everybody is exhausted, every solution has been tested and failed. Your suppliers can’t help, your back is against the wall - what are you going to do? My advice? Tell a joke. You have absolutely nothing to lose. The team are going to be on such a low that even the worst joke in the world will probably raise a laugh. So why not give it go? Humour can be the lifeboat which gives you and the team a bit of respite; it shows that you are human and helps bond the team, so don’t dismiss it too quickly.
  4. Make sure you’re listening: Hearing is when your ears notice that somebody is making a noise, listening is translating that noise into words which you then consider. We have all met and worked with people who do the hearing bit but are not quite so good at the translation into words. Are you listening to your team and are they listening to you? How can you listen to one another better?
  5. Should you organise more meetings: An emergency vehicle turns up, the crew get out and start to deal with the problem. What they don’t do is get out of their vehicles, get a whiteboard and have a kick-off meeting. They don’t use dozens of Post-it notes because they don’t have any. Of course, the big difference between their world and ours is time. We have it, and they do not. Do we waste too much of ours in meetings?
  6. Pick up on optimism bias. This is the phenomenon whereby we expect to do better and be less affected by adverse events. We are convinced that we are better than the average person of which there is a 50:50 chance at best. Wearing rose-tinted glasses is another name for this syndrome. Recognise it?

So finally, what does a project manager do? When everything is going to plan, the project professional is relaxed, drinking coffee and catching up with today’s paper or tweaking their LinkedIn profile.  But…then there’s an issue, an alarm bell rings, then another, and then a red flare can be seen …now is the time to find out what a project manager really does.

Do you want to be a rebel who prods, pokes and challenges? Then you might find the Rebel Project Manager’s Handbook interesting.

Image: Jozsef Bagota/


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  1. Funmi Olukoya
    Funmi Olukoya 18 November 2020, 02:35 PM

    I'd certainly endorse Chris' book, its a really good read in which any would be or indeed seasoned project manager can pick up a hint, tips and methods for dealing with unplanned (and planned) events in real-life project environments. Funmi Koya MBA, FAPM, FHEA Business Psychologist: Certified Executive Coach

  2. Martin Samphire
    Martin Samphire 18 November 2020, 09:15 PM

    Chris – I read your article with interest. No, I haven’t progressed to the book. Whilst I agree with your tips and hints given on dealing with situations and behaviour on projects, I am uncomfortable about some other areas in your article – where related to governance. I wholeheartedly agree with your statement “Governance and management should be appropriate and proportionate” and that “most projects can benefit from some tailoring of the governance”. I would go so far as saying all projects should have tailored governance to suit the specific project. Too many projects are kicked off by following ‘what was done last time’ with no challenge. Good governance is not overbearing and is designed to enable fast, confident, successful and transparent delivery progress. The trouble is that I have come across some project managers who have taken similar advice to yours (“dump the stuff that isn’t going to help you deliver”) and interpreted it as “I can ignore it or don’t need any governance”. I agree that if the organisational governance policy and processes hinder rather than help delivery (or add no value), then yes challenge it and amend it if you can. However, don’t ignore the stated governance policy and processes or it may come back and bite you in the bum. The UK Governance Code has sound advice “comply or explain”. In other words, if you don’t comply with the stated policy or process, then document: • where you will not comply – and why • what governance you will put in its place • any verbal agreements made with authoritative bodies • and use your sponsor (as head of the governance tree on your project) to get some traction against the ingrained traditionalists. You also mention Prince2, Agile and Prince2Agile – they were not designed to be followed as a rote process, but rather to use only the relevant bits for your project. However, I am not going to dance around on the head of a pin regarding your comments on these methods. Needless to say, they are not the best guidance on governance of projects and project management. If you are looking to recommend guidance then please point your readers at the APM guide, Directing Change. And remember “comply or explain”. Finally, I do take issue with your description of what a project manager does. I know few project managers who thrive on “there’s an issue, an alarm bell rings, then another, and then a red flare can be seen” who have delivered successful projects. Successful outcomes to projects do not happen by accident – it takes the project team to be engaged, focused and pre-empt the panics so the alarm does not go off. This takes much more wisdom and effort than being “relaxed, drinking coffee and catching up with today’s paper or tweaking their LinkedIn profile” Martin Samphire – APM Fellow and Governance SIG Chair

  3. Nicola Read
    Nicola Read 23 November 2020, 09:11 AM

    I agree whole heartedly with the content of this post. I agree that all projects need process and good governance, however it becomes wrong when all parties can see the solution, could apply common sense but there's an overriding 'computer says no' that prevents them from doing this. Common sense should be allowed to prevail and I worked with so many people that only work to the process and can't see beyond it. I am a strong believer in having governance but on some occasions that governance can obstruct the ability to 'do the right thing'.