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

Blog posted by: Chris Johnson, 17 November 2020.


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.

About the Author

An accomplished and resourceful expert in project management with solid experience in delivering effective solutions within challenging and diverse environments. I have extensive experience in managing, motivating and building cohesive teams that achieve results.

I have a wide range of experience within many environments both commercial and government which has included high security and safety-critical projects in construction, engineering, IT and railway sectors. The IT projects included software design and development, infrastructure installation, re-location projects, Trading Systems (Equities and Forex) and retail systems.

I continue to study Systems Thinking with the OU which is so very relevant to project delivery and am passionate about simplifying the project delivery processes, to reduce effort and costs whilst improving delivery quality and have written The Rebel Project Managers Handbook which challenges the norm and the often excessively complex project delivery methods.


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