Project Managers Must Know When to Break the Rules

Bird Breaking Rules

One of the major challenges, faced by Project Managers is achieving a workable balance between compliance with company policies, procedures and standard practices, and being responsive to external customer requests that require “bending” those rules. In theory, standard policies, procedures and practices define the explicit knowledge or requirements or “rules” that all employees, including Project Managers, must use to control the execution of the business. Employees who don’t comply may be disciplined or even terminated. The problem is that policies and procedures are established based on the context of the situation and organizational needs at the time of their writing. In fact, often they are established as part of a “fix” for problem that has occurred in the past. I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t have standard policies and procedures; indeed they provide an important knowledge transfer and execution consistency function. However, the complexity and dynamics of today’s business environment can create situations where Project Managers are sometimes placed in the difficult position of having to trade the risk of going against company rules, for the good of the Project.

Here are a few ideas for Project Managers to be better prepared when they are caught in that position.

Taking actions that are contrary to company rules is not something to be taken lightly. It is usually the domain of more experienced Project Managers, those who have established a reputation for thoughtful, out-of-the-box thinking with both their company management and with their customers. If you are a Project Manager who hasn’t achieved this status yet, you will still have to deal with these situations, but pick the scale of your battles carefully, so that if you make a bad decision, it’s character and experience building, rather career-ending. Talk with your more experienced colleagues and learn from their successes and mistakes. By the way, don’t wait until you’re in a rules conflict situation, to talk with other Project Managers…do it now. There are two reasons for this: 1) You won’t have the time or objectivity when you’re in crisis, and 2) You won’t be placing your colleagues in the uncomfortable position of being perceived as a co-conspirator in your actions if they go bad.
Know the rules that apply to your Project and to the greatest extent possible, understand the context at the time the rules were established. This may seem tedious and a waste of time when you are able to operate without rule conflicts, but this knowledge will be critical in making a good decision when there is conflict. If your decision will break or stretch a company rule, understanding the circumstances in which the rule was created will help you identify and mitigate the risks. If on the other hand your decision will turn down a customer special request, your knowledge of the rule background will enhance your ability to provide a compelling rationale to your customer.
Know who owns the rules in your organization. Usually Functional Management owns the rules in an organization. Seek out and speak with the rule owners in your company. Learn not only the “what’s” of the rules but also the “whys” from the owner’s perspective. The trust relationships that you build doing this networking will become a great resource for you.
Be actively engaged in your company’s efforts to review, and update its rules. Don’t just whine about being constrained by bad policies and procedures. Offer objective assessments of their effectiveness and limitations and viable alternative approaches for change.
Manage the expectations of both your company management and your customers. Both your management and your customers must be assured that their best interests are a top priority, but they must also realize that there will likely be situations that bring those interests into conflict. You’ll want them to understand that when that happens, you will make an informed, fair decision and that even if they are less than happy in the short term, in the long term the best interests of all parties will be balanced.
Communicate frequently and openly with your management and customer stakeholders. Your ability to keep your management and customer stakeholders informed and “unsurprised” will allow you to navigate through these difficult rule conflict situations with small course corrections rather than large ones.
Take full accountability for the consequences of your rule bending decisions. You must engage your team as you gather the facts and explore the alternatives related to any rule bending decision, but in the end you must own the result and be accountable to the consequences. Shift the blame even once, and it will be the last time your team will trust you.
Treat rule conflicts as a risk management activity. As a Project Manager, risk management is something that you should be pretty good at. Identify potential rule conflict risks early in the project; analyze the likelihood and consequence of realizing those risks; plan in the mitigating actions like the ones suggested above, and prepare contingency plans for the ones you can’t avoid.

In the end, to be successful in a Project Management career you must consistently demonstrate, through your words and actions, that you are a person of integrity, intelligence, vision, action and wisdom. To the extent that you can become that person, and build that reputation, your management, your customers and your team will trust you to know why, when and how to bend or break the rules.

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About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Baseline Management and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Project Managers Must Know When to Break the Rules

  1. I enjoyed your “Project Managers Must Know When to Break the Rules”.

    The only thing I would add is the part of giving back to the market that you are harvesting from. An example would be if you are involved with complying with a specific standard would be to volunteer on the subcommittees to contribute back in the submission of the change process to that specific organization. I.e.: ANSI, NFPA or RVIA. This allows your company inside looks at what is being added or deleted and the reasons for it. You will be able to contribute to the changes and prepare for what is coming down the road.

  2. Chad Liu says:

    Thanks Don for your sharing…..From Chad

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