Project management, the contrarian way

Consider project management: a set of repeatable, predictable processes and procedures designed to reduce risk and increase transparency. A fundamentally conservative discipline, with good reason.

Now imagine turning that convention on its head. Project management that encourages risk-taking and challenges every assumption, that doesn’t emphasize proven processes. Disrupting the status quo can challenge contributors to take a fresh approach to steps which have become so stale that people only go through the motions—particularly where qualitative ratings of progress or project value added are concerned.

It can also help practitioners radically refocus on the things they do best, rather than serving the needs of the project management process. “Most project teams end up doing two jobs: the actual project, and the process of documentation,” says Praveen Puri of Puri Consulting. Those overlapping, repetitive tasks—which serve the management, rather than the project goals themselves—can lead to missed deadlines and broken budgets.

Innovating from strength

Richard Kesner, executive professor in supply chain and information management at Northeastern University, is counted among those who advocate sticking with conventional project management disciplines. “Project management is about coordination, measurement, and compliance. It’s not an art, it’s a science, in my opinion,” he says.

His take is that most organizations get in trouble not because project management is too confining, but because there isn’t enough discretion and judgment used to pair the right set of rules with each project. “I don’t think any one project management methodology is designed for all projects and all situations,” Kesner says. “There are a lot of methodologies that are less burdensome and more flexible, and work just as well.”

Rather than completely blowing up your project management structure, start by assessing where risks can be taken and slack exists to cover potential consequences of deviating from the formula. Think of it as a project risk assessment—in this case, the risk of applying new principles to future projects. “If you have strong process and a good structure to start with, that’s when you can be creative,” says Françoise Henderson, CEO of Rubric.

Whether it’s for a single, low-priority project or a wide, sweeping overhaul in project management, expect resistance from stakeholders who find the standard approach comfortable and familiar. “Contrarian project managers end up fighting entrenched bureaucrats and, frequently, senior managers, who want to hide behind the usual processes,” Puri says.

The contrarian project manager’s guide

You don’t need to set your PMBOK alight, just change your perspective. Here’s a quick-start guide to disruptive ideas for your next project.

* Disruption starts at home: As a project manager, look for opportunities to replace your personal, manual intervention with automation. Many types of document approvals and audits can be handled, in whole or in part, by programmatic processes, or delegated to stakeholders closer to the work being done while still being subject to later, non-time-critical review.

* Prioritize risks: Many projects end up over-encumbered because they put a near-equal level of effort into controlling for every type of risk. Investigate whether your organization is most worried about the risks with the worst consequences, or the risks with the highest probability of occurring. Decide what it would take, culturally and politically, to make a firm decision to do nothing about high-probability but low-consequence risks.

* Hold a live bake-off during a project: Breaking in new vendors can be difficult to do in isolation, before the fires are truly burning and need to be put out. If you’re looking for a new top-tier contributor or vendor, assign duplicates to a single task, then reward the best with future work. It’s a higher cost in the short run, but gives you better data to judge your most valuable contributors.

“Sometimes we’ll have three or four people do the same small piece of work. We only get paid for one, but in the end we get the best person out of that group and we benefit for many years after,” Henderson says.

* Give your contributors fresh challenges: Don’t just algorithmically pick the optimal resource skillset/cost profile for every task on the checklist.

“I will occasionally throw work at somebody who has never done that type of project before—throw them in the deep end and see if they come up with something interesting,” says Charles Epstein, president of healthcare marketing communications firm BackBone. “Nobody is given something that I believe they can’t do, but you don’t want people doing things by rote when you need them to be creative.”

* Expand your definitions of project management: Ultimately, every experiment will need to be judged on its merits and its results, and those insights will make it easier to pick the right principles for the next 10 projects. “Find the right process for the risk and complexity of the projects, and establish a palette of processes based on what you’re trying to do,” Kesler says.

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.