The Art (and Science) of Breaking the Rules

you-are-told-1314479-1280x960It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. How often have you heard this quoted, often with a laugh, to justify when someone just wants to do whatever they want to do? Does it mean that you should break the rules, or is it just an excuse someone uses when they don’t like the rules? As all project managers know, rules, policies, and procedures exist for good reason. They protect us, they help us coordinate, and they can save us time and effort by providing repeatable processes to follow. Companies create processes to help keep things organized and focused on the bottom line. The list of good reasons is long. We are all familiar with them. We even invoke them when we create the rules ourselves. The problem comes in when the rules are followed without thought or consideration. A poor manager follows the rules blindly regardless of the outcome. A true leader understands when to act outside the rules.

I have mentored many project managers over the years. One of the most common challenges comes when the project manager knows that the existing process will not produce the best outcome for the project, but none the less adheres strongly to the process. Often it’s because he fears that not doing so will harm his career or position in the organization, bringing disciplinary action of lack of promotion. He dismisses any negative outcome for the project as “not his fault”, insisting that it will be accepted as an appropriate result. There are definitely times when this is true. However, to really become a leader, it is critical to develop the ability to know when it is appropriate to break the rules, and to understand the appropriate strategy for doing so. The world is not a black and white, yes or no, binary options kind of place – processes and rules cannot possibly account for every possible situation. In order to succeed, we must learn how to work the uncertainties, push the boundaries, and identify when the rules need to be changed, or even broken, to reach the desired outcome.

Know the reason and intent of the rule. Before you can effectively diverge from an existing policy, you must understand what the rule is intended to promote. It is only by understanding this can you identify where your alternative course of action diverts from the rule and what the impact of your decision may be. This way you can look for opportunities to limit the impact of the action, or promote changes to the rule to address the new situation. For example, a standard process may be too expensive for a small project – you can propose a more limited approach that is better aligned to project resources.

Understand organizational priorities. By researching the big picture and what is most important to your company and the project sponsors, it demonstrates your executive thinking, and that you can show that while you will not be following a particular policy, you have made this decision in the best interest of the organization and the project, and can defend your decision in such a way that it can be supported by your sponsors and managers.

Document the reason for your decision. Define a clear justification for the action you want to take and be comfortable defending it. It will be your understanding of the intent of the rule, your consideration for the organization, and the clear reasoning for why this is the best course of action that will support your actions. Using a decision matrix approach, show the top options, what the expected outcome would be if the rule would be followed, and the expected outcome of the preferred response.

Make sure your entire team is on board, including stakeholders. Some team members won’t be comfortable breaking the rules, but if they trust you as a leader, and you have a track record of protecting and supporting your team, they will accept that this action is part of your responsibility as the project manager, and that “You’ve got this”.  Ideally, if you can, also let your stakeholders know ahead of time what you intend to do, and share your analysis with them ahead of time.

Ideally, you can present your decision to management, stakeholders, and team members prior to taking action. But even if you need to make a unilateral decision, you must conduct this analysis to be sure that your decision is one you can support and defend after the fact as well. Not only will this protect you, but will also demonstrate your leadership skills. You will have shown the ability to make the hard decisions in a professional, knowledgeable way – a critical skill for successfully navigating large, complex projects. You will also be providing valuable input to improve existing procedures. Make breaking the rules into the art, and the science, of good decision making.