Project Management: Why Stupid Procedures Should Be Followed (Most of the Time) – Part 2/2

Earlier, I introduced DJ Dunkerley, a Business Analyst and Project Manager currently lending his expertise with Annex Consulting and working on a host of projects.

DJ has a two-part blog about Project Management. Here's part 2.
Part Two of Two: The Secret List

We draw on the pitcher to fill our glasses, and for some strange reason you are reminded of a scene in Revenge of the Sith with Anakin and Senator Palpatine. But you can follow your memory no further as the present discussion begins again:
Another good reason to follow procedures is a lot of time they allow people to form abstractions about what you are doing. And in a big organization it's important to have abstractions that mean the same thing to a wide body of people. This may come as a surprise to you, O great leader, but not everybody in org has the time to read your weekly updates or the energy to expend the effort to understand why your project is so unique and special. If you are following the procedure and not antagonizing (too) many people, then all is well with the world (meaning they won't block you and even perhaps release some resources to help you out). Don't underestimate how important it is to have solid abstractions in a large multi-national corporation. Let's see you have some procedures for rolling out a new product. You don't like the procedures? Fine, get on the phone to Brussels, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, and Boston and tell everybody you're changing what beta means and early production doesn't include documentation because you think it's stupid to get stuff written at such an early stage. Let's see you get everybody to sign off on how you think it should be done, if not everybody agrees on what "it" means.

On the other hand, slavish obedience to every darn procedure that is drafted in head office is by no means a guarantee you'll get the project done. This is where experience comes into play. It can take years, years I tell you, to develop such powers of discernment that enable you to determine which procedures are crucial to follow and which can be safely ignored. Here is a rough guide:

  1. All procedures laid out by salespeople should be followed. Sales guys hate procedures, absolutely loathe them. So if the sales office actually comes up with a procedure, you probably should be following it.
  2. Procedures by your foreign branches should be followed. Even if the procedures seem really weird. Especially the weird ones.
  3. Procedures by the budget team. This is a tricky one. If money for projects is flowing like a river and your company is doubling in size every years, you can oftentimes ignore them. But if money is tight and the rumour of cutbacks is making the rounds, then follow their procedures to the letter. Unless you really did want your budget cut.
  4. Any procedure by a business analyst or a consultant can be safely ignored unless it's given a seal of approval by your boss or by somebody who your boss respects.
  5. Customer services procedures can be safely ignored EXCEPT for those procedures recommended by those people who actually deal directly with customers. I'm not kidding, in every large company there are people in the customer service division who have never ever SEEN a customer. And these people are the worst at making up stuff that is just a pain to follow.
  6. IT procedures. Find the guy who wrote the procedure and confront him. If he can defend it, then honour it. If he got the procedure out of a Dummies textbook, tell him to compromise or you'll start an insurrection.
  7. Procedures by the datacenter people (SAP, Oracle, Peoplesoft): Follow them only if the data people give you resources so you CAN follow them. That is to say, the SAP guys should be given you face time with the database administrators to work the system to get what you need. Ditto with Oracle and Peoplesoft. If all they are doing is sending you e-mail with hyperlinks to undecipherable database GUIs, then you can safely ignore them. Because they are probably doing the same thing to your boss and bosses' boss, and as a result, everybody in the org hates them.
  8. All procedures that release resources that enable a crucial task to be completed should be followed, no matter how stupid. Fight the good fight in the next life, not this one dummy.
  9. If it will annoy your boss to not follow the procedure, then follow the procedure. James Dean could be a "Rebel Without a Cause" because he had tons of natural charisma and was incredibly good-looking. However, if you follow Dean's example, you will just come off as being just irritating.

In short, you gotta push the paper and kiss the rings of the various bureaucrats to get stuff out the door. Unless you're the CEO. And even them, I've seen at least one CEO slap his forehead when dealing with SAP.

The glasses are empty again. All is quiet at the table.

Hey! It's three dollar shooter night at the bar!

DJ Dunkerley
Senior Product Development Professional

DJ, this is an interesting perspective to share with our audience.

Ok, now IT managers and pros--tell us your experiences and provide your comments...

Thank you,
Stephen Ibaraki

Comments (8)

  1. Graham Jones says:

    DJ has supplied some very erudite advice that I am sure we can all learn from. However, I have faced a number of situations where "following the well established procedures" would never have produced a positive result. DJ freely admits that not all procedures are sensible or good. Well, then sometimes they simply have to be changed. Those who like an easy life won’t do it and those with a vested interest definitely won’t do it! So who will do it? What DJ describes is learning to live within and how to use the "system", ie. what can be safely ignored.

    If the system is flawed, should we just gnash our teeth, count to ten and get on with it or show some mettle and set about changing the system for the betterment of all? This may sound somewhat altruistic but sometimes it just has to be done. After all personal future and the future of the organization might just depend upon it.

    Will you skin your knuckles in the process? Darn right you will. Will you risk your job in the process? Quite possibly. Will you be thanked for making things better? Don’t count on it. Then why would we ever want to do it? Quite simply, if nobody did it then how would things ever get better? At times, frankly, I would much rather expend some energy in trying to improve the “system” than waste that energy trying to get around it with the attendant frustrations.

    Rarely do the people at the top of the organization see how broken it is. PM’s are often in a position to see the good and the bad because they have to interact with pretty much all parts of the organization. The PM’s responsibility is to get the "job" done and sometimes this requires an "it is easier to get forgiven than get permission" attitude. I definitely do not recommend charging through the organization like a "bull in a china shop" either. As DJ rightly points out there is no substitute for experience.

    Something that was not touched upon is the importance of the support of your team. Without that you are dead anyway regardless of the system. You will gain great respect from them by tackling those “procedures/issues” which frustrate them and do something about it. You will get the opposite if, in their eyes, you appear to excuse yourself on the basis that "the problem is insurmountable and the system is the system".

    In my opinion the PM position is primary one of a Leader who uses just sufficient knowledge (too much knowledge or use of it makes you dangerous – “don’t keep a dog and bark yourself”) in the technology to communicate effectively with the team, the organization and the client. That is not to say that a PM does not need to be very familiar with the best practices of professional Project Management such as defined by the PMI for example, but it is primarily a “people” job. I have seen many projects and PM’s fail because they either didn’t understand that or lacked the necessary people skills.

    My 2c worth!

    Graham Jones

    President, VANTUG

  2. Stephen Ibaraki; says:


    I like your points since it combines real-world experience of what works combined with certification and education. The triple threat in IT: experience based upon a foundation of certification and education.

    Projects key on having the team on the same page and this relates to the people skills you talk. For my professional development career conference keynote, I received career tips from international notable experts and this was a common theme: people skills.

    This also ties into the Gartner study on future job trends. 60% of IT jobs will be business-facing; 70% of leading-edge firms will hire versatilists who have business skills, relationships and collaboration abilities, core process knowledge, industry knowledge, and leadership skills. There will be a drop of 40% in specialist jobs. The common theme again is centered on people skills. And central to people skills is the ability to communicate, manage relationships and expectations. And, you must constantly maintain communications throughout this process. Communicate or Fail! I blogged on this earlier:

    Graham if you get a chance, share a story or two about your experiences illustrating the points you are making…

    Thank you,

    Stephen Ibaraki

  3. Adam Cole says:

    I thank you DJ for an excellent and very well written dissection of corporate procedures. You raise to the level of consciousness a problem which plagues us all. I personally find it helpful to be reminded of the benevolent origins of all procedures – you might even save me some hair.

  4. jointer says:

    As requested by Stephen, I will try to relate some experiences to illustrate the points from my previous post. At the outset I should point out that most of my PM experience is from my time in the Process Industries (30+ years), rather than my more recent time in IT. The working environment, but definitely not the principals, in the Engineering/Construction world of PM can be very different. Nonetheless the “people” skills, and getting and keeping your “team” on side apply right across all industries. PM in IT is very much a late comer to the “game”.

    Before I get into my Process Industries PM work in China (in part 2 of this post), which was for me probably one of the most defining experiences in my professional life, I would like to give my thoughts on “leadership”,which I hope you will see later (in part 2) has some relevance. In the case of PM, I think of “leadership” as “benign manipulation”, “benign” because there is good purpose in the intent and “manipulation” because the PM is often faced with situations where people lack confidence in themselves or in the team’s ability to be successful.

    A PM has to make the “team” truly believe and keep on believing even in the tougher times without showing inner concerns! People naturally want to succeed, not just for personal gain but because there is no better feeling than being part of a “winning” team. On the other hand, if things start to go sour, there are those people who will try to distance themselves from the impending “disaster”, entirely for personal reasons. Watch out for those! They can be the “bad apple in the barrel”.

    How often do we start a project with people saying, “It is impossible in the time available” (the start was delayed due to client negotiations for example) or “It will never work with that technology” (the client insisted but we know better)? Rarely does the PM get to set the “scene” but is expected to get the “job” done.

    The PM is usually only too painfully aware of the “starting point challenges” and has probably battled hard behind the scenes to try and change things, likely without much success. Therefore the first challenge that the PM may face is motivating the “team” into believing in the project and that it “can be done”. This is the first place where the PM’s leadership skills are important. They are important throughout the project for different reasons at different times. However, if you start out on the “wrong foot”, it is likely to be a “self fulfilling prophecy”.

    It is all too easy as a PM to become pre-occupied with keeping the client and one’s Senior Management “happy” and with the traditional working components of PM; scope, schedule, cost and quality. After all there never seems to be enough hours in a day to do it all! However, if you forget the emotional and motivational state of the “team”, it will all come crashing down like “a house of cards”.

    I guess that the debate over whether Leaders are “born” or “made” will probably never be quite resolved. I personally believe that it is some of both. Some people are born with certain character/personality traits, which at first may be masked by their upbringing, and then education, opportunity and experience shapes them to harness those traits. Once they realize that for themselves they cannot “turn off” those natural leadership tendencies!

    More in part 2 (which I hope that you will read if I haven’t bored you already!)

    Graham Jones

    President, VANTUG

  5. jointer says:

    In my previous post on PM I gave some of my views on leadership. In this post I would like to go on and begin to outline my experience in working in China and some of the challenges that it posed. I would like to stress my only motive here is to illustrate the importance of leadership. People who know me well will attest to the fact that this is definitely not some unashamed effort at self-promotion. I only hope to give some food for thought. Ultimately, actions speak much louder than words.

    When I went to work in China about ten years ago, the importance of leadership was hardly new to me (I am no spring chicken). However, it literally wasn’t until the project was over that I fully realized what the “team” had achieved. You may have noticed in my previous post that I mention the importance of “team”. The “leader” must be part of and yet apart from the “team”, a delicate balance, and I very much believe in a “team” concept. It may be cliché but “lead by example” does matter. At no time during the project was I really conscious of the impact that I had. I simply followed my instincts; admittedly experienced instincts.

    So what was so special about this project? Let me do a little scene setting:

    1. I was “parachuted” in to try and salvage the project. It was losing money (a lot of money). Failure could have resulted in legal action ultimately costing enough to seriously affect the company’s viability. Perhaps most importantly our reputation in China with all of its prospects would have been shot! China is a huge country but a small “community”.

    2. The technology was very challenging. Two earlier plants built elsewhere in China had been very costly and not really that successful. Consequently, we had a justifiably skeptical client.

    3. We were dealing with a recently formed company and an unsophisticated client when it comes to the process industries.

    4. The success of this project was vital to the local economy since it was part of the introduction of secondary industry (the main industry was an oil field but it was going to run dry within 20 years). Success would bring great kudos from Beijing and more investment but failure…. Well there are no “failures” in China (loss of face is a very real issue). So we started out with a very non-cooperative client (at the outset they were convinced that it would fail) and yet their help was essential for success; classical catch 22!

    5. We were in a rural location (many locals had never seen a Caucasian or even knew they existed) where living and working conditions were very much less than desirable; cold and damp in the winter and unbearably hot in mid summer (40-45 Celsius and humid). We had heat pumps (when there was “juice” to run them) but it would be quieter at the end of the runway at YVR. We had to “share” our food (not exactly western Chinese food) with the rats that lived with us and came to visit us at night, et., etc.- you get the picture.

    6. The company senior management was also convinced that the project would fail and my job was to minimize the damage! BTW my day job was IT Director and this project was only supposed to occupy 20% of my time. Pardon me while I laugh out load…..

    Ok, no pressure, right?

    When I was given the task I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or just go away and “cry”! I took a deep breath and started to formulate my plans. First of all I don’t believe in starting out thinking that you are going to fail; that’s what’s called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.  No matter how hard you try, if you believe that, it’s like the smell of bad cheese; nobody will come near you. I have to say that I had an excellent “team”, which I inherited from the other two projects, without which I would be telling a very different story. Unfortunately, most of them had spent many long days (often 14 to 16 hrs day after day) in something of a losing cause. So I basically inherited a good but very demoralized “team” – my first leadership challenge. Knowing what we were facing, going in like that would have made us “lambs to the slaughter”.

    Unfortunately, this is turning into a rather long post so I will close part 2 at this point and post part 3 (the last I promise ) shortly………

    Graham Jones

    President, VANTUG

  6. Stephen Ibaraki, says:

    You got my undivided attention, I want more …


  7. jointer says:

    Part 3

    The company had built a successful plant in Canada and a personal review of the technology (my Chem Eng background) convinced me that we had a “viable product” for China despite all of the obvious differences and previous problems there (culture, lack of experience, climate, etc.).

    But, how to convince the team? I enlisted the help of a colleague who specializes in “critical analysis” of technology/systems. He did an outstanding job and the team had renewed faith in the product. I now had the team “pumped up” for the challenge! It turned into a great “team building” exercise. We even made up a slogan (“JH KPO – Job One”), which we put on all of the internal documentation, communications to the client, and the absolutely indispensable baseball cap (made in China of course).

    The official plan was to be there for 3 months. In the end we were there for about 11 months (wink, wink – I told the company management and the client 3 months to give them something acceptable but actually budgeted for 12 via a large contingency that I managed to persuade the President to put in – still not sure how I managed that!). To explain why it took so long would literally require a “book” and is not germane. Indeed it would take a “book” to describe my total experience in China. What are germane are the challenges where leadership played a part.

    If “pumping up the team” was essential at the outset, it became a regular challenge over time. I had not expected to spend much time there, just visit occasionally. It rapidly became apparent that I would have to “lead by example” and be there most of the time and work the same long hours (7:30am to 8:30pm daily with the very occasional day off). Visibility and accessibility are essential components of good management and leadership, eg if you say that you operate an “open door policy”, the door had better be truly open, literally.

    Being there to provide “morale” support was one thing but I needed to demonstrate a useful purpose to the company and the client. As it turned out “doing contract amendments, keeping the client under control, getting them onside and keeping them out of the team’s way” was almost a full time job. In my first post I mentioned tackling and fixing the things that “bug” the team if you want loyalty and respect from them.

    Despite many “rallying” speeches over a beer (American beer brewed under license unfortunately) after work, occasional recreational pastimes like ball hockey (Canadian, eh! – hockey sticks are “essential” plant site equipment) and the regular discharge of thousands of Chinese firecrackers, 10,000 on one occasion (boy, that was fun), it was impossible to maintain good team spirit and motivation.

    The company travel and site work procedures made provision for a one week break every 8 weeks, in order to visit home and the family. Since it took 4 days to get there and back, it was hardly worth it! Plus people would have been more tired than before they left. The procedure never anticipated our situation. 8 weeks in JH felt more like 6 months! On my office wall “back home” I had the following to remind me of what I would be going back to and what my team was enduring on a regular basis:

    Day 1 Beijing: The hearty man ate a hearty breakfast

    Day 2 JH KPO: The hearty man ate a condemned breakfast

    Day 14 JH KPO: The condemned man ate a condemned breakfast

    Day 28 JH KPO: The condemned man couldn’t face breakfast!

    I was clear that without a change I would have a revolt on my hands. In anticipation I had already redrafted the site work procedure for submission to the company based upon consultation with the team; a break every 4 weeks for a 4 day weekend anywhere they chose, within reasonable cost of course (3 days in Hong Kong in a ***** hotel definitely wasn’t on) plus an actual week at home every 16 weeks if needed. Sidebar: one of the team got home after 6 months to discover that his wife got fed up with cutting the grass and had the front garden replaced with concrete painted green!!! Ouch!

    I knew that getting approval, if at all, would take too much time to be of any use to me. So I risked the “it is easier to get forgiven than permission” route and told the team that it was approved (well it was, if only by me) and moved right ahead. Success “magically” turns you into a genius from a villain. However, failure probably turns you into, well…..“gone”. Team morale immediately improved and people came back from their breaks refreshed and ready to continue to “fight the good fight”.  

    Did I get total sh…….. from the company? You bet I did. Nobody likes change, especially wrt personnel procedures, and they definitely don’t like people creating precedent. It was all worth it because I won more “browny points” from my team by that one thing alone than almost anything else! It was the TSN “turning point” in the “game”. This was a clear example of where a procedure simply had to change! BTW the company did eventually ratify the changes for extreme hardship situations.

    You have probably guessed long before now that we did beat the odds. With excellent help from my team (many of whom were ethnic Chinese working for the company and spoke Mandarin – impossible to work there without them) we managed to change the client’s mindset. Once they saw the difference that their cooperation made there was no holding them back.

    Ultimately, the project was a great political and technical success, and a huge financial success for the client; alas not for us. We were interviewed by local newspapers and openly praised by the client at a high level banquet in Beijing that my boss and I attended.

    There is no question that this was the most challenging project of my career (so far) and of course a source of great satisfaction. Most importantly I learned a lot about myself along the way. Did I ever have doubts? You bet; many times, but being a stubborn, dogged, “never say die” character with a “poker face”, when required, does have its advantages!

    At the end of the project I wholeheartedly thanked my team for their support, ideas, resolve, determination and belief that “it can be done”. In turn they told me that they couldn’t have done it without me. It was only then that I fully understood that I had done my job as their “leader” and not just their Project Manager! It is very rare that I am “speechless” but I was on that occasion.

    If you got this far in what has been a very long 3 part post (my apologies for that), congratulations and thanks very much for reading. I hope that at least it has inspired you, even a little, to believe that the “extraordinary” is possible with the right collective skills, effort, determination and most of all the right people! As an ex-boss of mine was very fond of saying, “the impossible we can do at once, miracles take a little longer!”.

    Epilogue: Despite the challenges and unpleasant conditions I wouldn’t change one iota of the experience. It was life changing for me! Fortunately, I did get to play the tourist on occasion. The history and culture are fascinating. In fact, I returned for a vacation last fall with my wife (go to for some pics if your interested). The culture and history are still as fascinating but the changes are absolutely incredible. We both thoroughly enjoyed our visit. If you get the chance to go to China, business or pleasure, you should take it!

    Graham Jones

    President, VANTUG

  8. Stephen Ibaraki, says:


    That’s a great illustrative story about the many processes for effective leadership and management.

    Fine lessons!

    Thank you,

    Stephen Ibaraki

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