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Initiative as a project management tool is one of those double-edged swords.  We often must take the initiative when we lead a project.  But what about initiatives that appear insubordinate?  Sometimes it is a project management risk worth taking.

initiative as a project management toolI wanted to get started on a project that was in its early infancy.  My boss said he was still trying to get engineering staff identified and there was no need to spend management time on it yet (who would I manage, he asked, if no resources were yet assigned?). I knew that getting started and doing well in the beginning was the cornerstone to project success.  He was adamant, however, that he did not want me working on it now.

We reorganized.  My boss’s products moved to another division, and me along with it.  I immediately started to show up for any meetings on the new product.  The other product and engineering managers (mechanical, factory, supply, marketing, business, etc.) on the core team said “hey Bruce, so you are our product integration manager?”  I said “yup!”  When my new boss and I sat down to review what I was doing, I included this new product.  He updated his chart of assignments and thanked me for keeping on top of things while he sorted out the new organization.  The project was now mine.  It wasn’t assigned to me, I just took it.

I’ve done this many, many times throughout my career.  I just jumped into a project and started working on it.  By the time the powers-that-be noticed, I was fully entrenched and a critical part of the effort.  Early effort in a project often involves lots of planning and coordination, so that even if staff is not yet available, there is still plenty of preliminary work a project manager needs to do.  On the other hand, I often found available resources to do early work, often for the same reason I got involved, because they found the project interesting and they too liked getting started early to avoid typical problems of late starts and compressed schedules. The number of people who would thank me for getting them involved early was amazing.

I once told my boss that my current projects were winding down and I would need a new one soon.   Boy, was that a mistake. I must have been assigned to and then taken off of three to five projects in about a month.  I grabbed on to one small project, a new product launch, and decided to just hang onto it.  In other words, I was told to let it go and to work on another, and I didn’t. Well, I did work on the other, but it was then redefined and absorbed into another project.  I just kept working on the one project.  I strongly suspect that my tenacity at working the one project kept it alive so it did not suffer the fate of the others.  I can say with some minor humility that it later became the premier product line of the organization, in large part because it was being “managed so well.”

For more see One Secret For Improving Project Management.

Our current product had been shipped, was reasonably successful, and we were just doing routine updates and monitoring problem reports. I really liked big shiny new projects, so this was no longer very challenging.  I announced to the core team of managers one day that they were doing fine and no longer needed my services and I’d be moving to another project.  I had no other project to move to. My boss?  I just told her that I had wrapped up my current project and needed a new one, which she then assigned me.

project management tools take the initiative

My team had a half-dozen projects in the works.  We were busy.  Very busy.  These products, however, would run a lifetime of about 18 months and we were about half way through.  By the time we finished with them, the next products needing our support would be many months into their life cycles. I always wanted to be in at the beginning of a project.  Things just always worked out better when that happened.

See related Is Your Project On Time?

Some of the new products — as new products often are — were very interesting.  They would have the latest and greatest technologies and innovations.  We had the typical “product envy” where the newer projects always looked like more fun.  In our staff meeting one day, I offered my folks some of the stories above on how I got the projects I had.  I told them that in many cases, I just took on an overload.  I just walked into an early meeting and started to work.  They were intrigued.  I told them how several of these new products needed managers in our discipline right now.  No one could give up or slack off on their current projects, but if anyone wanted to throw themselves into a new product to “claim it” I would support that.  After a little bit of “I can’t believe we are really doing this”, they all went after an additional project.

Some weeks later my boss, who had told senior management that we would not be able to staff these projects for awhile, asked me how I could be supporting so many projects!  I agreed that when the time came I might have to pull off some of my people and have the projects assigned to other teams who had available resources freeing up.  In the meantime we would help these projects as best we can, second priority to our assigned projects.  We ended up finishing up our current projects, keeping the projects we had claimed, and we were once again working on some of the premier projects of the company.  We got our foot in the door, did a good job, and so while we had to work a bit harder, we took the initiative and grabbed the work we wanted to do at the best time for grabbing it.

Taking the initiative and going after opportunities are more than just tactics for getting things we want.  They also serve to ensure projects that we do get have the best opportunity for success.  If you find your current projects are not everything you want, go ahead, take a chance and grab for something you really want to do.  It is not insubordination.  It is initiative as a project management tool!

Thank you for sharing!

6 thoughts on “Project Management Initiative or Insubordination?

  1. Bret Ossman says:

    Interesting perspective on initiative possibly perceived as insubordination. In a similar vane, I will make recommendations and state my case, factually not emotionally, then do as instructed.

    I would be very careful taking on something you are explicitly told not to. Could be job and career threatening. Of course, if you are stifled to a GREAT extent, might be time to discuss with your employer or move on.

    1. Bruce Benson says:


      Agreed. I’ve seen many bosses whose approach to providing guidance is in the form of suggestions. They don’t want to manage their subordinates efforts, but they do want to provide guidance and direction. Here is where it can be challenging to sort out which way to go. One can always play it safe and follow the suggestions, but if you are the expert and it is your department or project, sometimes that is not the successful path. If the suggestion turns out to be a flawed course of action, you are still responsible for results and your boss will ultimately evaluate you on those results and not strictly on how well you follow her suggestions.



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