Home » Change Management » Maybe We Should Ignore Our Boss

“At such an inauspicious moment, with management dead set against the idea, it surely would have seemed foolhardy to continue designing computer operating systems.  … Now, some 40 years later, we should be thankful that these programmers ignored their bosses and continued their labor of love, which gave the world Unix, one of the greatest computer operating systems of all time.”  IEEE Spectrum (NA), December 2011, page 36.

Project Managers Maybe We Should Ignore Our BossI often say that during my career half my bosses loved me and half my bosses hated me.  All my bosses who hated me eventually asked me to stay on with them or come join them in other efforts.  This is the challenge and risk of working hard to improve things and to make a difference.  The opportunities are almost limitless if one doesn’t mind the rabid resistance one finds in some of these places.  Most of the critical lessons learned that have helped me throughout my career have been in the environments where my bosses hated me.  So the lesson from this is not to avoid the bad situations, but to recognize that they are in fact opportunities to learn and grow and still be successful.

I recall in college how students would pick which session of a class they took based upon the professor.  I had a tendency to just pick the class with the best time for me and I didn’t care who was teaching it.  In my case, I rarely attended classes (and my grades reflected that!) but would instead read the book (the parts I was interested in) and do my own projects and exploration into the subject. While this suboptimzed my grades it in fact maximized my learning and so I took it as an acceptable trade-off. It also meant I got to experience a wide range of teachers, the good and the not so good and that turned out to be valuable also. Some years after college a senior executive told me that if he were to do college over again, he would simply pick the hardest courses and do those because that is where, in college and in business, he learned the lessons that propelled him to his success.

I’ve written about a few of my experiences where to get things done we had to go against the expressed wishes of more senior management. That appears completely and utterly wrong to many people and I do agree … in principle. However, I also often tell people that for over 30 years I’ve been either blessed or cursed, depending upon one’s perspective, with having worked with organizations that were not very good at management, at least with respect to project management, but also often management in general.

Many people, discovering that they were in these kind of organizations, either jumped ship or hunkered down and just endured them, at least for as long as the organizations were in business. In my case, I just waded in and tried to improve things. Having been successful, even in the worst of organizations — with the scars to prove it — convinced me that any organization could improve and that those bosses I annoyed would eventually come around when we were successful (i.e., made them successful).

Maybe we shouldn’t ignore our boss, but there are often situations where taking an initiative that doesn’t align with our bosses becomes an optimal course of action.  It is a risk we may want to consider and I’ve been surprised at bosses who while expressly unhappy with me during the execution of a project, later thanked me for showing them what was really possible.  What we do may not be the next Unix but there are a lot of lesser accomplishments than Unix that can benefit our business, ourselves and our world.

Have you ever taken an initiative, that succeeded, that was initially contrary to your boss’s intent or wishes?

Thank you for sharing!

10 thoughts on “Maybe We Should Ignore Our Boss

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from around the web:

    Leo Savitsky • If you are not in sync more than couple of times, change you boss before they change you. If boss is worth to work for, he or she will support you. Otherwise, when your initiative blows you in the face, you will turn around and find nobody to support or back you up. With all consequences.

    Just remember the corner stone of PMI methodology – PM is responsible for everything. If you have issues with that, don’t be a PM, occupational risk is pretty high.

    Bruce Benson • Leo,

    “PM is responsible for everything.” I love it. While I’ve had a lot of titles in my career, I always loved the singular role of the PM. It gave me a license to go anywhere and dig into anything. I’ve had titled positions where if I were to dig into something going on in another manager’s department, I’d be told to bug out and that would be echoed by other managers and bosses (“it is their department, you manage your own”). As a project manager, responsible for everything end-to-end, I often had more influence on the success of the company then did highly titled managers several levels above me.

    Great comment. Thanks.


  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Bernard Campaniolo • This has happened to me many times. My lessons learned made me more aware of the pitfalls and learned how to avoid them. Several months ago, I’ve convinced our boss to be a little more open minded to new ideas and new approaches in this slow economy of which sets us apart from our competitors. He seems to be listening a little more now.

    Mirza Faheem Baig • Yes you are right !! but In my opinion bosses cant be right always and they need not only be open minded but should also have active listening skills and make informed assumptions or decisions about their subordinates and not against them which would add lot of meaning to people management and employee retention 🙂

    I have been working with several Managers and some were very enthusiastic to hear and understand and later took excellent decisions and some not so, I feel the ego factors come into picture which hinders the growth or development of the team and the dept itself.

    Daniel Ho • # Health Warning #
    Tread carefully, this is the art of Managing your Manager or Managing up the line.
    In my experience, managers or bosses almost always have the bigger picture and have to balance a lot more than any single delivery stream or combination of delivery streams and it is critical to teamwork better with them instead.
    The only time it pays to “push back” is where the manager/boss has gone beyond the statement of objectives and into the “how” to deliver to them. Even then, there will be strong willed individuals convinced of their own superior approaches and can not see the impacts elsewhere who will bad mouth the manager who is strong enough to say “no”. My advice for these, is to open up your mind and accept that from the manager’s seat it is inevitable other dimensions are visible.
    Where this balancing art form is successful, I have achieved mutual agreement and compromise and moved on in a team working fashion, successfully and on more than a few occasions.

    Jason (Jay) Leslie • I initially chuckled when I saw this because it’s SO TRUE! I think Daniel is on the money. Everybody is different and that includes managers so you have to be very careful with this. Your manager is your most important business relationship and advocate. They can help fight the good fight for you when you’re in over your head, provide you cover when necessary, and should assist in your career advancement. If you damage that relationship chances are it’ll take you a LONG time to earn the repair, which could significantly hinder other’s perception of you, especially amongst those above your level. My advice would be to never go against your management’s direction. Instead, fight tooth and nail for what you believe to be right and document your interactions to revisit outcomes as a part of lessons learned. In the end, you will be respected more for following the chain of command and strongly voicing your opinions than going rogue.

    Bruce Benson • Daniel/Jay – Agreed “going rogue” is not usually our first choice. If we are in an organization where things work fairly well (job gets done, company successful, management is mature/experienced/strategic) then working within the system is exactly what we want to do. This will provide maximum benefit to the company and to ourselves.

    But what happens when this is not the case? Ever work for a failing company or a company in slow decline? A bad boss? The US federal government? ;-). What do we do then? Most people would still say stick with the system. Have we noticed that even in poor performing organizations someone will get promoted? Someone will get rewarded? So there is plenty of opportunity to personally do well even when the organization is not doing well.

    Luckily, as in the article above, we have some people who are not willing to be complacent in a bad situation (or even in some good situations). They look for opportunities and realize there are times to take some risk and step outside the system. The article just reminds us that taking such a step, while risky, might sometimes be worth the risk and hence is something to consider when looking for a good way to improve, do something innovative or fix a problem. Who knows, we might even end up changing the world (Facebook comes to mind and I bet it runs on a Unix derivative which made it cheaper and easier to startup as college students).

    Great comments everyone, thanks.

  3. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Frank Thunnissen • Bruce i endorse your fresh stance, provided it is not an isolated initiative without any support. If I or some one in my team/stakeholders sees an opportunity not in view of our management, it would be a missed chance not to investigate this. If indeed it proves worth while, i will include this in the project proposal/business case. In my experience, if the manager sees the business case and provided there is organisational intrest and support, he will give his consent. If presented with care you could win another supporter in stead of a potential adversary. All for the best of the company: after all to add value is our core business!-)
    Success with your endeavors.

    Bruce Benson • Frank,

    I just have not seen the “ask permission formally up through the chain of command” work well to motivate continuously improving.

    I like the Google notion of being able to spend 20% of your time on your own ideas and initiatives. I also like the companies that have resources (funding, space, resources, etc.) set aside to help and encourage grass roots improvements.

    We always need to perform today — do our jobs and keep the company successful — and these always need to be the first priority. Yet we also need to find ways to continuously disrupt our daily activities in improving them. The more we can put this in the hands of each individual, the more will happen and the more we will improve — at least in my experience.

Comments are closed.