An Intelligent Disobedience Qualification Guide – Part 1 “Disobedience”

The Intelligent Disobedience Leadership team are often asked if a specific action qualifies as an act of Intelligent Disobedience (ID). The question is a good one, as what can constitute an act of ID in one environment, may be commonplace in another. Challenging a manager is a good example; in some environments this is expected and encouraged, while in others it definitely would be considered “disobedient.”

So, to help those of you who have asked us if something is an act of intelligent disobedience, or are wondering if an action you are considering might be an act of Intelligent Disobedience, here is a guide, starting with the concept of “disobedience.”

First and foremost, if what you are considering is a commonplace activity or behavior in your business, it’s probably not an act of disobedience, and you likely could take action without hesitation. However, you may want to note the topics or areas where the activity is commonplace, and areas where your proposed activity is not typically performed. If you venture into these untested areas, I would suggest doing some analysis homework, as your action could be considered “disobedience” and you will want to be sure it is received positively.

Second, if your proposed action challenges or circumvents the common “chain of command” in your organization, what you are considering is very likely an act of disobedience. Management responsibilities that are challenged outside of “the process” are often taken personally, or as a public criticism, so I would suggest you proceed with caution. The typical recommendation in this case is to take your concern to the manager(s) in the traditional chain of command first, and only circumvent if a positive result is not achieved, or the moral or legal nature of the concern makes addressing the traditional management chain inappropriate.

The third type of action which can be perceived as disobedient is to “go against the flow”, that is, to oppose a standard process during a meeting, or propose a counter argument to a widely held belief. This can raise concerns for a number of people, particularly those that are very process minded, or are uncomfortable with change. Many people can become opponents with this form of disobedience, so it is advisable to gather facts and potentially poll others before voicing your dissenting view.

The last common type of disobedience is the most direct – when you decide to not follow your manager’s direction or you purposefully and intentionally divert from the steps of a mandated business process. This type of disobedience can be the most controversial, but also the most effective when the desired business result is achieved.

With these and any other form of potential disobedience, it is imperative that you do your homework. Understand your environment, your objectives, and your manager’s objectives. These preparatory actions are a significant part of making your action “intelligently” disobedient.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership provides workshops, coaching and consulting with a focus on courageous leadership through intelligent disobedience. We can help you and your teams design a community of practice which leverages constructive “intelligent disobedience.” For further information, email us at 

An Intelligent Disobedience Failure Story

The use of Intelligent Disobedience is not guaranteed. Successful intelligent disobedience requires doing your homework and understanding the cultures and regulations of the business in which you are working. It also often means you should not “go it alone.” Here is a story of an intelligent disobedience failure from which we all can learn…

A manager with “positive intent” for his business violated the standard approval process before spending money with a vendor to obtain some IT hardware. He did this because it was close to the end of year holidays, and key senior management personnel were absent. He had email confirmations from the leaders affirming his intention to buy the hardware, but all of the signatures on purchase agreements required by his company were not obtained. If he bought the hardware before the year end, the business would save a considerable amount of money. So, thinking the emails were sufficient to allow him to act, he executed a purchase agreement to obtain the hardware.

Once the senior leaders returned from their holidays, they learned of the purchase that was made in violation of process and counseled the offending manager. Although they recognized his positive intent, he got his wrist slapped and was told not to do this again.

About 6 months later, a critical business area urgently needed some technical support, so – again with positive intent – the manager reacted quickly and arranged for specialist technical support to attend to the matter. He figured it would be ok to get the purchase authorization signatures later. What he actually got “later” was removed from his job for a repeat violation of spending authorization procedures.

You might pass judgment on this, saying it was not a good move to dismiss the well intended manager. That is for each of us to decide on our own. The point to be learned here is this…it is not “intelligent” disobedience when you poke the bull in a sensitive spot, twice, without help! Here is what I mean by this statement:

  • In the first instance, the manager was doing what he thought best, not expecting the management team to react by counseling him. He “poked the bull” in a sensitive spot and it threatened to charge, despite the fact he was trying to help.
  • In the second instance, he also thought he was doing what was right for the business. However, he was “poking the bull” in the SAME sensitive spot” and expected a different result!

Now, I am too enthusiastic about using intelligent disobedience to simply say he should not have “poked the bull” the second time. My concern is that he DID IT ALONE. Before taking that action, he should have learned from his first experience and rallied to get some specific senior management support before violating the procurement process a second time. Instead, he went it alone; he poked the bull…and the bull charged…predictably.

It can be ok to take a “second run” at a sensitive area, the key to “intelligent” disobedience is to rally support if you can, or escalate the sensitivity of the business issue you are trying to tackle with the “powers that be.” Before taking an action that stretches or violates the rules.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership provides workshops, coaching and consulting with a focus on courageous leadership through intelligent disobedience. We can help you and your teams design a community of practice which leverages constructive “intelligent disobedience.” For further information, email us at 

Want to be Innovative? Think baby steps!

Innovation is becoming a hot topic at the moment, so naturally we want to apply an “intelligent disobedience” spin on this important aspect of business improvement. Our take – forget the big idea, think small!

For many, innovation conjures up the notion of “big ideas” that create drastic changes in the business environment. Although that is true, many “innovations” actually come about through small or notional ideas. Consider Facebook for instance – a huge innovative concept that has changed the way many people communicate. Yet it started with a very “small” idea – putting up pictures of Harvard University students for comparison purposes, and later, as a means of creating a community and to simplify contacting students at the University. All in all, a rather limited idea, don’t you think?

So, if you want to be innovative, look at small improvements to products, easily containable projects that can quickly provide value, or seek to solve that annoying problem that “everyone” talks about in your business, but nobody seems to get around to addressing. These small improvement possibilities provide a readily available source for innovation that is within the grasp of many people in the typical business. Let the “baby step”, the smaller idea, grow into bigger ideas through the “force of common sense” and by making a small aspect of your business or your customer’s business, easier to navigate.

As these ideas grow, true disruptive innovation can come about if they are managed appropriately. The scope of the simple idea needs to remain simple however, even when applied to larger business areas. The excitement the idea might generate could catch the attention of senior management. This is great news, but can be a dual edged sword. This management excitement needs to be nurtured with care. Failing to manage this executive enthusiasm can create a risk where the simple idea can morph into something complicated, losing its appeal.

This nurturing of ideas in a bigger context, called Innovation Management, is a discipline that can be implemented via repeatable processes.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership provides workshops, coaching and consulting with a focus on courageous leadership through intelligent disobedience. We can help you and your teams design a community of practice which leverages constructive “intelligent disobedience.” For further information, email us at 


The Mythical Triple Constraints

The triple constraints familiar to project managers – time, cost and scope – form the basis of much of the literature that discusses project management. Also called the iron triangle which includes quality in the middle of an equilateral triangle, this forms the heart of what a project leader is expected to manage when delivering a project.

The problem is, in practice, most organisations do not behave this way. Delays in decision making, changing priorities and chronic lack of attention can change the dynamic of how the triple constraints are juggled.

The fact is, most organisations have their own profiles for how the iron triangle is managed. There is typically a priority to the triple constraints and the project manager is wise to interview stakeholders to understand their management preferences.

There are some very straightforward triple constraint priorities. For example, quality is paramount if you are building a new medical device; if you are delivering a product in a regulatory environment that has an explicit deadline, time is most important. In most environments however, the triple constraint priority is not so clear cut. Management behaviour and organisational pressures will change the dynamic of your project and the priority of the triple constraints.

So, we need to remember our training in project management – but not hold on to it too tightly! The intelligently disobedient project leader will understand it is not like we read in PMBoK or the textbooks. There is a priority to the triple constraints – the sides of one or more of the triangle are pliable. Bend the wrong one however and you can get yourself in trouble quickly. By the same token, try to rigidly push all of the triple constraints too strongly as inflexible, and you can find yourself in the same doghouse!

Understand the REAL priority of the triple constraints…and you will be more successful, and less stressed, and that is something we all could use – less stress!

Here is the approach I take to understand the priority of the triple constraints:

Ask your sponsor which of the three sides of the triple constraint triangle is:

  1. the driver for the project; then confirm –
  2. the second one that needs to be optimised; and finally validate –
  3. the third side of the triangle that will change when the others are manipulated. The changes here will need to be accepted OR if it changes too drastically, should cause a re-evaluation of the integrity of the project

Doing this at the start and regularly throughout the project and validating this information with the key stakeholders, will avert the dreaded wrath of the sponsor not getting what they had hoped for from your project.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership delivers workshops, keynotes and coaching to assist you and your organization to practice constructive intelligent disobedience.   For further information, email us at 

The ways to cancel a project

There may be “fifty ways to leave your lover”, but many organizations can’t find even one way to cancel or suspend a project. Despite often being ‘the right thing to do’, cancelling a project – or even suggesting that a project should be cancelled – is typically an act of intelligent disobedience. Having a sound, substantial rationale for recommending the cancellation of a project can help.

Here are some commonly accepted reasons for cancelling or suspending a project:

  • Key Stakeholders are not “bought in”. Not only is this a very good reason for project cancellation, but they can also provide you with assistance and support when recommending the cancellation. By the way, this does not necessarily mean the project is not a good idea; it just means important people that are critical for the project’s success aren’t behind it. Time to cancel or suspend the project and regroup.
  • Current business priorities do not support moving the project forward. Business is fluid, and project portfolios need to be fluid as well. If sponsorship, business expertise or technical team members aren’t available to move the project forward it is time to confirm the priorities driving their workload. If their other activities are legitimately of higher importance, it is time to cancel or suspend the project. A project in this situation is a burden and a distraction, versus a vehicle for driving business value and it should be taken off the table.
  • Reacting to a sudden, new business pressure is the “agile” thing to do. I don’t mean running an agile project here; I mean being able and willing to change directions quickly in response to differing business needs. Having the patience to change gears on one item (suspending a project), and “embracing the urgency” to launch a different project or initiative can demonstrate a dedication to your business’ success that many people are unwilling, or find it difficult, to support.
  • Key stakeholder’s expectations are not aligned. This situation is often a silent project killer. Debates that need to be held don’t occur and, after wasting too much time and money, a project dies a fiery death as progress is halted when senior leaders expect the project team to do different things, or place emphasis on different activities. (See our “What we need is a good ole’ knock down debate” blog entry) Projects in this state should be suspended until alignment is reached, or killed if that alignment cannot be achieved and signed off.
  • The project just isn’t heading in the right direction. Our colleague Peter Harrison is fond of saying,” it is not the dollars you HAVE spent, it is the value you will get from the NEXT dollar you will spend that should drive your decisions.” If the project is not moving forward on a path towards delivering business value, you need to correct its course or cancel the project. This is the most difficult of cancellation reasons, as it is frequently perceived as a defeat, and could jeopardise jobs. However it is the high integrity thing to do…PMI members-check your ethics commitment here! If the project is not helping the business, and you continue to pursue the project, you may not be acting in a “high integrity” fashion.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership delivers workshops on innovative leadership and increasing the productivity and effectiveness of your leadership team.  For further information, email us at