Project Practitioners > Break Traditional Ties

Break Traditional Ties

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 4 minutes


Back in June 2018, I wrote an article laying out ten characteristics every successful project manager possesses. As the questions and comments rolled in, I began wondering if I should dive a little deeper into each trait to show how to become better in each.

The result is a ten-week article series. The sixth characteristic I listed was “break traditional ties.” Here is what I originally wrote:


“Break traditional ties.

[Successful project managers] break that which already works to get to a better place. Do not be a prisoner of the thinking agreed upon by others. Challenge the status quo, often.

Question why you do something. Robots are already doing some of the tasks humans used to do. The project management profession does not need robots in the human form.

Robots know the WHAT and HOW of an organization. However, figuring out the WHY is specific to human capability. The WHY will set you apart from other organizations.”


Now, let’s figure out how to become better at breaking the ways of old.


  1. Just Go Around

Sometimes, when problem solving, the answer is just go around. People will look at a problem and try to climb over it or obliterate the obstacle. The simple answer may be walking around the obstacle. Work smarter, not harder was a classic reminder in construction.

We would have laborers lifting the heaviest of manhole covers or grates all by themselves when a few feet away there was a skid steer they could have hopped in and got the job done safer and quicker.

Lateral thinking becomes integrated into problem solving. How does jiu jitsu relate to project management? Real-time problem solving with serious consequences occur in both activities. In jiu jitsu, you have to have an answer for every one of your opponent’s answers. Sounds like project management yet? In jiu jitsu, you get in uncomfortable situations. If you decide to do nothing, those situations get worse. If you have an answer to get out of it, you use that to troubleshoot. Sound like project management yet?

This idea of lateral thinking helps to break the ties of tradition. Rather than approaching a project management problem with a project management brain, take on the problem from a jiu jitsu or chess or sodoku brain.


  1. Be the Bird That Eats the Worm

A worm’s eye view is from the inside with boots on the ground. You have deep knowledge of the inner workings of the technical aspect of the project. You see how crews or the individuals function day-to-day. Equipment or time preferences are known for each location. This perspective is narrowing and intensely focused on the task at hand.

A bird’s eye view is from on high taking everything into perspective. Those specific details are not known, but also not necessary. Let the crews or individuals choose the equipment they use rather than mandating anything. See the forest, not the trees. This perspective helps to link different aspects of the industry together.

Lateral thinking plays a role as well. With an intense, narrow focus, you only have one mind to approach from. A broader perspective allows you to create links to ideas. You see how equipment from one location can improve another. You can see how one crew might be better elsewhere.

A bird’s eye view keeps you up to date on the competition. What are others doing that seems to be working? How can you implement a similar idea to your team? Why is it working? These questions are unanswerable from a worm’s eye view. Become the bird that eats the worm.


  1. Box Yourself In

Constraints free your mind. If you have infinite possibilities, those ideas can fill time forever. Nothing gets done except idea generation and brainstorming. However, if you box yourself in, you eliminate the endless possibilities and focus your attention towards the goal. Narrowing your focus on the goal, while taking it in from above, becomes a hawk honing in on prey.

Without direction and constraints, wasting time becomes a breeze. You can create ideas and talk about work while nothing gets done for days or weeks. It is the to-do list item that continues to be written down day after day. Either focus your resources on it to get it done or stop writing it down. A constraintless to-do list can be added to forever while nothing gets crossed off of it.

Create the sandbox in which activities are endless. Without the sandbox, there is potential for everything and anything to occur or be reasonable. Constraints focus the resources on the problem or project.



Dress straight to infiltrate is a beautiful saying from Jamie Wheal, Executive Director of Flow Genome Project. Disguise yourself as this straight-laced individual who plays by the rules. Get your PMP to fit in with the educated. Once you have established yourself as an authority, begin to implement your style. Play with the rules a bit.

Your organization has placed you in the box. You have your constraints. Now, begin to mold and shape them to your liking. Massage the rules to your favor. Traditions develop over many decades. You cannot expect to change them in a few days.

This process takes a long time, but it is the only way to establish new traditions. Mandating things being done your way from day one is a great way to alienate established parties. At first, join them then break free. Take it all in. Apply lateral thinking. Play within the sandbox.

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