We need to challenge project delivery methods, standards and orthodoxy if we are to improve. We need to become the 'unreasonable man'


Earl Nightingale said that

  • only 2% of people think,
  • 3% think they think
  • and the other 95% would rather die than think.

When I recount this quotation, most people snigger and silently pat themselves on the back, classifying themselves as thinkers.

So let’s make the point clearer by changing one word – using the word "challenge" for think. Now

  • only 2% of people challenge the norm, challenge convention and orthodoxy,
  • 3% think they challenge but mostly adapt,
  • and the other 95% would rather die than challenge what is accepted as the norm, as ‘best practice’ or to stand out in the crowd.

Where do you fit?

The need for the "unreasonable man"

Most people accept what is said, whatever is accepted as the norm, whatever orthodoxy is. After all, this is what our education system teaches us to do. We take comfort in the fact that many others believe the same way too – therefore it must be right.

Acceptance of orthodoxy is easy, comfortable and eliminates most of the accountability for when things go wrong, “I was just following what I’ve been told.”

Orthodoxy is believed to be right and to work — even when the data shows it doesn’t work. The lack of project success is an excellent case in point. Consistent poor project performance is put down to individual failings or failing to follow the orthodox processes as proscribed. The idea that maybe the orthodox processes are not up to the job is dismissed as ‘heresy’.

George Bernard Shaw said that

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

The unreasonable man challenges orthodoxy, changes the rules, refuses to accept what doesn’t work. The unreasonable man leads progress and change.

Those that follow the rules lead nowhere. They do their job, they suffer their pain, they complain about others; but they don’t step up and challenge the basics, the accepted norms.


The need for the challenging project manager

Ninety-five percent of people just take what they are given. When they are given a project they start to take action (A) and measure (M) the outputs. They decompose the tasks, plan the activities and budget the costs. They’re off and running – even if ‘to where they are running?’ is neither known nor clear.

Project managers are not trained or encouraged to step back and think, to challenge or question. They are there to ‘do’.

Many project managers have told me that challenging the business is not their job – this is the role of the business. They may question around the edges but they don’t ask the core questions.

And they don’t question or challenge their own processes or methodologies either. The fact that only one project in 20 is deemed successful by the business is not translated into, “Something must be wrong here,” but into excuses that “they” must be causing the problem — poor governance, poor business commitment, poor technical support.

Everyone has a list of reasons that do not include how we routinely think about, plan and deliver projects.

The impacts of not challenging

On a project management forum the question was posed, “Why do projects fail?” The discussion went on over five months and then I analysed the responses. The most commonly cited reasons were (in descending order of mention):

  1. Lack of organizational ownership, leadership and stakeholder commitment, willingness to stop and reassess projects once approved
  2. Lack of clear business requirements or outcomes – and therefore not meeting them
  3. Inadequate project set up, feasibility assessment, business case, approval processes and strategy linkage
  4. Poor controls, governance, poor scope management, too many shortcuts taken
  5. Poor project management, planning and soft skills.

However there were many other reasons given including, "Not following the project management standards exactly." This and similar adhere to standards "reasons' showed a complete lack of challenging thinking.

If we are to improve project performance and improve business results, we need to challenge how we go about delivering projects from the idea stage onwards.

This is where I started over 30 years ago when given accountability for all projects in a bank. I realized that poor project performance was not my bank’s problem, a banking problem or an Australian problem — it was a worldwide problem. We have some of the smartest people on the planet working on projects but we don’t get the results we desire – why? I started by challenging the project delivery paradigm before rushing into action.

So, before we rush into Action and Measure the results (A.M.) let’s take time to think and challenge the status quo. If we don't we cannot progress.

Let’s adopt an “I think before I A.M.” (act and measure) approach to ensure we progress and consistently improve the project results delivered.



[1] Descartes actually said, “Cogito, ergo sum” which translates to “I think, therefore I am”

[2] Shaw, George Bernard., Man And Superman, 'Maxims For Revolutionists: Reason', 1903

Topics: Standards/Frameworks/Methods, Engineered Thinking/Ideas/Innovation

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (mmm yyyy) as "insert Original Title"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and corrections