How can project managers avoid the pressure to conform

by Christopher Cook

If you are a project manager looking for tips on how to be original and innovative by pushing the boundaries and avoiding the pressures to conform, you’ll want to read further.

Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker of movies such as The Wrestler and Pi, delivers some great advice. “The best work always comes from pushing the edge.” He recounts a situation where you put ten people in a room to choose an ice cream flavor. His theory is vanilla will always be the most frequently picked because there is constant pressures to conform (vanilla compromise). Because of this, originality only happens at the edges, hence his advice.

As a project manager, originality may be frowned upon. You are supposed to be a leader who represents an organization. Your example flows top-down to the team members. You lead by example. Therefore, you are expected to fall in line with company policy — there’s pressures to conform.

You are the person that is supposed to keep your team members from falling off the edge when they approach it. You are the one creating this edge and boundary line. You are the one who should be coming to the vanilla consensus. Buck the trend.

As Jamie Wheal, the Executive Director of Flow Genome Project writes “dress straight to infiltrate.” The message being blend in on the outside yet inject some originality into the situation. Be a person that represents the organization while maintaining that edge. Have the polished corporate look with a rebel mentality.

In terms of pushing boundaries and avoiding the pressures to conform, meetings are a great place to start because the vanilla compromise is often the outcome. Each person has their idea of which direction the project should take next. However, when the meeting adjourns, the direction looks eerily similar to the company line.

How can project managers avoid these generic outcomes and start to bring some innovation to the table?

 1. Always end on a high note

My favorite show of all time is Seinfeld. In one episode, George begins leaving the room on a high note. Any time a joke he makes gets a laugh, he leaves the room. Here is some dialogue from the episode:

“George: I had ‘em, Jerry. They loved me.

Jerry: And then?

George: I lost ‘em. I can usually come up with one good comment during a meeting, but by the end, it’s buried under a pile of gaffes and bad puns.

Jerry: Showmanship, George. When you hit that high note, say goodnight and walk off.”

Instead of leaving the room with a laugh, leave the room with actionable items. Meetings should lead to progress, not pressure to conform. Actions represent progress. If there are no actionable items at the end of the meeting, what was the meeting for?

Be like George. End on a high note [of actionable items].

2. Will the real meeting please stand up?

Please sing this line to the chorus of Eminem’s song The Real Slim Shady. It makes it more enjoyable, trust me.

As I write to you on top of an exercise ball in my office, try a meeting with no chairs and standing room only. People cannot feel comfortable and lazy when standing. No one likes to stand for extended periods of time. This adjustment forces the issue of getting things done. The sooner the meeting ends, the quicker everyone involved can sit down and rest.

Shorter meeting times means more productivity. Nothing actually gets done in a meeting. Ideas are shared. Plans exchanged. Solutions are given. But nothing gets done until those ideas get converted to actionable items and performed.

Is the song stuck in your head yet? (Will the real project meeting, please stand up..please stand up?)

3. Why are we even here?

One simple question can demolish an idea quickly: Why? You can have binders of information, data, research, facts, and so on but if there is no reasonable answer to why then there is no purpose to the meeting.

The reason for a meeting should be clearly stated along with what is being accomplished by holding this meeting. Pin down the scope. Resolve any resource concerns. Hit on topics that impact everyone in the room. Side conversations and issues can wait until after the meeting when they pertain to the specific individuals involved.

If you want vanilla answers, let the room run the meeting. If you want Chunky Monkey (my favorite ice cream flavor) answers, let it be known Chunky Monkey is the direction of this meeting. Pushing the boundaries requires that mindset to be at the forefront. Without this directive, the meeting can go in too many directions and wind up with vanilla as the answer.


It’s essential for project managers to avoid the pressure to conform at all times. While vanilla remains one of the most popular ice cream flavors, that does not make it exciting and next level. No great innovation came from someone who favors vanilla answers. Chris Sacca, a venture investor, and character among Silicon Valley, wears cowboy shirts always. This non-vanilla approach to his attire can be translated to his success as an investor.

Not necessarily dressing straight to infiltrate but talent rises. Vanilla answers and conclusions help you blend in with the pack. You become a commodity. Commodities are not valuable. They are exchanged based on cost. If you are cheaper, you get the work.

Talent is not based on cost. You provide a service to an organization or project that no one else can. Cost is no longer an issue. Your anti-vanilla stance proves valuable. When it comes to avoiding the pressures to conform or pushing boundaries you challenge the status quo. You look for better best practices. You do not settle for average. These qualities have value.


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