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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Do You Work in a Dictatorship?

“I'm sorry, if you were right, I'd agree with you.” Robin Williams

“Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy.” Plato

Do you work in a dictatorship? Most of us do. Don’t all of us have someone who we must approach for permission on certain actions? And isn’t that decision usually absolute? That is the entire basis for the traditional functional organization.

That old phrase “the ends justifies the means” is an anathema to projects! Therefore, you develop a Project Plan at the beginning of the project. You get concurrence on how things will be done so you can manage in an organized and predictable way. The process matters! Sometimes it cuts one way, sometimes the other. But it is predictable and agreed to. Once the process is abandoned to accommodate the desires of an organizationally powerful person, the project is at risk.

One of the areas that needs to be codified in the Project Plan is how decisions will be made. There are many occasions where experts are brought together to decide something, and you must describe how this will occur to avoid unnecessary conflict. Here are your options!

  • Tyrannical Rule – This is certainly one we are familiar with! Preferred method of despotic rulers around the world. There is one decision maker, and dissent it dealt with quickly and harshly. But at least you get a decision.

  • Benign Dictatorship – Preferred method of executives! There is a clear understanding that anything of consequence must be elevated to their level. This is the only way they can guarantee that key choices are made correctly and there is sufficient wisdom applied to the issue at hand! While they may often delegate decisions, everyone knows that the choice must be one that the leader would have approved of. The difference between this and tyranny is really a matter of temperament and degree.

  • Majority Rule – Pure democracy! 50% plus 1! This seems the most “democratic” way to do things, but what if the group is obviously wrong? Majority rule can become mob rule, and history has many examples of mob rule not working out. In fact, the Founders of the United States were so concerned about “mob rule” that they put in place the Electoral College.

  • Plurality – The decision is made by the largest block of votes, regardless of what the total percentage is of the whole. You see this in many parliamentary systems where the “ruling” party represents a relatively small percentage of the population.

People may quibble with my list by adding things like “consensus”, but that is just a nuanced way to get to majority rule. You might also say that techniques like the Delphi method qualify, but ultimately the decision will be made using one of the choices above. Either you vote, or someone decides.

The Project Plan should describe how decisions are made and at what level. This normally varies based on the issue itself and its importance to the project, and the Project Manager may or may not be directly involved in a given decision. In most projects it goes something like this.

Within a given discipline (legal, accounting engineering, etc.) they are free to adopt any technical position that they believe is best, regardless of how they arrive at it! The Project Manager doesn’t “care” about their internal process, rather they need it to be the “official” position of that organization. These positions can lead to decision points as different disciplines recommend a different solution or path forward. For example, Security Engineers may recommend a course of action based on their desire to protect the organization from all threats. However, this could put them in conflict with the Customer Service organization whose desire is to decrease the burden on customers. These can be mutually exclusive goals! These types of issues are addressed in the Project Plan which prescribes how the designated voting body decides, and these are almost always majority rule.

If the issue is of sufficient importance, it will be elevated to an Executive Steering Committee for adjudication. This committee (whatever your version of that is) will be Chartered as majority rule. If it is at a high enough level for the leader of the organization (however you define that) to be a participant, then the members will be sure to determine the direction the leader wants and will vote in support of that. Differing positions may be debated, but the final decision is clearly with that person even if it is “officially” decided by a vote.

It is a rare occurrence for there to be revolt at this level, but when it does occur it is a sight to behold!

The Project Manager is charged with providing structure at the beginning of the project, and part of that is guidance on how decisions will be made. This is a crucial point and shouldn’t be overlooked, even if varies based on the level of the organization it is being applied to.


I am fascinated with the Electoral College. Whenever there is an election where the popular vote picks one candidate and the Electoral College picks a different one, we hear the predictable calls for its abolition. The argument goes that US is a democracy and the College thwarts the “will of the people”! But the US isn't a democracy, it is a Republic, and the states matter too. The Founders and the Framers of the Constitution feared “mob rule” because they understood that tyranny can take many forms, and that a majority imposing its will on a helpless minority was a repulsive as a tyrant doing so. The Electoral College forces a presidential candidate to campaign in every state, which ensures that the concerns of the Iowa farmer and the Ohio iron worker are heard. Without the College, a candidate could win by campaigning in the Washington – Boston corridor and California without regard to the needs of the people in other states. The Electoral College is a brilliant bulwark against the tyranny of the mob.


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