Paranoid project and program managers perform and succeed


Managing Principal, ProjectPlus, LLC

Richard Discenza, PhD, PMP

Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs


Project and program managers need to develop a healthy degree of paranoia regardless of their natural dispositions. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove reminded his employees, “only the paranoid survive.” In his recent book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins observes that “10Xers lead their companies with productive paranoia.” These authors explain how prudent, productive paranoia, when properly deployed, serves both as a team morale booster and as a success technique for managers.

Our paper builds on the works of these authors and re-defines productively prudent paranoia in the context of project and program teams. Citing specific examples, we suggest how paranoia used productively can drive success for project and program managers.


According to Jim Collins, famous business leaders possessing humility paired with an intense professional will drive teams to higher levels of success using fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia (Collins & Hansen, 2011). The art of successful project and program management requires grasping these concepts and sensing when the tiniest lack of clarity about something the project or program team is engaged in signals potential future trouble.

A healthy and productively paranoid project or program manager should realize that if there is even the tiniest opportunity for something to go wrong, as soon as a gap in communication opens up, things will go wrong. Experienced project and program managers know that unchecked assumptions can blow up in one's face.

Fastidious preparation, coupled with healthy, prudent, and productive paranoia during execution, will empower project and program managers to respond in situations where ill-prepared managers will be without actionable options in the face of unanticipated obstacles. Understanding one's own level of paranoia is key to applying it prudently and productively. Simple tools exist to reach an understanding of one's personal paranoia level. Equipped with this understanding, project and program managers can effectively overcome obstacles and enhance their performance.

In this paper, we suggest an approach that project and program managers can use to learn about their levels of paranoia and then apply this knowledge to anticipate, proactively problem solve, and drive their project or program teams to high levels of performance and success. We enhance this information by citing actual case-study examples of typical project and program challenges frequently faced.

Traditional Opinions on Paranoia

Almost everyone throws around the term “paranoia” without much thought to its clinical definition, which is actually quite elusive. It has been loosely defined as the irrational predisposition of a person to interpret the actions of others as calculating, degrading, intimidating, and menacing—driving the perception that paranoia is a very negative personality trait. Exhibit 1 lists some of the common descriptive phrases or characteristics traditionally used to describe paranoid business leaders.

Characteristics traditionally used to describe paranoid business leaders

Exhibit 1: Characteristics traditionally used to describe paranoid business leaders

An organization or team operating with traditional perceptions of paranoia and paranoid behavior might exhibit reactive, authoritarian tendencies, and could suffer from severe dysfunctional communications or other unproductive behaviors. Ultra-competitive or passive-aggressive behavior may also be common in extreme situations where team members do not understand productive paranoia.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “When Paranoia Makes Sense,” Roderick Kramer observes: “In extremes, paranoia poisons almost every aspect of the workplace. People spend enormous amounts of time trying to figure out how to decode what's really being said (or left unsaid).… The result is an organization run by a series of covert operations” (Kramer, 2002, p. 70).

However, with the proper leadership and application, paranoia can be the key to the astounding creativity that has emerged in some American companies. Grove, Collins, and Kramer cite examples to suggest that teams should use the discomfort of their current position to look around for better alternatives, raising the vigilance, awareness, and creativity of all team members through productive paranoia.

A New “Twist” on Paranoia

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove showed how productive paranoia, when properly deployed, could serve as a morale booster and a competitive weapon for organizations and teams. His 1996 classic, Only the Paranoid Survive, is a veritable implementation guide for productive paranoia. Grove's paranoia concepts grew out of the lack of product momentum in R&D projects at Intel (Grove, 1996).

In today's project and program portfolio world, project managers can apply Grove's concepts and process to develop a healthy paranoia regardless of their natural dispositions. Many of Grove's observations are based on how managers respond to what he calls “strategic inflection points.” Grove explains that managers and teams who are prepared to seize opportunities presented by strategic inflection points are highly successful.

A key part of preparedness is developing a keen sense and even a hyper-vigilance to detect the advent of a strategic inflection point, where project fundamentals can change significantly. A missed inflection point can mean the difference between total success and complete failure for a project, program, or business. Programs and projects can encounter several inflection points during their life cycles.

When he was at Harvard, Michael Porter developed a process and set of definitions for competitive strategy analysis, which can be employed to recognize the advent of a strategic inflection point (Porter, 2008). Grove extended Porter's six forces with an emphasis on how successful managers can apply prudent paranoia to detect the onset of an inflection point and respond to the opportunity. Grove states: “…nobody will ring a bell to call your attention to the fact that you are entering into such a transition” (Grove, 1996, p. 31).

Grove explains: “An inflection point occurs where the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new, allowing the business [project or program] to ascend to new heights” (Grove, 1996, p. 32). Exiting the inflection point, the business, program, or project faces a binary path—either progressing to new heights of performance or submitting to an outsized force and declining. Exhibit 2 shows this graphically:

The inflection curve (Grove, 1996, p. 32)

Exhibit 2: The inflection curve (Grove, 1996, p. 32)

Author Jim Collins has made a career out of studying successful business organizations and teasing out the differences between those that go on to achieve breakthrough results and all the rest. He believes great leaders utilize productive paranoia to manage through apparent chaos. Applying productive paranoia, these breakthrough leaders buy themselves time to react to impending obstacles (or strategic inflection points, à la Grove), while their hyper-vigilance affords them a choice of alternative action strategies. Many breakthrough leaders actually seem to thrive on uncertainty, chaos, and luck.

Collins believes that “10X leadership” is comprised of a “…triad of core behaviors: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia” (Collins & Hansen, 2011, p. 19). What Collins calls “Level 5 ambition” animates these three core behaviors. He illustrates this in the following diagram:

Collins' triad of core behaviors in 10x leaders

Exhibit 3: Collins' triad of core behaviors in 10x leaders

Collins cites a number of familiar “10Xers” whose companies and teams have delivered breakthrough technology, services, and products and whose paranoid behavior was “enormously functional” because it was channeled into extensive personal and team preparation to drive calm, clear-headed action when the time came (Collins & Hansen, 2011, p. 30).

Kramer has offered a slightly different twist on paranoia. He believes we all experience paranoid feelings at opportune times for the simple reason that paranoid suspicions and fears serve useful functions. Paranoia can begin when something disturbing or unexpected happens—the firing of an associate or the rumor of a plant shutdown. These events create uncertainty, and we deal with these unknowns by trying to give them meaning: We develop hyper-vigilance, which involves paying close attention to everything around us. Why were we left out of an important meeting? People spend enormous amounts of time trying to decipher what has really been said between the lines.

Kramer answers the question “When is paranoia prudent?” by noting that prudent (productive) paranoia is a form of constructive suspicion about the intentions and actions of people, teams, competitors, or other organizations. He states that “…awakening a sense of present or future danger, prudent paranoia serves as part of the mind's early warning system, prompting people to search out and appraise more information about their situations” (Kramer, 2002, p. 63).

Traditional Paranoia Versus Prudently Productive Paranoia: Summary

Through the eyes of a seasoned project or program manager, it is easy to see the synergistic connectivity between Grove's and Collins' studies of business leaders who outperform and deliver breakthrough results in the face of chaos, competition, and uncertainty using productive paranoia. Kramer's research and examples confirm that paranoia, used prudently, is a strong factor driving leader and team performance and success.

A key element in the art of successful project and program management is having a grasp of the concept of productive paranoia. A healthy, prudently paranoid project manager should realize that if there is even the tiniest opportunity for something to go wrong, as soon as a gap in communication opens up, things will go wrong. Hyper-vigilance prevents assumptions that can cause a project or program to blow up in one's face.

On the other hand, deliberately increasing prudent paranoia within a project team can help rally team members to breakthrough performance and success. Teaching team members to be healthy skeptics who are hyper-vigilant, and not too trusting of untested loyalties will drive team success.

Therefore, we propose that traditional paranoia characteristics be redefined for the project and program management domain according to suggestions in Exhibit 4:

Traditional versus productive paranoia characteristics

Exhibit 4: Traditional versus productive paranoia characteristics

Check Your Own Paranoia and Make It Prudently Productive

Project and program managers who want to apply prudent, productive paranoia to drive team success need to first measure and understand their own levels of personal paranoia in different situations and under different conditions.

Step One: Take Quiz to Assess Personal Paranoia

There are a number of tools available for measuring paranoia. We found several that can be easily self-administered and whose results can be easily interpreted. (Attendees of our session at the PMI® Global Congress 2014—North America will have an opportunity to try a quiz-like tool themselves, and then analyze their results during the ensuing workshop session.)

When managers understand their own levels of paranoia and learn to recognize trigger events that drive it, they are at the first step of using paranoia prudently for productive ends with their project or program teams. Exhibit 5 shows an example of a simple paranoia quiz tool.

Simple paranoia self-quiz

Exhibit 5 : Simple paranoia self-quiz

We collected project and program manager paranoia quiz results, shown in Exhibit 6, from a workshop we recently delivered at a PMI regional symposium. The paranoia quiz is geared to return a score of 15–20 from the general population; however, the PMI symposium group returned an average score approximately 2 standard deviations greater than results for the general population.

Paranoia quiz results from April 2014

Exhibit 6: Paranoia quiz results from April 2014

The results from this group of project and program managers indicate that as a professional group, they tend to be more paranoid than the general population. Quiz results vary greatly across the population and across professions. In our experience, however, project managers as a group tend to have significantly higher total scores than other groups.

These results indicate that, as a group, project managers are more acutely aware, more vigilant, and more perceptive of threats, opportunities, and potential problems than other professional groups. Our conclusion is that this tendency presents an excellent opportunity for project and program managers to employ paranoia prudently and productively to drive performance and success for their project and program teams.

Step Two: Practice Employing Productive Paranoia

The second step is to participate in a facilitator-guided discovery workshop, where participants may compare their individual quiz results to data collected from various teams and groups and practice developing dexterity and skill to successfully employ productive paranoia. The workshop should not require participants to share their individual paranoia profiles, but they can still gain the benefit of learning how their scores compare to data collected from various teams and groups.

Skill development should be driven by brief case studies employing scenarios that present impending project or program inflection points (à la Grove, et al.) typically encountered in projects and programs. Team role-play, based on such case-study scenarios, can be an effective learning aid for project and program managers.

Case-study scenarios may be tailored to specific firms, organizations, or industries to maximize their impact and value in a workshop setting. Below is a partial list of typical situations that can provide rich content for practicing employment of prudent, productive paranoia:

  •    Missing a project requirement
  •    Unavailability of a critical resource
  •    A key stakeholder change
  •    An unanticipated project budget reduction
  •    A technology “ramp” inflection point
  •    A competitor's technology or product breakthrough
  •    Appearance of an uncontrolled risk
Step Three: Use Productive Paranoia to Drive Success and Achieve Outsized Performance

Radar screens display “pips” indicating where reflective objects are in relation to the radar's antenna. Productive paranoia can be compared to long-range radar that enhances project and program managers' vigilance and warns them of impending threats, opportunities, or problems.

For managers who apply productive paranoia to their projects or programs, the radar pips represent looming project (program) inflection points (PIPs) that are closing in on the manager. Some PIPs are further away in time than others, but all PIPs, regardless of range, require both team preparedness and a strategic action plan.

Each radar pip, as it appears on the project or program manager's “radar screen,” presents strategic opportunities that must be acted upon. How the team responds, how quickly they respond, and how well the leader controls the chaos that accompanies each PIP's arrival will determine if the team converts the PIP into favorable value.

Kramer provides an excellent list of suggestions for keeping personal paranoia prudent and productive without letting it rule your life. He points out that there is no foolproof system for deciding how much paranoia is enough but suggests that there are key steps necessary to keep paranoia prudent (Kramer, 2002, p. 71).

Exhibit 7 summarizes Kramer's practical advice for employing prudent, productive paranoia.

Prudent paranoid behavior characteristics

Exhibit 7: Prudent paranoid behavior characteristics

Practice makes perfect, so with time spent practicing productive paranoia in a workshop setting, project and program managers will realize the results of their own individual productive paranoia. Productive paranoia is yet another component of the art of project and program management.

In addition to developing an artful approach to recognizing and responding to inflection points by employing productive paranoia, recent research by co-authors R. Ryan Nelson and Karen J. Jansen suggests that a more analytical approach can also be productive. They propose project momentum mapping as a tool to help project managers recognize inflection points.

While their research was based on 51 IT projects reviewed, the concept could apply well to other project types by adjusting the definition and measurement of momentum. Their premise that inflection points in projects are signaled by changes in project momentum, depicted in a momentum map generated by an automated tool, was supported by their research results (Nelson & Jansen, 2009, p. 143).


During their lifetimes, virtually all projects and programs will encounter strategic inflection points (as defined by Grove). Each encounter will be a test of preparedness, professional will, and team survivability. Following the encounter, a project or program will either rise to greater heights of performance or decline and eventually disappear.

On average, project and program managers as a group exhibit significantly higher levels of paranoia than the general population. Project and program managers need to understand their personal paranoia level and then develop skills to successfully and prudently employ it as productive paranoia.

Productive paranoia can become a strategic advantage once project and program managers understand their personal productive paranoia mechanisms. Productive paranoia becomes their long-range radar, which can deliver early warnings of project and program threats, opportunities, and problems.


Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by choice. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Grove, A. S. (1996). Only the paranoid survive. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Kramer, R. M. (2002). When paranoia makes sense. Harvard Business Review, 7(7), 62–69.

Lyon, L. (2009, January 16). Are you paranoid? Quiz yourself. Retrieved from

Nelson, R. R., & Jansen, K. J.. (2009). Mapping and managing momentum in IT projects. MIS Quarterly Executive, 8(3), 141–148.

Porter, M. E. (2008). The five competitive forces that shape strategy. Harvard Business Review, 12(1), 78–93.

Productive Paranoia-It's a Good Thing. (30 May 2013). Retrieved from

Woodgate, K. (20 August 2009). Project management with a healthy degree of paranoia. Retrieved from

© 2014, James B. Forman and Richard Discenza
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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