Martin dejectedly handed the message to Jeri, who read it out loud: "You've been volunteered for Amethyst. You'll be working with Weldon and the architecture team." Amethyst was by now the tail wagging the organizational dog, and everyone understood that when it came to Amethyst, "volunteered" meant "indentured."
"Probably the best place to be, if you have to be on Amethyst," Jeri said, trying to console Martin.
"Yeah, right," said Martin, "like the southern Yukon in February."
Amethyst was a "Monster" project — one that gradually claims more and more organizational resources. Monster projects are one type of toxic project. Even when they're "on track," they harm the organization by consuming resources that are much better used elsewhere.
Here are some other kinds of toxic projects.
- The Pet
- The pet project is funded because its champion not only has the urge to play around with a favorite idea, but also the political clout to gather the resources for the needed toys. What's the cost of not using these resources productively?
- The Turnover
- Toxic projects
harm their organizations
even when — especially when —
- Some projects are so frustrating and deadly to the morale of the project team that they cause skilled and productive team members to leave the organization. What's the cost of turnover?
- The Trap Door
- This is a project that commits the organization to a path that severely limits its future strategic options. What's the cost of lost flexibility?
- People adrift at sea, dying of thirst and desperate, sometimes drink seawater. Organizations do something analogous — they fund projects that seem useful, but which actually threaten the organization. What's the cost of treatment once you realize you've been drinking seawater?
Why don't organizations just cancel toxic projects? Often people don't realize that the projects are toxic, because the accounting system masks their impact.
When we compute project costs, we sometimes understate certain organizational costs. For instance, a Turnover project creates organizational costs that aren't actually charged to the project, such as increased recruiting costs, delays in other projects, and depressed morale. If these costs are recognized at all, they appear as overhead, and they're distributed across all organizational activity using a "flat tax" system that allocates them to all projects in proportion to labor hours, management time, square feet or dollars spent.
But projects differ, and these costs vary by project. A toxic project creates more than its share of these costs, but the organization never realizes it.
What can we do? Decision-makers can assess project toxicity by making a serious attempt to apportion organizational costs fairly. Computing these costs can be difficult, because it feels subjective, but almost any honest effort would be fairer than the flat tax system. Denying the reality of these costs doesn't eliminate them — they're real, they cannot be known exactly, and we must deal with them. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: III
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of
project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
- Design Errors and Groupthink
- Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs,
because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental
causes of design errors.
- False Summits: I
- Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing
the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
- False Summits: II
- When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end.
The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is
in project work.
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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