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:
- Films Not About Project Teams: II
- Here's Part II of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be
about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- Dubious Dealings
- Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be
as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I
- Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges
do they face, and what can we do about them?
- Down in the Weeds: I
- When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing
on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can
we do about it?
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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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