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:
- Resuming Projects: Team Morale
- Sometimes we cancel a project because of budgetary constraints. We reallocate its resources and scatter
its people, and we tell ourselves that the project is on hold. But resuming is often riskier, more difficult
and more expensive than we hoped. Here are some reasons why.
- The Politics of the Critical Path: I
- The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest
completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political
- Managing Non-Content Risks: I
- When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated
with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less
attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets
- Unnecessary Boring Work: II
- Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from
the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
- Anticipating Absence: Internal Consulting
- Most consultants are advisors from outside the organization. But when many employees are unavailable
because of the Coronavirus pandemic, we need to find ways to access the knowledge that remains inside
the organization. Internal consulting can help.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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