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.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple
question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question.
Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
- Publish an Internal Newsletter
- If you're responsible for an organizational effort with many stakeholders, communicating with them is
important to success. Publishing an internal newsletter is a great way to keep them informed.
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
- The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we
tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
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- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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