It's easy to understand how resources become available to projects that are pet projects of people who answer to no one. But most pet projects are nurtured by people who do have supervisors — if not a supervising manager, then at least a Board of Directors. How do these people secure resources for their pets? How can we detect this activity when people we supervise keep pets?
Most nurturers secure resources in one or more of seven basic ways. Here are three methods involving abuse of authority. For methods involving cleverness, see "How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness," Point Lookout for February 9, 2011.
- Flagrant violation of policy
- It seems almost suicidal, but some nurturers simply violate organizational policy or the expectations of superiors. One wonders how they get away with it, but sometimes they do, at least for a time.
- Detecting this tactic requires monitoring resource use, but we sometimes forget that monitoring anything at all takes resources. If you establish a policy about resource use, ensure that there are enough resources to monitor compliance.
- Political coercion
- Nurturers sometimes use coercion to extract resources for their pets. For instance, they might exact retribution when a subordinate objects to the allocation of resources to the pet. Others observing the price paid by the objector then learn not to object. More insidiously, nurturers might coerce silence or cooperation from those responsible for monitoring compliance with organizational policy.
- This tactic becomes clear when it's repeated often enough for the observing supervisor to notice a pattern. It is therefore most effective in environments with significant turnover in supervisory positions, because no one is in place long enough to notice a pattern. The tactic is also effective in environments in which contractors comprise a significant fraction of subordinates, or when most work is carried out virtually, because contractors or people at remote sites are generally less aware of the goings-on.
- Abuse of power
- Nurturers might Political coercion is most effective
in environments with significant
turnover in supervisory positionsuse their legitimate authority to supply resources to their pets, claiming that the action is in the interest of the organization. Even if that is so, the decision might still be an abuse of power if the nurturer knows that another choice would likely have been even more helpful to the organization.
- Detecting this tactic requires a level of understanding of the nurturer's responsibilities sufficient to support independent evaluation of the nurturer's decisions. In relatively flat organizations, the supervisor of the nurturer might lack the knowledge required for such judgments, or lack time to make them even if he or she has the requisite knowledge. This tactic is therefore of greatest use in flat organizations, or when the nurturer's supervisor is relatively unfamiliar with the nurturer's area of specialization.
Allocating resources to pet projects might not entail abuse of authority. Other methods can be consistent with organizational policy, or at least, benign. They are the topic for next time. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control,
or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate
you to find another way.
- Why There Are Pet Projects
- Pet projects are common in organizations, including organizations with healthy and mature planning processes.
They usually consume resources at levels beyond what the organization intends, which raises the question
of their genesis: Where do pet projects come from?
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
- 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.
- Way Over Their Heads
- For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict
can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the
conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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