Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 6;   February 9, 2011:

How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness

by

When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
Aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima)

Aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima). The Aggregating Anemone is the most common species of sea anemone along rocky shorelines on the Pacific coast of North America. It hosts endosymbiotic algae (algae living within its body) called zooxanthellae. The sea anemone benefits from the algae's photosynthesis, receiving oxygen and food as glycerol, glucose and alanine. The algae receive reliable exposure to sun, and protection from micro-feeders.

The anemone is analogous to the supervisor who supports the pet project of a subordinate, while the algae are analogous to the subordinate who nurtures the pet project. In the biological analogy, as in the organizational situation, both parties benefit from the relationship. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

It isn't surprising when some pet projects get resources — perhaps their nurturers answer to no one, or they abuse their authority. But some pet projects thrive even when their nurturers lack absolute power and seem to have done nothing wrong. Somehow they've found ways to feed their pets without violating organizational policy — or, at least, not much.

In last week's edition, we examined how nurturers of pet projects can abuse their authority to secure resources. Here are some methods that don't necessarily involve abuse of authority, but do depend on cleverness.

Legitimate circumvention of policy intent
Sometimes resources flow to pet projects by secretive redirection. In some cases this involves falsification of records, but sometimes the projects' nurturers have exploited flexibility or openings in organizational policy.
Since even the most primitive control systems involve several people, this technique usually requires collaboration among several individuals, which is difficult to arrange unless the activity is at least superficially legitimate. It's wise to regard these incidents as indicators of (possibly benign) policy defects.
Exchange of political favors
In an I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine exchange, two people with access to resources trade those resources, nurturing each other's pets. On the surface, each resource-owner's contribution is legitimate.
Detecting this tactic is complicated when the exchange crosses supervisory boundaries, because it requires visibility at organizational levels higher than the supervisor of each party to the exchange. It's wise to regard these incidents as indicators of defects in compliance monitoring.
Scavenging, surplus and mistakes
Occasionally, possibly as a result of accounting errors, surplus or idle resources become available to anyone who wants them. For instance, some engineering consulting firms have internal R&D programs intended for development of expertise, but these programs can sometimes be deflected to pet projects.
In many Surplus or idle resources
sometimes become available
to anyone who wants them
instances, the losses to the organization resulting from deflecting these resources are acceptable. Detecting the deflection might not result in much advantage to the organization. But when internal development programs are a means of implementing important strategic decisions, monitoring the use of their resources to inhibit redirection to pet projects can add significant value to the program.
Gifts from above
At times — usually at the nurturer's request — the nurturer's supervisor might bestow a gift of resources on the pet project, knowing that the organization would not support the project to that extent through routine channels.
Motivations for such gifts can include a desire to assist the career of the subordinate, and a desire to see the pet project progress. Preventing these gifts might not be advisable, because prevention could conflict with the supervisor's appropriate independence.

By whatever means nurturers secure resources for their pets, they do so in contravention of organizational intent. Fortunately, pet projects do sometimes benefit the organization, and perhaps that's one reason why they're here to stay. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Finding the Third Way  Next Issue

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