Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 51;   December 18, 2013: Projects as Proxy Targets: I

Projects as Proxy Targets: I

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Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.
A Strangler Fig in Australia

A Strangler Fig (species Ficus watkinsiana) on Syzygium hemilampra, in Iluka, Australia. Strangler figs begin life, typically, by germinating in the bark of other trees. They send roots downward, and branches upward, enfolding their hosts. Gradually increasing in mass, they eventually strangle their hosts. This growth pattern is advantageous in dense tropical forests, where building a tree column from ground level is difficult because of the shade caused by existing foliage.

Detractors of large projects in organizations can use strategies similar to that of the Strangler Figs. Using any means at their disposal, they work to limit the operations of the project they've targeted. No one element of their overall attack is important, but the number and variety of their attacks can be too much for the advocates of the large project to bear.

Photo by Peter Woodard, courtesy Wikipedia.

Most major projects have both advocates and detractors. Even after organizations decide to fund enterprise-scale projects, even after staffing begins, and even during early execution, detractors can remain. In most cases though, voicing objections after the funding decision is in place entails considerable political risk. That's why detractors typically begin to limit their objections to confidential conversations with trusted allies. They might continue to oppose the project, and even try to subvert it, but always discretely, and usually under the cover of deniability.

In some rare cases, a major project's detractors might continue to operate openly even after the organization is committed to the project. They voice their skepticism, repeatedly predicting failure. They do so at extreme political risk, because the people who advocated for and approved funding for the project typically experience such opposition as attacks not only on the project, but also upon their own position and power in the organization. They know that if the project fails, they face embarrassment, possible demotion, termination, or other career-ending consequences.

Open opposition to projects underway often becomes protracted political conflict between advocates and detractors — a conflict in which the project becomes a proxy target.

Detractors know that unless they prevail, the advocates can use the project's success to consolidate their own power and influence, while they curtail the future influence of the detractors. When detractors commit to opposing the project openly, they do so with the understanding that project failure is the only outcome consistent with their own long-term well being within the organization. They must then act to ensure project failure. Here are some of the tactics available to project detractors.

Delay
At every phase of project development from initial proposal to late stage execution, delay can help detractors achieve their goal. They can raise issues to slow decisions and approvals, release shared resources later than expected, and if they supply deliverables to the project, they can supply them late.
Verbal assaults on leadership
Charges of At every phase of project development
from initial proposal to late
stage execution, delay can help
detractors achieve their goal
negligence, incompetence, ethical transgressions, and the like can distract project leaders and burden them with the need to respond. Such allegations also affect the project's ability to attract and retain highly capable personnel.
Budget constriction
Constraining the project's budget obviously degrades its ability to deliver against an aggressive schedule. But even more deviously, detractors can work to constrict the project's budget after the budget commitment for a given period is made and spending has begun. This causes even more delay because of the chaos introduced by replanning.
Vendor restrictions
By imposing restrictions on which vendors can supply material, staff, or services, detractors can limit the project's access to reliable outside vendors. Even more devious: change the restriction policy at a critical juncture, forcing the project to switch vendors.

We'll continue this catalog next time, emphasizing tactics for creating project chaos.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Projects as Proxy Targets: II  Next Issue

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See also Workplace Politics and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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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.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd 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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