Wrecking a Project

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A Sponsor's Guide to Sabotage
  1. no tradeoffs! You want it quick, cheap, and good.
  2. Expect the impossible . Establishing realistic goals for a project and team boosts morale and makes it possible that something constructive might be accomplished. To crush the life out of a project team, remind them constantly that whatever they do is not good enough. Whenever the team seems close to accomplishing an objective, raise the bar before they can jump over it.
  3. Instill a culture of fear . Team members should always be aware that there are no excuses for failure. Punishment should be swift, severe, and out of proportion to the offense. People who tell the truth or ask difficult questions should be publicly ridiculed and disparaged. This will engender distrust and discourage communication in surprisingly destructive ways.
  4. Periodically replace the project manager . This helps develop fear and uncertainty in the project manager and team (see item 8) and introduces chaos and a learning curve for everyone involved. Whenever possible, bring in a project manager who has no knowledge of the project—extra credit if they know nothing of the organization or the project knowledge domain.
  5. Keep secrets from the team . It is important that the team never knows whether they have the whole picture or not. This consumes time while the team tries to assure they have all the puzzle pieces before they act. Keeping secrets has the secondary benefit that some people may use assumed or implied secrets to pursue personal agendas that further distract or disrupt the team.
  6. Reorganize often . If your organization is decentralized, centralize it to gain economies of scale and provide opportunities for better specialization and resource management. If your organization is centralized, decentralize it to allow team members to jell with specific projects or segments of the client population. In either event, reduce the resources assigned to the project, because the team should be more efficient with the new structure. Long-duration projects can provide multiple opportunities to reorganize, with a corresponding resource reduction each time. Reorganizing can be particularly insidious if it gives you an opportunity to reassign your best staff away from the project that you are trying to destroy and replace them with people who have less experience or are difficult to manage.
  7. Take glory and allocate blame . When a project experiences minor victories, take as much credit for yourself as possible—after all, you are the sponsor. When a project experiences setbacks, insist on a public inquisition to identify and publicly punish one or more team members who may have been involved. When people become afraid to act, the rate of progress will slow to a crawl.

These simple steps will help you kill vibrant projects and eliminate capable project managers. The organizational power of the sponsor provides tremendous leverage for destruction and offers little recourse to project managers other than long hours worked in futility that result in discouragement, disgrace, and departure. If you wish to sow the seeds of toxic failure in an organization, poor sponsorship is an amazingly effective approach. Based upon the widespread and repeated success of these tactics, they often go undetected and can be repeated as necessary until the host organization has been mortally wounded. If sabotage is your goal, this is a mission easily accomplished.

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About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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