Wrecking a Project

[article]
A Sponsor's Guide to Sabotage
Summary:
If you want to commit industrial espionage at the company you work for, there are few roles as capable of harm as a project sponsor. For executives seeking to undermine a project and assure failure, we identify tactics that quickly crash projects and suck the life from project staff.

Effective project management can seem the bane of a sponsor seeking to turn a shiny project with business potential into a smoking pile of rubble. Conventional wisdom says that project management skills can help overcome a badly conceived project, a dysfunctional team, and derelict sponsors. Take heart, saboteur sponsors, for conventional wisdom is wrong—particularly with regard to sponsorship. Project management has limits, and the techniques below can easily overwhelm the efforts of the most capable and determined project managers. The disastrous effect poor sponsorship can have on a project is hard to overestimate. If you are an executive trying to destroy a project, what follows are simple steps to project oblivion through malevolent sponsorship.

Overarching Rule: Know Your Role, and Avoid It
In successful project organizations, project sponsors are senior managers or executives who serve as liaisons between project and organizational goals. Sponsors trying to help a project succeed clarify project goals from the organization's perspective and guide project managers to make consistent tradeoffs among project schedule, scope (functionality and quality), and resources (people, equipment, facilities, materials, and dollars). Sponsors trying to make a project successful serve as a point of escalation when decisions or actions needed to keep the project on track exceed the authority of the project manager.

Sponsor Sabotage: 12 Steps to Committing the Perfect Crime
If your goal is project sabotage, the sponsor role offers tremendous leverage for harm that is difficult for senior management to detect. An ineffective sponsor can easily snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Remember, entropy is on your side. Projects are challenging under the best of circumstances; a little sponsor interference and neglect can be a decisive force for failure. Simple suggestions to assure project doom:

  1. Avoid regular meetings with the project manager. Rather than not scheduling meetings at all, it is particularly effective to schedule infrequent meetings and insist on elaborate presentations that require substantial preparation, only to cancel or reschedule the meeting at the last minute. As a bonus, you can use the missed presentation as justification for delaying decisions.
  2. Demand multiple sponsors with ill-defined roles. To slow decision-making and discourage enthusiasm, insist on involving an array of sponsors at different levels of the organization who must all be present and reach consensus about the most trivial project decision. This tactic has the added advantage of sharing any burden of blame or blowback for failure among many peers when the fecal matter hits the fan blades.
  3. Avoid decisions. Decisions allow a project to progress. When presented with the opportunity to make a decision, try one of these handy stalling techniques: 

a. Ask for more information.
b. Say you need more time before committing to a decision.
c. Delay to consult with peers you know are unavailable.
d. Reflect the request—remind project managers that making hard decisions is 
    THEIR job and shame them for asking you for guidance.

  1. Unmake decisions. If you or one of your peer sponsors actually makes a decision, wait a week or so, then raise questions about it and insist that the issue be revisited. This is particularly expensive and frustrating for the team after a major commitment of resources to hardware or software purchasing, staff hiring, or staff development has been made.
  2. Be inconsistent . Change your mind whenever you have the opportunity. This will discourage empowerment because no one will know for sure what you want.
  3. Do not prioritize . Establishing clear priorities gives project managers far too much information to support their planning and decision-making processes. If you must prioritize, provide conflicting signals as soon as the priorities are established. Remember,

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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