Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 2;   January 8, 2003: Toxic Projects

Toxic Projects

by

A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage the organization — sometimes irreparably.
Bottle of poison

Martin dejectedly handed the message to Jeri, who read it out loud: "You've been volunteered for Amethyst. You'll be working with Weldon and the architecture team." Amethyst was by now the tail wagging the organizational dog, and everyone understood that when it came to Amethyst, "volunteered" meant "indentured."

"Probably the best place to be, if you have to be on Amethyst," Jeri said, trying to console Martin.

"Yeah, right," said Martin, "like the southern Yukon in February."

Amethyst was a "Monster" project — one that gradually claims more and more organizational resources. Monster projects are one type of toxic project. Even when they're "on track," they harm the organization by consuming resources that are much better used elsewhere.

Here are some other kinds of toxic projects.

The Pet
The pet project is funded because its champion not only has the urge to play around with a favorite idea, but also the political clout to gather the resources for the needed toys. What's the cost of not using these resources productively?
The Turnover
Toxic projects
harm their organizations
even when — especially when —
they "succeed"
Some projects are so frustrating and deadly to the morale of the project team that they cause skilled and productive team members to leave the organization. What's the cost of turnover?
The Trap Door
This is a project that commits the organization to a path that severely limits its future strategic options. What's the cost of lost flexibility?
Seawater
People adrift at sea, dying of thirst and desperate, sometimes drink seawater. Organizations do something analogous — they fund projects that seem useful, but which actually threaten the organization. What's the cost of treatment once you realize you've been drinking seawater?

Why don't organizations just cancel toxic projects? Often people don't realize that the projects are toxic, because the accounting system masks their impact.

When we compute project costs, we sometimes understate certain organizational costs. For instance, a Turnover project creates organizational costs that aren't actually charged to the project, such as increased recruiting costs, delays in other projects, and depressed morale. If these costs are recognized at all, they appear as overhead, and they're distributed across all organizational activity using a "flat tax" system that allocates them to all projects in proportion to labor hours, management time, square feet or dollars spent.

But projects differ, and these costs vary by project. A toxic project creates more than its share of these costs, but the organization never realizes it.

What can we do? Decision-makers can assess project toxicity by making a serious attempt to apportion organizational costs fairly. Computing these costs can be difficult, because it feels subjective, but almost any honest effort would be fairer than the flat tax system. Denying the reality of these costs doesn't eliminate them — they're real, they cannot be known exactly, and we must deal with them. Go to top Top  Next issue: Please Remove My Appendix  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenOBHfgKDAXQHvSFDLner@ChacBHpVTAdKUVPZnEAroCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The inaccessible cubicles at Diamond SquareMake a Project Family Album
Like a traditional family album, a project family album has pictures of people, places, and events. It builds connections, helps tie the team together, and it can be as much fun to look through as it is to create.
Example of an unsecured driver-side floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal in a 2007 Toyota Lexus ES350Risk Management Risk: I
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked, and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010Managing Non-Content Risks: II
When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.
Panama Canal constructionAvoid Having to Reframe Failure
Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenFhtrSnPcjOxkJebFner@ChacxkPrubRrtMXmlVPloCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.