Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 4;   January 26, 2011: Why There Are Pet Projects

Why There Are Pet Projects


Pet projects are common in organizations, including organizations with healthy and mature planning processes. They usually consume resources at levels beyond what the organization intends, which raises the question of their genesis: Where do pet projects come from?
The Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus, a German World War II super-heavy tank

One of Adolph Hitler's pet projects, the Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus, a German World War II super-heavy tank completed in late 1944. Pictured is the V2 version. It is the heaviest fully enclosed armored fighting vehicle ever built. Only one prototype was completed before the Red Army captured the testing grounds. It weighed 188 metric tons. Its main armament was a 128 mm KwK 44 gun.

Pet projects are often harmful to organizations because they consume resources needed for more pressing endeavors. The degree of harm is therefore related to the fraction of organizational resources consumed. When the nurturer is the head of the organization, or as in Hitler's case, when the nurturer's power is unconstrained, the degree of harm can be considerable. Photo available at Wikipedia.

A pet project is an effort that has captured organizational resources beyond the levels that correspond to its degree of organizational support. Usually we associate pet projects with specific individuals — those with some means of allocating resources to the project. In the metaphor, these individuals are "nurturing" or "keeping" their pets.

What motivates nurturers of pet projects? Here are some possibilities.

Some nurturers adopt or conceive pet projects because they believe success will aid them in competition with peers for recognition, promotion and organizational prominence. They want to get ahead.
Nurturers sometimes identify with their pets. Those who do identify make a direct connection between project travails and personal travails; between project failure and personal failure; and between project success and personal success.
Some pet projects confer benefits on parties other than their nurturers, such as customers or suppliers. For instance, the pet project might lead to dramatically increased sales for a particular supplier if the project is adopted and expanded by the organization. The nurturers of these projects sometimes make arrangements with these beneficiaries to kick back some of those benefits to the nurturer, possibly in hidden and potentially illegal or unethical ways.
Some nurturers find their pet projects so fascinating that they take great risks just to have the opportunity to pursue them. They're hooked.
Nurturers Attaching oneself to someone's
pet project can be a risky
career move
sometimes seek to differentiate themselves from colleagues in incontestable ways. They hope that their pet projects will demonstrate their personally unique capabilities, vision or insight.
Involved in debates long ago, having had their own positions rejected, some nurturers pursue pet projects almost single-mindedly to prove the rightness of their past claims. This pursuit can endure even after those who opposed the nurturers have left the organization.

Since all of these motives are primarily personal, the focus of the nurturer's attention is also mostly personal. Attaching oneself to the pet projects of these nurturers can therefore be a risky career move, because the nurturer and anyone affiliated with the project can be reassigned, stigmatized or worse, when the organization discovers the project.

But there is one additional motivation that does create true opportunities both for the organization and its people. Some nurturers have a vision for what could be that transcends the present state of things. Unfortunately, from their position in the organization, they've so far been unable to persuade the organization of the importance of the vision. They might lack the skills of influence, or their genius might be so advanced that the organization simply cannot grasp the concept. For these nurturers, a pet project is the best available alternative.

Working for, collaborating with, supervising, or aiding these visionaries can be both stimulating and rewarding. The trick is identifying them.

Next time we'll explore how nurturers find resources for their pet projects.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How Pet Projects Get Resources: Abuse  Next Issue

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