The best way to kill a project - a cautionary tale from my “youth” by Phil Stanton
The takeaway for the impatient:
If you want to stop something happening then it’s worth knowing that slow cooperation is usually way more effective than overt opposition.
If you’re a project or programme manager and you don’t know what’s going wrong then maybe, just maybe, some of your supporters aren’t really.
If you’re trying to stop something. Then be slowly helpful and supportive.
In my younger days, I ran a change programme for a client. It was a reasonably big and complex programme and was a stretch for someone of my age and experience.
There was only one senior manager who actively opposed what we were doing and they consumed most of my stakeholder management efforts.
What helped, though, was the fantastic support from the rest of the senior management team — most of whom provided resources and nearly all of whom came to the fortnightly project board.
One senior manager, in particular, was incredibly accommodating of both their personal time and commitment — even though he stressed how terribly over - worked he was.
Time and time again in project meetings he’d offer to do things — only for them to be a week or two late because he was so busy. But he’d always turn up with something — even if it wasn’t quite complete.
He was though — and he stressed this. Totally. Committed. To The Programme.
After six months, the programme was twelve weeks late. I stupidly didn’t realise what was going on.
A couple of weeks later, I found out that the senior manager had raised his concerns about the delay with the director for the area in which we worked.
“Phil is such a nice chap. But the programme is three months late after only six months. Maybe it’s a little beyond his capability.
It’s such an important programme — and I’m totally committed to it — maybe I should take over ?”
At the point I found this out a light went on. I looked at the delays and the senior manager had caused me eleven of the twelve weeks delay.
I had a problem though. It’s really hard to call out someone who has been supportive and cooperative. After all, he’d given me every chance.
I was right on the edge of being kicked-out. And then I got a break.
As part of piling on the pressure, the senior manager sent me an email that was part of a long email chain.He reminded me that there were some dates we committed to that we were in danger of missing and that these were in the email chain below. Curiously the dates didn’t match the dates I had. I had a look through the email chain to double check the dates against what I had.
And there it was. In the middle of the email chain was an exchange between the senior manager and his colleague who overtly opposed the change. It boasted that his tactics of “slow cooperation” were much more effective than active opposition. After all, he was making me look like a fool. Which was true.
Like a good pickpocket, he’d distracted me with cooperation and support whilst he simultaneously robbed the time off my wrist.
For added effect, the senior manager had also changed the dates we’d committed to in the email chain. I know this because I keep copies of every email I send and receive.
At the next project board I didn’t say anything. I simply handed out copies of the emails.
We all lived happily ever after. Well, all except one of us…