Dealing with Pet Projects

Last week, we talked about avoiding dead projects. Now it’s time to talk about the hardest project category: the political project. Killing political projects is difficult, because it’s not a rational problem. Rational discussions are useless and don’t work. You can bring out metrics or try to discuss project-related issues, but nothing will work because this project does not exist because of a rational reason. You have to get down to the reason this is a “pet” project.

To do that, find the project’s sponsor and ask him or her some context-free questions:

Who are the clients of this project? You want to find out whether or not there are real people ready to plunk down money (or a money equivalent) for this project. The project’s sponsor may have information you don’t have.

What does a highly successful solution look like? Find out if the project’s sponsor has a vision of what this project can do for the organization.Sometimes you’ll discover there is a real project with a reasonable return from the first two questions. If so, great. If not, continue with these questions:

What is that solution worth to you? If the answer is that the solution’s worth is “priceless,” ask if the project’s sponsor really would pay any amount of money to have this project, such as all the pre-tax earnings from the previous year. At this point, you will probably get a shocked look, which will hopefully lead to a discussion about what the project is actually worth in dollars. The idea is to pin the sponsor down and specify the top amount the sponsor is willing to invest in the project. If the sponsor has trouble with the notion of paying dollars for an IT project, then discuss the project in terms of what you’re not doing in your organization: “This project is preventing us from upgrading payroll.”

Why are these results desirable? Frequently, when you find out why the results are desirable, you can pursue other ways to get to those results. For example, a custom project that seemed reasonable three years ago may no longer be so, given the state of the current tools, but a COTS solution is within reason. If the sponsor has trouble articulating the answer to this question, try asking a different question: Do you have an objective for this project I don’t know about? It may be that there’s an actual reason the project should be kept alive.

To kill a political project, begin with the assumption that you want to keep the project alive, and approach your sponsor as though you simply need more information to make the project successful.

© 1999 Johanna Rothman. Originally published in Cutter’s Business-IT Alignment E-Mail Advisor, October 13, 1999.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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