Wrecking a Project

A Sponsor's Guide to Sabotage
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, no tradeoffs! You want it quick, cheap, and good.
  4. Expect the impossible. Establishing realistic goals for a project and team boosts morale and makes it possible that something constructive might be accomplished. To crush the life out of a project team, remind them constantly that whatever they do is not good enough. Whenever the team seems close to accomplishing an objective, raise the bar before they can jump over it.
  5. Instill a culture of fear. Team members should always be aware that there are no excuses for failure. Punishment should be swift, severe, and out of proportion to the offense. People who tell the truth or ask difficult questions should be publicly ridiculed and disparaged. This will engender distrust and discourage communication in surprisingly destructive ways.
  6. Periodically replace the project manager. This helps develop fear and uncertainty in the project manager and team (see item 8) and introduces chaos and a learning curve for everyone involved. Whenever possible, bring in a project manager who has no knowledge of the project—extra credit if they know nothing of the organization or the project knowledge domain.
  7. Keep secrets from the team. It is important that the team never knows whether they have the whole picture or not. This consumes time while the team tries to assure they have all the puzzle pieces before they act. Keeping secrets has the secondary benefit that some people may use assumed or implied secrets to pursue personal agendas that further distract or disrupt the team.
  8. Reorganize often. If your organization is decentralized, centralize it to gain economies of scale and provide opportunities for better specialization and resource management. If your organization is centralized, decentralize it to allow team members to jell with specific projects or segments of the client population. In either event, reduce the resources assigned to the project, because the team should be more efficient with the new structure. Long-duration projects can provide multiple opportunities to reorganize, with a corresponding resource reduction each time. Reorganizing can be particularly insidious if it gives you an opportunity to reassign your best staff away from the project that you are trying to destroy and replace them with people who have less experience or are difficult to manage.
  9. Take glory and allocate blame. When a project experiences minor victories, take as much credit for yourself as possible—after all, you are the sponsor. When a project experiences setbacks, insist on a public inquisition to identify and publicly punish one or more team members who may have been involved. When people become afraid to act, the rate of progress will slow to a crawl.

These simple steps will help you kill vibrant projects and eliminate capable project managers. The organizational power of the sponsor provides tremendous leverage for destruction and offers little recourse to project managers other than long hours worked in futility that result in discouragement, disgrace, and departure. If you wish to sow the seeds of toxic failure in an organization, poor sponsorship is an amazingly effective approach. Based upon the widespread and repeated success of these tactics, they often go undetected and can be repeated as necessary until the host organization has been mortally wounded. If sabotage is your goal, this is a mission easily accomplished.

User Comments

1 comment
Anju Aggarwal's picture

This article is written in a strong voice, but it does talk about the real issues.

I also faced a similar situation recently and can very well relate to it.

Thanks for sharing this article.

Best Wishes

November 19, 2022 - 9:56am

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