Projects that will not die (but are never going to deliver)

I came across this article on Stephen Norrie’s blog:

HBS Working Knowledge: Leadership: When Bad Ideas Won’t Die Why do smart companies put so much energy into doomed products? University of Paris-based Isabelle Royer tackles this thorny issue in this excerpt from Harvard Business Review. By profiling two French companies’ experiences with failed projects, Royer gets at some surprising answers: Belief and faith triumph over reason. Mar. 31, 2003 Issue .

I’ve seen several of these projects in Retrospectives… after someone has finally driven a stake through the heart of the project and killed it dead. (The good news is that the group is looking back to see what happened and learn from the experience.)

These project aren’t always trying to implement a bad idea: Sometimes these projects are trying to implement a very good idea that isn’t achievable, at least not now, and not the way the project is going about it. Bad idea or good idea, projects that are failing but refuse to die sucking up the resources of the organization.

Here are some of the patterns I’ve observed:

The project champion makes glowing reports of progress and extols the mental prowess of the team in overcoming obstacles… but can’t seem to provide much hard data or tangible proof of progress. Lack of data is the data.

Most of the time, the people on the project are smart people, and tenacious, problem solvers. As problem after problem comes up, they reassure them selves that they will be able to solve this latest one, too. It’s not anyone problem that dooms the projects its all the problems taken in together. Each one is a small detour, but when you add up all the detours, forward progress is nearly nil. But on zombie projects no one seems to notice. Solving problems is progress of a kind, so it may feel like the team is accomplishing great things.

There’s often one person with “the vision” who champions the idea. Because the technology is new and dazzling, perhaps people who usually make hard-nosed business decisions feel a bit intimidated.They may not understand quite how the project will get from point A to point B. If you hear the champion say “Trust me,” you know you’re in trouble. Trust but verify… which brings us back to data, and to credible plans.

Champions on these project tend to isolate themselves from bad news. A common way is to label people who criticize the approach or ask too many questions as “not forward thinking” or “not strategic.” Then it’s easy to dismiss anything they say that casts doubt on the viability of the project.

Sometimes these project are a core piece of a strategy that will addresses real, important business concerns. And it can be hard to let go of something that’s going to all your problems, make tons of money or save the day.