Sixty per cent of projects fail due to poor communication, scope creep, lacking risk control, cost miscalculations, loss of strategic interest or sabotage. With this in mind Dr Stefan Bertschi and Gandin Hornemann, Consultants at Pcubed Program Planning Professionals, discuss how stakeholder sabotage can be identified and lead to recovery.

The two types of sabotage are:

  1. Passive sabotage as unexplained, hidden expression;
  2. Active sabotage as explicable, open objection.

The former seems to have political and tactical connotation; it leaves the project powerless and in lack of response, unable to apply standard methodology to recover. The latter can be addressed and managed from within the project.

Passive sabotage is bad because it subtly undermines endorsed project goals; it robs effectiveness as it cannot be managed directly, and is a ‘time thief’, leading to significant project delays. The stakeholder is apparently involved, but without real interest in project progress and with commitment as lip service.

Active sabotage is defined as having a hidden agenda with noticeable explanation, then again passive sabotage as having an unwitting agenda. Differentiating it from passive resistance, stakeholders are seemingly ‘unknowing’ of their sabotage and damage caused (or simply do not care).

In a typical scenario, an IT delivery project has its technical foundation defined and agreed. A complex solution comprising of multiple systems is endorsed by senior management. A few months into the project, an alternative solution is suddenly proposed by the IT supplier. This is presented as needed systems comparison, not as scope change request, and since it does not trigger control, it delays the project.

No explanation for this late and sudden demand is ever provided by the stakeholder, and middle management, not wanting conflict on the project, can only recognise its changing status. The project cannot turn to positive resolution and is paralysed. Discussion is not possible as the whole project is overshadowed by politics that cannot be addressed.

The problem encountered here we call ‘passive sabotage’, with a major stakeholder not working towards agreed goals. In this scenario, traditional project governance and its escalation process have proven unproductive.

Project assassination

Reasons for project failure can be tied to a more fundamental cause, which is the project environment, especially where a weak project culture exists within organisations. Historically grown structures and emergent processes undermine progress and openness for a culture that supports the success of projects through trial and error.

The authority of a project and its success depend largely on the existing culture. The leadership model, as the ‘heart of politics’, determines the project culture. Our experience in executing challenging IT delivery and business change projects shows its crucial importance.

There are predominantly two main leadership models:

  1. hierarchical and functional, where demands are executed without being questioned;
  2. democratic and explicative, where demands stem from discussions and considering all opinions.

The predominant model in an organisation defines how projects are being run and how delegation takes place from strategic senior level to delivering team level:

  1. In a hierarchical and functional model, the culture involves strict management with team members instructed to accept and follow orders passively.
  2. In a democratic and explicative model the culture revolves around loose management with team members invited to express opinions and object proactively.

If any part of the project does not work towards agreed goals (even if unwilling delivery had to be ensured), there is foundation for sabotage. If demands are managed wrongly and leadership is not supporting an open project culture, there is higher probability for passive sabotage. The stakeholder’s ‘unknowing’ is its defining feature.

Response by activating

The hard news first: passive sabotage cannot be prevented and any working escalation process may help or have the opposite effect altogether. Being passive, it will show effects but cannot easily be detected. Since traditional project methodology is insufficient, it is difficult to find a way forward.

Recognising passive sabotage early is critical for recovery and requires monitoring, with alerts on deviations from project commitments (be it altered course of action, sense of project responsibility or acceptance, or failure to work towards endorsed goals).

Our response to passive sabotage is a step approach:

  1. ‘Activate’ passive sabotage
  2. If the situation is a complete mess, consider (external) mediation
  3. Replace stakeholders
  4. Remove stakeholders without replacement, if possible
  5. As ultimate wake-up call, threaten to close the project

Activating passive sabotage is about (re-)educating stakeholders by unlocking communication whose absence prevented assessing the reasons for their sabotage. Activation is not a risk response, it is a change response; it does not address scope or any other controllable change, it addresses behaviour. Negative conflict and mistrust has to be turned into positive conflict and feedback.

To facilitate this, the right authority has to be given to the project. The resolution of how to activate passive sabotage has to be sought by the project manager; this requires a leader in control of seemingly uncontrollable situations. It is an ungrateful job to seek cleansing discussion with those sabotaging and then working through above step approach. Most promising is the attempt to show consequences of ‘how’ (direction) against ‘what’ (goal) of competencies against strategic vision.

If passive sabotage can be activated, then it can be managed and response may be in diplomacy, de-personalising and de-politicising. If it cannot be activated, the killing is about to start.

To change or to be killed

The secret of tackling passive sabotage lies in engaging stricter leadership as necessary, if only temporarily. The aim is in growing the right culture, its goal to kill the foundation for passive sabotage before the project is being assassinated. Nevertheless, to grow lasting mentality and culture is not usually part of standard project management methodology.

From change management we learn that the stakeholder is at the heart of behavioural change. Understanding its role as part of a strengthened project delivery is the first step. Transformation (at project team level) requires transition (at management level), and this altered state must be recognised. In any case, addressing individual behaviour is just a quick fix, allowing to embrace change in one situation only.

Notably in IT delivery projects, aspects of organisation, culture and people need to be considered comprehensively to ensure the group is proceeding towards business goals and success.

For a sustainable response, change should ideally lead to an open but strong project culture. Having such a culture in place minimises the appearance of passive sabotage. This requires change management to become part of project management.
In light of managing tensions around politics, the project manager must find the root cause, and actively manage change and engagement. Winning hearts and minds is much more than an esoteric phrase. Only the combined package, scaled to the appropriate level, tackles stakeholder sabotage and leads to recovery.

As a last resort, the star to be killed is not a person. Since people lead and deliver projects, we have merely discussed the importance of managing behavioural change whilst other change is taking place, and of getting the right project culture in place before it has gone too far.