Dealing With the Project Saboteur

There is a presentation I have given where I talk about a “Supportive” stakeholder. These stakeholders understand WHY a project is important and will assist in its execution and completion. These “Supportive” stakeholders may not have wanted this project to be approved in the first place or see it as a burden during execution. But, because they understand why it’s important, they will not make an attempt to delay or sabotage the project in any way.

However, there are those that are so upset, egotistical, or just assholes that they want you and the project to fail. They’re cunning and smart. Sabotage itself is usually very calculated, methodical and strategic. They pretend they don’t know they’re slowing progress, but you know better. They’ll find ways to discredit you and the team, make the project look like it’s off the rails, and withhold resources and information.

High Quality crazy train Blank Meme Template
Sometimes, your train gets set on fire before someone knocks it off the rails!

This is, the Project Saboteur!

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once wrote “‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

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When you say Ian Fleming, you need the original 007!

Let me give you an example. I was a PMO leader and one of our projects kicked off immediately after governance approved as it was deemed “urgent”. One of the departmental managers was not present in the stakeholder kickoff but acknowledged getting the deck and had read it. When asked if there were any questions or concerns, the immediate answer was NO.

The first happenstance came when this person delayed allocating key people to the project. OK, we get it, your department is very busy. Let it slide, but it’s noted.

The second coincidence came when personnel were pulled off the project to deal with an issue directly impacting a client. Interestingly enough, the personnel pulled said the issue was minor and could have been handled by one person with a couple hours effort. At that point, the rest of the project team was denied access to equipment until the issue was resolved and personnel were allowed back on the project. OK, issues come up and maybe you were concerned other project team members would not handle equipment properly. Let it slide, but it’s noted.

The third, and defining moment, came with a phone call from another stakeholder, who was a VP. They asked why the project was so far off track and when was the PMO going to report it as such. Well, this was news to me so called the project manager leading the effort. She said outside of a couple hang-ups with getting people from the stakeholder in questions department, tasks were progressing. After some digging, turns out this stakeholder was telling other leaders the project was a mess and was destined to fail.

Enemy action!

I wish I can say this was a first, but it wasn’t. I’ve had a saboteur a handful of times in my 20+ years try to kill my project and in the process, discredit me. Though rare, it happens. Here are some tips in dealing with this type of enemy action.

Don’t always assume bad intentions, initially that is. Don’t assume bad intentions from the start. Maybe this person is having a bad day. Or, some of the employees they were going to allocate to the project have been very busy and possibly behind in their “day job.” Give them the benefit of the doubt and look deeper before you come to the conclusion they’re trying to sabotage your project.

Stay vigilant and take detailed notes. If your Spidey Senses (you Spiderman fans know what this is) are kicking in when interacting with this person or see negative reactions to discussions around your project, it might be time to pay special attention to that person and start taking notes. If you’re noticing more “you-centric” or “project-centric” gossip or rumors, then you know something’s off. If resources are being withheld, ask questions. Listen. Take notes. Ask more questions and take more notes. Information will help you later, so stay vigilant and take notes now.

Ask a trusted trusted confidant; Am I crazy? Talk to someone you trust. It could be another PM, the sponsor, or someone at a different company all together. Without vilifying the possible project saboteur, factually explain scenarios. Then, ask for their opinion. Maybe they’ll have some suggestions or a different point of view. NOTE: don’t talk to someone who always agrees with you; talk to someone who will listen, ask questions, and challenge you.

Engage the sponsor and note an issue or concern on your status. You’ve documented concerns, seen issues, verified you’re not crazy, and now it’s time to talk to the sponsor and update your status report (if you haven’t already). Maybe the sponsor can help in having a discussion with the saboteur. It’s possible they have a relationship with them already and can help in a resolution. Worst case, the sponsor will want to avoid conflict at all costs and not get engaged. In any case, note on your status report that is an issue without necessarily calling the person out by name. It may also be time to confront!

Confront, but don’t be confrontational. Once you’ve come to the conclusion your project is the target of sabotage, confront the saboteur without being confrontational. What I mean by that is don’t come out of the gate saying “You’re an asshole and I know what you’re doing!!” You’re fixin’ for a fight. Instead, ask them, “I feel like you’re not on board with this project. Can I address any questions or concerns? Is everything OK? Is there anything I can be doing to help you?” This may sound weak, but it’s not. Keep your enemies close. Listen to their response and continue to ask clarifying questions. Be sure to stress the importance of the project for the company, not how it impacts you. After the conversation, note it and maybe follow-up with an email.

Talk to your boss, governance group, or possibly HR. You may have done this before confronting the saboteur or, depending on the outcome of that conversation, talk about it after. If you’ve talked with your sponsor and reported issues in the status, it may now be at the point to engage your immediate boss, any project or portfolio governance (depending on if the company has this or not), and possibly HR. Because not only is the project at risk but also your reputation in the company, be proactive and take action before it gets out of hand any further.

Don’t retaliate. If someone is trying to sabotage your project, be the bigger person and don’t try to sabotage them in retaliation. Be the “helper” regardless of how they treat you. You don’t need to be their BFF, but don’t try to ruin their career because they wanted to kill your project. Chances are, you won’t succeed and others (especially management) will see your intentions, which can have negative implications.

Get the hell outta Dodge! If the situation remains toxic and not improving, you probably shouldn’t be there. Sure, you want to see the project through to completion because you take pride in your work and you care for your team. But, update your resume. Put some feelers out to former coworkers or contacts. Maybe apply for a couple jobs that spark your interest. Prepare yourself for a future move.

Get the Hell Out of Dodge - English Idioms & Slang Dictionary

Project saboteurs are out there. Maybe you’ve experienced them. Maybe you haven’t…yet. But when you do, remember these tips to help get it sorted out and resolved quickly, before enemy action derails your project!

Beware of Saying “YES”

“Jason, we’d love it if you could join our committee. With all the changes in the community and our work to get ready, you’d be a great addition!”

Though I appreciated being asked, I was hesitant. This non-profit organization had great growth potential, but since being involved with them a year and a half earlier, not much had changed. The committee member leaving, who I knew on a personal level, was frustrated that when they did agree on something, there was a lack of action and accountability.

In the back of my mind, though, I thought maybe there was something I could do to help. I mean, I’ve been on church councils and helped other non-profits. I take action and hold myself and others accountable. But, I also traveled every other week and had team members in Europe and Asia Pacific who I talked to frequently off-hours. I had kids in swimming and baseball. Plus, I was training for my own running and bike races. I knew joining the committee would take a lot of time as well as could be frustratingly unfulfilling. I should decline.

“Thanks, but I don’t have time right now and will need to pass.” Thus started the comeback. We need you. You’re important and can help us do great things. The kids need you. You owe it to them and the community. Even after all that, I knew I should still decline.

“Fine, YES, I’ll do it.”

WTF did I say YES for!! That was a dumbass move!! Did I want to help? Sure I did. Because their work impacted kids and adults, I felt it was a worthy cause, otherwise I wouldn’t have been involved in the first place.

Because I committed to joining, I put put forth quite a bit of effort. But after my year commitment on the committee, the lack of progress was confirmation I’d made a poor decision. Through this process, though, I learned three valuable lessons.

The first is when you say YES to something you don’t want to do, you’ll resent the people or the person who asked. You’ll more than likely do a mediocre job at best, handle tasks with minimal energy and feel you’ve wasted precious time out of your day and your life doing meaningless work.

Everyone says YES to something for their own reasons. I said YES in a moment when I should have stuck to my guns with my initial answer. I didn’t start on the committee with the right frame of mind. Meetings were sometimes a grind, especially when I had other priorities or other things on my mind. Because of that, I had some resentment.

Second, saying YES usually means saying NO to something else. A one hour meeting twice a month was more than just two total hours. It was getting ready, driving to the building, having conversations, conducting the formal meeting, having a conversation after, and doing tasks either that night or at another time. Two hours became 10+ real quick.

Could I golf those nights? Nope. Did I miss a kid’s swim meet? Yep. Was I able to spend time with my wife, family, friends, or take my dog for a walk? Negative. Could I go for a run or a bike ride on beautiful spring and summer evenings? Nah-ah. Because I said YES to the committee, I had to say NO multiple times to other requests.

Saying YES to something may result in saying NO to something else.

Lastly, saying NO today creates more time tomorrow. When we say YES, we feel committed to see it through. But when we say NO, we free ourselves to go after other priorities. It also can reduce our stress and anxiety because we can focus on those other priorities.

Since that committee, I’ve been strategic about what I volunteer for and requests I agree to. I’m more comfortable saying NO than saying YES. Even though I may think the request being made sounds great, I look at the effort I would be able to put in, what I would need to say NO to if I said YES, and what time I’m OK giving up tomorrow.

Building a 212 Degree Team

Water. By itself, it’s inorganic, tasteless, odorless and colorless (most of the time anyway). It has no calories. There are no nutrients. However, all forms of life need it to survive. Water on its own is important.

But, do you know what happens at 212 degrees Fahrenheit? It boils. And when it boils, it creates steam. That steam can be turned into energy, which then can be turned into power. That power in turn can move objects forward that can pick up speed and go faster. Water at 211 degrees is hot, but 212 can turn into energy that is near unstoppable. One extra degree makes all the difference.

Steam locomotives were an icon in the industrial revolution

This is a lesson my son was learning as we worked on his science experiment. As we watched the thermometer gently rise to the 200 degree mark, we waited to see the bubbles and corresponding steam that would turn a wheel. Once we got to the boiling point and steam started to rise, the wheel began to turn. After one minute, there was so much energy from the steam, the wheel lost its equilibrium and spun off its holder and onto the floor. It was pretty cool!

What can 212 degrees teach us about teams? Well, maybe you have a team that’s barely moving, or going along slowly. There’s not much energy or momentum. Whereas others are constantly having results and delivering value to the organization. It’s amazing to see how fast they can move, their interactions with each other, and the praise they receive from various levels of leadership. You swear they’ll eventually lose their equilibrium and crash, but they don’t. How do they keep going?

The following are some of my recommendations for creating a 212 degree team. Though you’ll read many of these and think “Yeah, I already know this is important.” But, if you work each with great fervor, your team can create an energy that helps propel them, their project, and the company, forward.

Communication at all levels, especially the leadership team and project manager, is exceptional. It’s simple, yet descriptive and concise. Clear communication keeps the team on the same page and working towards a common goal.

Having a strong sponsor that clearly represents the voice of the customer, articulates requirements and makes sound decisions.

Everyone on the team understands their and other team members roles. No one asks “What is my role?” If they do, that is a miss on the part of the project leader.

The team understands “WHY” the project is important and has a view of how this one project ties into a bigger picture for the organization. This “WHY” is continually kept front and center, and reinforced throughout the project.

There is psychological safety on the team. Members feel safe bringing up topics and issues without judgement. The rest of the team, having listened, offers to help.

The team embraces diversity. Whether it be ethnic background or team members with a wide range of experiences (or both), the diversity of the team is an asset to be celebrated.

Team members take ownership of their tasks. They ensure timely and quality output, and ask questions if something is not clear. They don’t make excuses.

Appreciation and gratitude recognizes an individual’s contribution to the team, and the team’s contribution to the organization.

All teams have self-established “rules.” Be explicit about yours early in the project. For example, no long emails. Keep them short and bulleted. Another is if there is an issue, factually state it with 2-3 options to resolve and your recommendation. Or, my favorite, after 3 email exchanges about a specific topic, email #4 is a summary of what was discussed face-to-face or over the phone.

The project leader is available, consistent, accountable, and responsive to team member’s requests. If a team member has an issue and comes to the project leader for help, it is now a priority for the project leader to help get it resolved. The project leader also gives credit to the team for their hard work, and doesn’t cast blame when things inevitably go wrong.

The team works together to solve issues quickly. Issues are bound to arise, but the collective wisdom of the group resolves them.

Stakeholders are engaged, supportive and properly managed by the project manager.

What is your idea of a 212 degree team? How can you move the thermometer from warm, to hot, to 212 degrees, creating an unstoppable energy and power?

Does Adding Salt to Water Make It Boil Sooner? | Mental Floss

What “Invisible Hand” Impacts Your Team?

I’m a bicyclist. I’ve been cycling consistently for almost 15 years and participated in a number of rides and races. It’s relaxing and depending on where you go, can see some unique sites.

I also live in Fargo, North Dakota, where after a 25 mile bike ride, my Garmin says I had 12 feet of elevation change. The lack of elevation and trees invites unobstructed wind to come blowing through frequently.

Because I’ve been preparing for a race (yes, an actual race in a year where most have been cancelled), I set my alarm for bright and early with the intent of knocking out a number of miles before I started the day. By 5:15 AM, I exited the garage ready to hit road. But as I got outside, I noticed a plastic bag about 10 feet above the street quickly moving away from me. Interesting. As I walked that direction and left the protection of the neighboring house, I was hit by a West wind that my weather app called “Moderate to Gusty.”

Because resistance is a great trainer, I headed out and started my ride going directly into the wind. Momentum was slow. So I turned perpendicular to it for awhile and it helped, though gusts tried to blow me off course. Then into it again. Then perpendicular. Then into it. This went on for a while until I hit my turnaround point. From that point 48 minutes into my ride, it took only 15 minutes to get back home, averaging 25 mph with a peak of 32. That tailwind was AWESOME!

Cycling in the Wind - Tips for Riding in the Breeze - I Love Bicycling

The wind is like an invisible hand. It can push against you causing resistance. It can try to blow you off your intended course. Or, it can be at your back and give you one hell of a ride! In any event, you can’t see it, but it’s there, and it can have quite an impact on your ability to move forward.

This invisible hand is all around us. It’s there when we exercise, with our family and friends, and in the political arena. It is also there in our jobs, and with the teams we interact with and lead.

When it comes to leading project teams, there are many “invisible hands” that impact team culture and performance. Some of these are right in your face and slow you down, and others are at your back and speed things up. Whereas others may push you off course. In any event, you need to be aware of these forces and deal with quickly.

There are a number of invisible hands at work, but I’ll give you an example of two.

Interpersonal Conflict. One of the disadvantages of remote teams is you can’t see the nonverbal vibes team members give off. On a new team with half the members I’ve never worked with before, I had a kick-off call where everyone was very quiet. I found it strange. A couple days later, another meeting where it was silent. I’m not that good so I figured there was something else! I called someone after the meeting and she explained two of the senior team members didn’t like each other. Their conflict impacted the rest of the team because it’s been nasty in the past. After a number of conversations with them and their managers, one of the team members was shifted to another project. Within a week, conversation and feedback picked up greatly!

Reduce interpersonal conflict at work.

Organizational Culture Impacting Team Culture. How do you get five financial managers who are paid 80% on commissions and bonuses to work together? Well, it’s not impossible, but it’s damn close!! When a company promotes individual contributors vs. collaboration, it makes it very difficult when they actually need to work together. When working with them on their requirements for a new CRM tool, each gave feedback based on how it benefited them. I heard comments like “That’s something I’d never use” or “Is it possible to see other agent’s client lists in the event I wanted to reach out to them?” and “I don’t want anyone, and I mean anyone, to see my client contacts!” Luckily, the CEO agreed to give a bonus to the team as a whole upon successful completion of the project. It worked! But without that bonus, the invisible hand would have been in our faces pushing on us HARD.

What “Invisible Hand” impacts you and your team? Are there headwinds that push against you, slowing progress down? Or, a tailwind pushing you along, helping the team move faster and more efficiently? Be aware of the invisible hand that can impact you. They’re everywhere, so keep your eyes open!

Easy rides and accidents

Tips for Managing a Creative Team

“Well, that conversation didn’t go as planned!”

This is something I’ve said to myself a few times in my career when working with creative teams and team members (including very recently, working with a website & marketing team). Though I make it a point to customize my communication style to the person or audience, I openly admit I’ve fallen short in some categories, creatives being one of them. Someone once told me, “They’re a sensitive bunch!” That may be true, but they’re also dedicated to their work and I need to be aware of that.

There is an art to managing a creative team. So often, they put much of themselves into their projects and are proud of the results they deliver. There may be things at stake for them also. Below are some tips I have for working with creative teams and team members.

KEEP CALM AND Be Creative! | Keep calm, Keep calm signs, Calm

Beware of how you give feedback. This was a hard lesson learned for me. When giving creative team members feedback, be mindful of how much of themselves they’ve put into the project.

  • Start by being positive. Even if your internal dialogue is isn’t stellar, start by telling them something you like. Show your appreciation for what they’ve done thus far.
  • Constructive feedback. Once you’ve talked about positives, now tell them what you don’t like in a respectful manner. Avoid words like “hate, this is shit, WTF” and similar. You may be thinking it, but use softer language. Take me as an example. I said to the website & marketing team; “I have no idea what you’re trying get across here.” Instead, I should have said “I’m a bit confused with your direction. Can you tell me more?” Would’ve gone better.
  • End on a positive. Remind them they’re doing a great job and you appreciate their efforts. Be sure everyone agrees on next steps.

Have a creative brief. The first time I read one of these, I asked “What the hell is this again?” Not every creative project is blue-sky. Actually, it can be harmful because there can be too many possibilities. Instead, a project brief sets boundaries which the team can solution quickly. Think of it as a scope document for the creative team.

Allow time to come up with ideas or solve problems. I’m one that will ask my team members when something will get done, and sometimes challenge them if I feel there’s padding going on. I’ve found creative team members, when allowed time, will have amazing ideas. That doesn’t mean they need unlimited time, but don’t ask for something to be turned around in an hour.

10 MOST Creative Clocks To Help You Keep Perfect Time ⋆ THE ENDEARING  DESIGNER

Their normal business hours may not be the same as yours. From my experience, creative team members may not do their best work during normal business hours. A contract writer I once worked with told me up front he would never miss a deadline. But, don’t talk to him until at least 3:00 in the afternoon. We would usually talk about 4 or 5, he would commit to delivering something, and it would usually be in my inbox by 4 in the morning. Creatives will get their work done, but don’t expect them to do it during “normal” business hours.

Reasons To Consider Working The Night-Shift | Monster.ca

Tolerate risk-taking. Creative team members will push the boundaries and attempt things that may not always work out. As a project professional, I want to avoid failure as much as possible. But with a creative team and design thinking, allow for them to take calculated risks. It may not work out and that’s OK!

Admin work isn’t their thing. Things like recording time, status reports, and regularly scheduled meetings is not the best use of their time. Keep them focused on the tasks that add the most value and keep their interest. As the project manager, keep the admin work off their plate.

Mr. Yuk | Mr., Anger management, Are you the one
Mr. Yuk doesn’t like admin work either!

Evaluate the need to have them attend meetings. Micromanaging will drive away these team members away quick! Frequent meetings will also. Though stand-ups and recurring meetings are a norm we must all face, creatives will want to make sure their attendance is well worth their time (just like most of us). Evaluate which meetings they must attend, those that are optional, and those they can avoid.

Managing a creative team can be extremely rewarding, but can also be challenging, especially if you’ve never worked with one before. It’s an art. Remember, they pour a lot of themselves, from seeing the goal from a variety of angles, to putting in time to develop ideas, to creation, into their work.