The project saboteur… and how to kill him!

June 12, 2017

Isn’t it amazing: people have the inclination to adjust the truth to suit themselves and thus serve their own interests: More Power, More Income, More Respect. But! How often is this recognised? How often is this used to explain why e.g. projects so seldom succeed?


Yes: based on one’s own interest, matters are portrayed in a different light. Reports are slightly twisted, data is being manipulated. A hard statement? Not really: just look at the recent Panama Papers.

All of this is done with the express aim of influencing decision-making.

This is often denied or hidden. Good projects intentionally gone bad is a reality in every business. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s just a matter of time. Remember: not even one third of the projects executed is successful! An extremely low figure. The reason why cannot be just a technical aspect.

Until now, little attention has been paid to the art of undermining and manipulating projects. Yet annually many millions of pounds, euros and dollars are squandered due to project sabotage. If more attention is given to the motivation and methods of project saboteurs, it could be combatted. This leads to large savings and better project results.

How does it work?

Start by recognising that each project has its opponents. Everybody probably knows them – people who, for one reason or another, have a self-interest in having a project fail.

Why would anybody want to undermine a project?
Some project saboteurs are convinced that the project is bad for the company and they will do anything to protect the company from making a mistake. Others believe that if the project fails, employment will be protected.

And there are other, less noble motives: the failure of a project offers the saboteur the chance of improving his position or of encouraging people to move on to other things: generally by beating a hasty retreat by the back door.

The dominant motive is survival; a budding saboteur comes to the conclusion that the project could result in him losing his job. And he’s not going to let that happen. He has to put up some resistance, otherwise who will pay for his car, his mortgage and his children’s education? He, so obviously indispensable, is in danger of becoming superfluous. It is what B. Brecht wrote in a song in the Dreigroschenoper: “The food is primary to morality”.

motivationIt will be clear that the project saboteur has purely human motives for committing his deed. I need only refer to Maslow and his behavioural pyramid.

Motivation, however, is not enough for bringing about the failure of a project; there must also be opportunities. The saboteur must have formal or informal influence. Or both. Formal influence is something you derive from your position. Informal influence is derived from your knowledge or social position.

If, for example, the saboteur is the manager of the department for which the project result is intended, then there is a good chance that he is the person responsible for accepting the result. This is an ideal position from which to frustrate both the demands placed on the project result and the acceptance of it. If the saboteur is an expert or a specialist, he not only has possibilities for questioning the proposed solutions but also for combating the actual need for the project. If, as a result of his knowledge as a specialist, he ends up in the project team, his possibilities are virtually endless.

Even if his influence is not based on knowledge or hierarchy, the saboteur can still bring about the downfall of a project. To do this, he needs an informal access to the formal project network. He must be able to influence the formal process. He can acquire this position by cozying up to the real players in the process, creating bonds of trust and friendship. After all, friends do not doubt each other’s motives and always take each other seriously.

A project

In essence, a project is extremely simple, and so, too, is its destruction. Many trainers and organisations that supply expensive project managers are not likely to agree with this. In project management training, people succeed in portraying projects as exceptionally complex, when in fact they are really fairly simple. There is a director, who states that a certain result (a change or a product) is necessary. Then there is a project manager, who brings the assignment to a successful conclusion within the time and budget allocated. He draws up a plan for this and hires specialists. The project manager asks the users what they would like to have and whether they can work with the result. Now and again, he reports the progress of the project to the director. The agreed result is delivered and accepted by the director. And that’s it.

In his efforts to undermine the project, the professional project saboteur makes use of the very elements that the project manager should use to keep it under control: assignment, plan, reporting and result.

The project saboteur has it a lot easier than the project manager; the saboteur knows the project manager, but the project manager does not know who the saboteur is. The project manager must report and communicate verifiable facts; the project saboteur need only insinuate suspicions.

What to do? Kill the saboteur?

You  might have the idea now that sabotage is everywhere and nothing can be done about it. The first is true, but the second isn’t. You can certainly do something about this. Start by being aware of this phenomenon called project sabotage. It is there, believe me. The world does not consist of 100% reliable and trustworthy people. Some have a huge personal interest that makes them act contrary to the interest of the project, rather than acting according to the general interest. There are not many projects that do not suffer from sabotage activities.

Let us have a closer look at the project manager as a potential saboteur, just as an example how to act.

Will his department be reduced by 20%, because of a new IT system? Or will he be rewarded with a new job if he finishes in time? Two very different incitements, with two different outcomes: in the first case the project manager is not in a hurry. In the second he will do what he can to deliver in time.

By answering these question the intrinsic motivation will become apparent. These questions have to be followed by:  if he loses his job, could he easily be employed elsewhere? And if not, are there any personal consequences like having to sell his house because of the mortgage?

How is the project manager considered, as an accepted specialist and well trusted or as a ship passing by in the night?

The second step is all about the behavior: look at the facts and, very important, look if there is a pattern hiding in the facts. Do new problems pop up all the time, without the old ones being solved? Does the manager consider the procedure to be more important than the result? Does he prefer formal meetings and decisions above informal decision making? Well, if this is the case and you see a pattern (it happens regularly) you’d better beware and take appropriate measures.

Let’s see what measures can be taken. As for every stakeholder it could be quite helpful to align personal and project interest of the project manager. So, if the project manager finishes in time delivering the right result there must be reward waiting  That will influence his attitude towards the project.

There are several types of rewards one can think of for the project manager. E.g.:

  • Early retirement without salary drop;
  • Higher salary scale
  • Expensive training to boost his career
  • Promotion

If a reward is not an option the only way out is replacing the project manager by a project manager that does not have an interest in project failure. This might be an externally hired project manager.

But then watch out for another incentive: if the project manager  is hired from a consultancy firm, he might get a bonus from his firm if more external staff is hired on the project.

Sometimes you are not in the position to implement the counter measures yourself; in that case you have to involve the right decision maker.

Be aware: this decision maker might be the real saboteur!

So, it is about time to look into the real reason of project failure. Leave the obvious reasons (too little budget, not enough resources) behind and go for the human interest. It will bring about new insights and bright success.

Dion Kotteman, strategy advisor, former CIO of the Dutch Government. And author of: “The Project Saboteur……. And how to kill him! “

The Project Saboteur is published in ebook and paperback by Claret Press on 7th April 2016. ISBN 978 1 910461 13 6 

RRP £12.99 paperback. Available at all good bookshops and online booksellers

YesThis book provides deep insight from the perspective of the project saboteur and offers the tools necessary to manipulate a project successfully and professionally. In a humorous way it shows how you can manipulate the truth and what influence such manipulation can have on the course of the project. Understand the tricks!

The book also tells you how to counter all this. Many real life cases are described. In this way you are able to recognise and also combat the insidious conspirators successfully! You will learn about some methods. Beat the saboteurs  at their own game. The saboteur won’t win. Instead, you do.

Every project has opponents who try to manipulate it for their gain. And the good news is: you can beat them.

The book was a bestseller in The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.


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