Adrian Pyne on episode 32 of The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire

“How do I avoid killing my own project?” Find out in this episode of Appfire Presents: The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire.

Adrian Pyne joins Appfire’s Kerry O’Shea Gorgone to offer advice for keeping your projects alive. He also flips that idea on its head and shares tips for killing projects that take resources away from more strategic initiatives.

About the guest

A project professional for more than 30 years, Adrian Pyne has led change in 11 industries and in the public sector, in the UK and abroad. Adrian is the author of Agile Beyond IT: How to develop agility in project management in any sector.

About the show

The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire covers everything you ever wanted to know about PPM by talking with project management experts who’ve seen it all. And every episode is 10 minutes or less, so you can get back to changing the world, one project at a time.


For your convenience, here is the transcript of this episode:

How do I avoid killing my own project?

Kerry:  Today we’re going to address the question how do I avoid killing my own projects. To help us is Adrian Pyne. He has been a project professional for more than 30 years and he is the author of the book Agile Beyond IT: How to Develop Agility in Project Management in Any Sector. Stick around to find out how to avoid killing your own projects.

Adrian, thanks for joining us. I feel like, first of all, do you ever want to kill your own project and can’t? It must be a mix of things.

Adrian:  It most certainly is. There is a real irony built in here. You get projects which are totally viable when you start them, and then something comes along and you say, “Actually, this is no longer what we should be doing.” The business rationale is no longer there, or the customer doesn’t want it anymore, and it’s really quite difficult sometimes to actually kill the project. 

The process might not easily be there. You try to give some money back to finance, and weirdly finance people say, “We’ve allocated the money to your project. What do you mean to say you don’t want it anymore?” It can be really hard to actually kill a project that should be killed deliberately. 

Yet, on the other side of the coin, organizations kill projects by accident all of the time. This is a massive generalization, but mostly organizations are, unless they’re professional services that are project based organizations, which most organizations aren’t project based, their business as usual is the same kind of business process going on day after day, week after week, ad infinitum, and that’s fine. 

Then along comes someone that says, “We have a project.” Maybe a change project of some description. You have to try to shoehorn that in somehow. Very often, you have to have a sponsor for them, for example, who is usually a very busy senior manager who has a day job they’re spending 70 hours a week on and 120% of their time, and then they’re told they have a responsibility for this change project. They say, “How am I supposed to engage with that?” 

Then there’s resources. Very often change projects need subject matter experts from the business. The ones needed are usually the best people from the operation. I’ve been an operational manager myself at times. When someone comes along and says to me, “I’d like to take two of your best people away from you for six months,” of course I’m sitting there thinking, “I’ve lost my best people, the team’s productivity is going to go down. I’m not going to get my bonus, my team is not going to get their bonus. In what way does this project benefit me and mine?” Surprise, surprise, line managers do everything they can not to give the resources that otherwise have been promised.

There’s all sorts of things like that.

Kerry:  Setting yourself up to fail.

Adrian:  Of course. Absolutely. There’s things like internal governance processes. I’ve come across so many organizations where the internal financial governance says everyone has an annual budget building process and you have to put in your bid for how much money you want to run your department next year. That’s great. But what about a project? 

A project, or especially programs, might be two, three, four years long. I’ve seen organizations where programs have had to fully redo business cases every single year instead of saying business case is just the same, you have already allocated me funds for the lifetime of the program, and we are managing against that, and I have to spend two months as a program manager rebuilding the business case with everyone else that is involved. That’s madness. It’s not rare, even now. 

Just all those little ways add up to actually make it really difficult for projects to thrive. When we’ve all got over the horrors of COVID, but it often seems to me that projects are like a virus in the body of an organization, and the body has all these antibodies that it says you’re not going to have resources, you’re not going to have a sponsor who is engaged, we’re going to make you jump through hoops that you don’t need to jump through as a project every year, and loads of other antibodies that all gang up on this poor little defenseless project and just kill it off. That’s actually what happens. 

Kerry:  Like Agent Smith in The Matrix.

Adrian:  You absolutely got it. I guess I’ll steal your thunder here. We’re going to go, “What do we do about that?” To me, it comes back to this idea that projects succeed or fail because of what happens both inside the project and what is happening in the organizational hinterland around them. If you have an organizational hinterland which is not supportive of project type working… I mean, how many project professionals looking at this fantastic podcast have to battle every day with the organization in some way, shape, or form to keep their projects running and just keep them alive? 

I don’t see the same thing happening on a production line, with just in time, assuming the supply chain is working properly. Then everything happens. You have to manage it for performance and throughput and teams, and all the other stuff, but basically the operation is set up to operate. With projects, the operation is set up to stop them operating. Therefore, what organizations need to do is to adapt themselves to being supportive of project ways of working and how they resource them, how they govern them, how they lead them, etcetera.

Kerry:  What about pet projects that you really wish would go away? Like somebody wants you to make 100 copies of their DVD that aired on public television 15 years ago, and you can’t see what it has to do with anything you should be working on.

Adrian:  Some years ago, one of my stints working in central government in the UK, I was asked to set up what was then called the Center of Excellence in a very big government department for building a really good professional project management capability, including portfolio management. That of course included managing the massive multi-billion-pound change budget. The board were strongly behind this, they were great sponsors for rolling this out. 

Everything was all tickety-boo until about three months into a financial year when I was at a board meeting and I was presenting back on progress of the portfolio, when one of the board members piped up and said, “I’ve got this project that I want us to do.” I kind of went, “Yeah? That’s fine. What is it that we’re going to drop from the portfolio in order to fund your project, and how do we justify that?” 

They said, “Oh no, we’re just going to do it.” No. This is your budget. You’ve decided what it’s going to be spent on. We have a cake of a certain size. What are you going to have delay or fall out to do your project? Then it kind of came home to them what this all meant, and the pet project disappeared.

Kerry:  I love it. I’m going to keep that one in my back pocket. Not that it happens a lot these days because I work for a fantastic organization, but in the past I have experienced it. Adrian, thank you for joining us. Everyone, if you would like to get a copy of Adrian’s book, it’s Agile Beyond IT by Adrian Pyne. If you’d like more episodes of The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire, you can find them at Hub.Appfire.com. We’ll see you next time.

Last updated: 2022-08-04

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