We can be entrepreneurial and still get a paycheck…or that’s what they claim. “I’m an intrapreneur!” is the new rallying cry inside corporations.
While many business leaders are eager to embrace the wave of innovation and disrupt themselves, some manage to sabotage the same intrapreneurs that they cheerlead by setting them up for failure. Projects are poorly defined, with unclear goals and misaligned strategic priorities. Potential leaders are stuck on projects that will crash and burn, never be released, or worse…end up being mediocre.
Intrapreneurs may be trending, but we have it rough.
No matter how good we are, it’s easy to set us up for failure, because the most critical phase of a project happens before the team is even assembled. It’s the point at which we define the project.
Some projects are achievable, some are not. A few fall into the realm of B-movie horror shows we wish we weren’t starring in.
Here’s a list of the top ten monster projects that could kill a career along with a simple ranking system. We’ll start with a simple equation to help us understand the difficulty level of the project.
Intrapreneurial Difficulty Level
This component is easy to calculate. Just count the number of people and organizations feeding requirements into the project or who have veto power over some aspect of the operation, and that’s it. Remember, stakeholders can be both internal and external to the company, so the number of stakeholders is potentially infinite.
This scale goes from 1-10. 1 means the project is absolutely trivial, while 10 is highly complex, with many moving pieces that require someone with a 150 IQ, a 12-page spreadsheet, and a Gantt chart to even begin to understand it. The sheer size of the project also adds to its complexity.
Also a 1-10 scale. 10 means a crystal clear vision with actionable and achievable metrics. 1 means the project is completely baffling to everyone, including the person who proposed it. The clarity score includes having clear goals, objectives, success criteria, a clear path to success, and so forth.
With that equation in mind, here are the top ten monster projects and some key survival tips.
(Note: We’re often asked, “Who illustrates your blog?” The answer is that the whole team at Kromatic does a bit of sketching, but all the illustrations in this post are done by the fabulous Kate Rutter.)
10) The Zombie
The living dead project is the most common of the undead projects. It’s been released, and it’s failing. It doesn’t do a whole lot except moan, but it just won’t die without a little help. Sadly, it is the boss’ pet project.
There’s actually only one stakeholder: the boss. Their ego is the other stakeholder. Our only challenge is convincing them to let us shoot the zombie in the head.
Zombies are generally simple. They just moan and try to eat brains. As long as we don’t let them gang up on us, it’s all good.
The vision is clear, but the project is failing. Everyone except the boss knows that it has to die. It’s only occasionally that zombies manage to be a little sneaky and feign (true) death.
A shot in the head is the only thing that will solve our zombie problem. There is no way to bring it back to life. Don’t even try.
We just need to provide enough evidence to convince the HiPPO funding the project to put it out of its misery. Then we go Rick Grimes on it.
9) Schrödinger’s Cat
Never heard of it? Don’t worry, Schrödinger probably never heard of you.
Same thing here. The state of the project is completely entangled and seems to be both alive and dead at the same time.
It’s unclear if it’s going to get funding or be cancelled. It has support from key stakeholders one moment, then the next moment it doesn’t. The project seems to change state on a meeting-by-meeting basis. Sometimes it’s not even clear to the team if they are actually on the team.
The main problem here is that there are simply too many stakeholders and no one can make a decision if the project is going forward or not. Or maybe someone did…it’s just that no one was there to observe the decision.
It’s not that complicated. It’s mostly just a cat in a box. Are we opening the box or not?!
Success or failure are very clear. Either the cat lives or the cat dies. The project is well-defined and goals are set, but not one of the 40 stakeholders seems to be able to take the next step and fund the project.
Insist on a clear decision on funding and goals for the project. Also insist that this funding is protected from future shenanigans.
Outside of that, we could just ignore it. This probably won’t irrevocably damage our career although it may affect our bonus. Besides, the cat will eventually run out of air and the decision will be made.*
*No cats were harmed in the writing of this section.
8) The Blob
This amorphous project is of indeterminate size and shape and could encompass everything or nothing. We’re not entirely sure what’s being asked of us but it has something to do with “going digital.” We’ve also been told to “increase brand equity,” which seems to be code for, “don’t screw this up.”
The project is general enough that everyone thinks they are a stakeholder, and even we might think everyone is a stakeholder. It is also vague enough that those who don’t want to do any work can just decide not to get involved, even if they are critical for the project. So we only have 5 stakeholders that will admit to it for certain.
Meanwhile, we’re just waiting for critical feedback while the board is asking for status updates.
Actually not that complex. Really just a single cell organism gone awry.
Forget stakeholders and complexity, the lack of clarity overrides all other factors.
There is really only one option here. We must define the project ourselves and then get buy-in from stakeholders.
Since the project is so ambiguous, it could really be anything. So as long as we come up with something brilliant and don’t take credit for the idea, our business sponsor will be glad to proclaim, “That’s exactly what I meant!”
But we can’t start working on this project without defining it clearly. Otherwise, the Blob will absorb us and our career!
7) The Fog
We have to do this project. It absolutely must be done! Buy why are we doing this?
No one seems to know the answer, but the project is very important for “strategic reasons.” Several intrapreneurs have already wandered into the Fog, never to be seen again.
While it may seem similar to the Blob, this project is incredibly specific and requires precise requirements. It’s just that the reasons for those requirements are shrouded in mystery and often involve external partners or people from corporate development who can’t tell us exactly what we’re building or why, but they are absolutely certain we’re building it wrong. Even the success criteria for the project are shrouded in mystery.
There aren’t too many stakeholders, but they seem quite involved.
While not intensely complex, there are enough details that it requires a considerable amount of focus to keep things on track.
While the requirements are clear, the reasons for them are not, and success may depend on things we simply don’t know about. We’re being completely blocked by an opaque corporate silo. Is this a vanity project? Is it for a critical partnership with Apple? We just don’t know.
We need to get to the why. Without an understanding of the vision of the project, we’re not really in control. Our options are to take charge and define the vision ourselves, flee, or become a diplomat.
If we define the vision ourselves, there is a risk we may be completely wrong. Fleeing may not be an option.
The best alternative here is to become a skilled diplomat and break through the corporate silos to figure out what is actually going on. The more information we can uncover about the objectives, the better our chance of surviving this project.
6) The Shapeshifter
This project changes form every time it comes into contact with human beings. Every meeting results in moving goalposts, changing visions, and revising success criteria. We thought we had it nailed last week, but after that progress review meeting we are more confused than ever.
The number of stakeholders is not the problem here. The problem is the fact that these stakeholders change their minds every week!
The project itself could be only marginally complex. But with ever-changing goals, managing and prioritizing is nearly impossible.
We don’t know if we’re coming or going. We thought we had clear goals and now we don’t. We also know that next week we’ll surely get new goals. It’s not quite as bad as The Fog, but it’s still pretty confusing.
Cancel all the meetings! No more contact with humans for this project. Having good air support from a single corporate sponsor who sticks to their decision is key.
Alternatively, we can work with our stakeholders to get clear goals and a commitment that the goals won’t change next week. We should also agree that all meetings should be about reviewing progress against the goals and not reviewing the goals themselves.
5) Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
The split personality of this project is the result of stakeholders with opposing interests. It could be a simple project, but it overlaps various business units, and the leaders of those units have opposing goals for the project. And so everyone wants their say, wants to take credit, or wants to kill it. The constant battle between the main personalities threatens both the project and our sanity.
Although we have many stakeholders, the number itself is manageable. If only we could get them to agree.
The project itself could be simple; the complexity results from political tensions, mixed messages, and opposing interests.
It is clear what each stakeholder wants, but it is not clear how we will complete the project in a way that makes them all happy. Taken together, the goals are contradictory at best.
Find someone we don’t like and convince them to take over the project. Alternatively, accept that we cannot satisfy each stakeholder and again try and find one single sponsor to provide air support. Work with a leader that can pull rank to decide which stakeholder has final say on the project.
Oh and get that in writing, just in case.
4) Frankenstein’s Monster
A terrifying project of mixed up feature requests that might be beautiful to someone, but customers seem ready to pull out the torches and pitchforks.
More often than not, the problem here is too many stakeholders, each asking for slightly different things, with no one agreeing on who this project is actually for. Every feature is built just right for some specific target audience, and because of that, no one really wants it.
Every stakeholder is excited. They are most excited about the part of the project that was “their idea.” They think that is the most important part that saved the whole thing!
So so many stakeholders. So many vested interests. Every salesperson has a giant client with special features that must be fulfilled this quarter. And apparently our job is to keep them all satisfied.
So so many feature requests. Each one as important as the last one. This complexity is making the project ugly, but every stakeholder is calling it a beauty!
Sure there is clarity. It is clear what everyone wants, and it’s a lot of stuff. It is also clear that everyone is crazy.
Run screaming. Alternatively, get a high-ranking stakeholder to become the “decider” to provide air support to shield us from some of the stakeholders and define a customer segment to focus on.
3) The Mummy
At some point this project got wound up in so much red tape that by the time the bureaucracy is unraveled a few thousand years will have passed. Regulatory compliance is critical, and the biggest risk is the risk of being sued.
The number of stakeholders is large due to the number of actors we have to deal with within the various regulatory agencies. Compliance and/or procurement is one of our stakeholders, and those are real tough customers with almost no flexibility!
The red tape is so complex that as soon as we think we have started unwinding it, we get tangled up again. In order to comply, we may need to add features that are completely unnecessary from a customer perspective, or we may be forced to slow down our development. Every change might require a new review and approval process!
It’s a solvable problem, but this is one monster we can’t slay on our own. Somewhere in this organization, we need to find a Brendan Fraser to help us!
We have to make the regulators our partner or find a way to hack the system. We must work with legal and compliance to define a sandbox where pushing the boundaries and running tests won’t damage the core brand or open up the parent company to an unacceptable level of risk via litigation.
2) The Vampire
A project that will never be released, refuses to see the light of day, and will suck the life out of our career. The most powerful of the undead because it’s hard to get evidence to shut the project down if feature creep prevents it from ever being released.
These projects are typically powered by an unholy bargain with a single senior stakeholder who protects the project at all costs and simply can’t look in the mirror and see that there’s nothing there. They also have the unnerving ability to convert other intrapreneurs into devotees of the grand vision.
Stakeholders: 1 + 50
Just one, but it’s a very, very powerful stakeholder with a lot of minions devoted to their vision.
While they seem simple, they are deceptively elaborate. Just when we think we have a grasp on them, the business model throws another twist and another dependency. These projects are hard to kill precisely because there is always some excuse for why a little more development is needed, e.g., “It’s a four-sided market and we can’t release until we have minimum features sets for all sides.”
The vision is clear; it’s just that it’s never-ending and always one step beyond our reach.
Many projects suffer from too little air support, but here it’s too much. We need to drive a stakeholder through its heart!
Finance can be a key ally here because they hate projects that bust the budget with no ROI in sight. Proposing some simple tests to get a minimal project out the door within budget will solve the problem by letting sunlight do its work. And sunlight is the best disinfectant for bad ideas!
Too big. Too complex. Devastating to anyone standing within 100 miles. It’s Godzilla, but made of metal. There’s a good chance of being stepped on just by being in the wrong spot.
On the plus side, it’s not deliberately out to get us. On the down side, very, very, very hard to kill. But an intrapreneur who can find a weak spot will be a true hero.
Big, nasty, and a lot of people are concerned about the impact of this project. Everyone is pouring resources in, and everyone has an opinion.
The most complex of all projects. It’s just too many moving pieces of technology that are a little bit beyond everyone’s grasp.
Almost too clear. We can see it from 100 miles away!
Two choices: Kill or simplify.
To kill, we need to find its weak spot. Is there a customer who has been stepped on and hurt by this monster? Can we surface this story to our stakeholders?
Lean startup tactics can be invaluable to an intrapreneur here. To simplify, we need to have frank conversations with our stakeholders about which elements of the project can be dropped for now. But whatever we do, do not allow that monster to go rampaging in front of (or on top of) customers.
There are too many monsters out there for us to capture here alone. So we’ll leave it at ten.
In a future article, we’ll write about how to define projects so they don’t become monsters. But if you’re a business sponsor currently setting up a project, just remember the equation:
Don’t set the team up for failure!
Keep the stakeholders to a minimum, keep it simple, and clearly define the vision.Have you seen one of these projects? Or recently seen a project, good or horrible, that we missed? Make a suggestion in the comments below and maybe we’ll put it in the Monster Manual.