People working in government, whether in project delivery, policy formulation or deep in operations, know that, occasionally, a bright light will be shone on whatever they’re doing. They fervently hope that this is the beam of a lighthouse, knowing that, if they’re right, it will quickly move on and allow them to get on with their work without distraction.
The lighthouse can range from a routine update to the programme board, to a Minister seeking a briefing all the way up to a multi-day review by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. Such attention distracts key people in the project team and little is done except for that immediate task for a day or a week … but then work settles back to normal and progress continues to be made.
The trouble with government projects, particularly, is that everyone working on every other project is hoping that the light is shining on your project, and not theirs. Because with every project, there’s a definitively non-zero (and often much higher) chance that it really isn’t a lighthouse. It is, instead, the Eye of Sauron (in its Peter Jackson incarnation), firmly locked onto your location and determined to see deep into your soul and seemingly never move on.
Projects that are in trouble get into a loop. More scrutiny. More reports. More status updates. More approvals. More checks. More reviews. More drives more. Soon, the only thing being done is looking more closely at what might be done, how it might be done or who might do it and when, not actually doing any of it. Late projects get later. Projects losing scope lose even more scope. Over-spends become extraordinary over-spends.
And then a failed project spawns other failed projects. There is little to no consequence, individually or collectively, for failure so people on one failed project move on to the next. And because lessons are written down but never learned, nothing changes, and the next one fails again. This is one reason why government, today, is full of discovery and alpha stages – if you never commit to a scope or date, you can’t be on the hook for anything.
The Eye of Sauron is, as you’d expect, a sign of impending doom. But not always. Some projects carry on – once a rock is rolling down a hill, you’d be a fool to jump in its way. The sunk cost fallacy is, for some, not a fallacy at all, but an explanation for why more needs to be spent. If we just spend some more we can fix it; we can’t afford to waste everything we’ve spent so far – think of the increased scrutiny if we say it was all for nothing? Think of the write-off! The PAC! The NAO! It’s perverse logic but it’s intrinsic.
And then, of course, there are those projects that somehow slip away from Sauron; they somehow endure its gaze, slipping through the shadows. Some projects have more than nine lives. Zombie projects, wandering the corridors of non-delivery seemingly forever.