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Stealth Projects – Why Should We Care?

Stealth ProjectsA stealth project is an initiative that was never formally sanctioned or approved. This is not a value judgment – many stealth projects are able to deliver worthwhile business outcomes, but at what cost?

Stealth projects have been portrayed as being one of the Four Horseman of the Project Portfolio Management Apocalypse. So why do they survive (and even thrive!) in many organizations?

A stealth project usually emerges when a customer knows that their request will not be addressed in a timely fashion and leverages their position, influence or relationships within the organization to get the work done.

Likely causes for this perception are:

  • The customer may feel that the request will not be perceived by the governance committee or decision makers as being as worthwhile or as urgent as other requests that are more likely to be approved
  • The customer may feel that the work intake process (the method by which requests are submitted, evaluated and either approved or rejected) is too onerous

Another possibility is that the customer may simply not know any better. They may have been used to going to their “favorite” resource in the past to get things done, and even if a work intake process has been implemented they may be unaware of it or be purposely ignoring it. We tend to repeat past behaviors that resulted in desired results where there were no negative consequences. If there were no repercussions in the past for not following proper work intake practices, this behavior will persist.

So why should we care about stealth projects?

  • They consume human and financial resources that should have been utilized on officially approved and prioritized initiatives. No organization today has the luxury of infinite resource capacity, so there is always an opportunity cost incurred by turning a blind eye to stealth projects.
  • They may not be executed following all required compliance policies and practices. When a project is initiated as a stealth project, it is a reasonable assumption that quality or regulatory assurance practices might have been missed. The result could be that the deliverables from the project incur a heavier operational support or regulatory compliance burden than those of properly sanctioned and managed projects.

How can we identify stealth projects? Organizations that have successfully implemented time capture systems have an advantage, but it could also be as simple as managers knowing what their teams are working on, and for the management team as a whole to be committed to identifying and exposing stealth projects.

The outcome should not solely be punishment of the originators of these projects. In many cases, the customer may be unaware of the proper work intake process or may be highlighting a scalability or flexibility issue with the process.

To weed out stealth projects, a well communicated, flexible and scalable work intake process coupled with management commitment to the process is essential. However, this needs to be balanced against fostering a culture that encourages the brainstorming and submission of creative, innovative ideas.

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