“We’re smart people, we kick off a lot of ideas.” This was a quote from a participant in the Cascading Strategy workshop we delivered last week. We were in the midst of a discussion about clearing out some low value work to make room for the new strategic priorities when this SVP admitted that he inadvertently generates a significant amount of work for his team; work he doesn’t even know is happening.

His point was that leaders often bat around unformed ideas in public forums without realizing that well-intentioned, eager team members often pick up those ideas and start building elaborate make work projects around them. Without knowing it, they trigger data collection, analysis, proofs of concepts, business cases and who knows what else.

The SVP went on to say that what starts as a lone crusader trying to please him soon snowballs as he or she enlists others by playing the trump card: “Bob says….” Everyone at the table agreed that evoking the leaders’ name immediately overrides existing priorities and sends the team into a flurry of activity.

The irony of this is that Bob didn’t intend to start a project; he just innocently mentioned an idea in a meeting. He said he’s often mortified to learn that: a) energy is being invested in something that was only a musing; and b) attention and resources are being diverted away from his actual priorities. Bob said that the most infuriating thing is that he is often intentionally kept out of the loop, even though he asks to be copied on these types of things. I can only guess that someone is trying to wow him with a big surprise reveal?!?

Don’t let the top of your head ideas become top of the pile priorities. Try the following:

  • At the outset of a brainstorming conversation, make it clear that you invite lots of ideas, but that it will take more investigation before you decide which to act upon. “I’m going to throw out ideas today that are just that—ideas. We’ll take a few minutes at the end to decide on next steps. Unless you hear otherwise, assume that no action is required.”
  • Close the discussion with the action steps, including what is not ready for action. “We discussed a lot of good ideas today. Please don’t invest any time in them at the moment. We’ll revisit and prioritize at our next meeting.”
  • End team discussions with a recommitment to your existing priorities. “Many of the ideas we talked about today will be important to our future strategy. For now, nothing changes. Our biggest priority for the next quarter is increasing cross-sell.”
  • Use your casual conversations with the team to understand what people are working on. Redirect misguided work when you uncover it. “I’d like you to put that work on hold for the moment. We aren’t ready to move on that. Your priority right now should be getting the cross-sell training rolled out.”
  • Ask people to check with you when someone plays the “Bob said” trump card. “I’d like to establish a general rule in this group. If I have something important that I want you to do, you’ll hear it directly from me; either in a town hall or an email. If you get instructions that you think contradict the priorities you’ve heard from me, check in with me. It’s essential that we keep focused on our priorities and avoid the trap of starting up side projects.”
  • Occasionally, audit the projects that are going on. If your direct reports have teams, ask them to do the same. Look for work that is detracting from your priorities. “Let’s do a bit of spring cleaning on our workload. Please come to the next meeting prepared to discuss all work that’s going on that isn’t related directly to our cross-sell initiative.”
  • Don’t reward the extra work when it happens. If you celebrate the outputs of make work projects, you’re only going to get more off script behavior. Instead, decline or delay the presentation or deliver a strong message that it was not what they should have been working on. Be sure to deliver these messages to your direct reports and not to discourage the team below if they were just following orders. “I know you would like to present some work on a new product idea to me. It’s not our priority right now. I’d like you to focus on cross-sell and we can come back to the new product ideas in Q3.”


Smart people, particularly smart leaders who think out loud, kick off a lot of ideas. Making sure that those ideas don’t start a flurry of low value work is really important. Send clear and direct messages about your priorities to reduce the likelihood that your team starts chasing shiny objects.

Further Reading

Dead wood or dead work?

How to say no to a good idea

Killing your busy culture

2 Responses to Make work projects

  1. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of April 18 – 24 - The Practicing IT Project Manager

  2. Pingback: Dead wood or dead work? | 3coze

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *