Why failure informs success

The Project Saboteur...and How to Kill Him is a light-hearted read on people who ruin things at work - but some deeper insights would have been welcome.

by Adrian Furnham
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

I read this book at a single sitting in an airport lounge. It is an amusing read. It is funny and wise with good cartoons and an easy style. It is about office politics in the project management world, written by two people who have 'been there and done that'.

The idea is that failure informs success: that you can learn a great deal from those who sabotage projects compared to those who lead successful projects. It moves between cynicism, scepticism and parody. The aim, I believe, is to show how studying the behaviour of various saboteurs in the business might help those who want to lead a successful project.

It is a short book (148 pages) with 10 chapters looking at the sabotaging director, project manager, user, specialist etc. Most chapters have tips for what to do to sabotage a project. But many of these are bland and very general: 'start meetings before anyone is present'; 'make sure the plan lacks any sort of cohesion'; 'select project members of an indifferent level'; 'do not involve all interested parties in the project'; 'never understand the designers and the specialists'; 'make excessive demands'; 'be incomplete' and 'create vagueness in the organisation'.

These are obvious and illustrate the weakness of the book, which is partly repetitive. I kept thinking it would be better as a focused HBS or MT article. At times it seemed padded out without a clear structure. But then every so often I would have a wry smile as I thought about the personal experiences of the many saboteurs I have personally come across.

The authors seemed not to distinguish between incompetent vs evil project managers. I was also surprised by the relative absence of tables, flow diagrams and the like, so popular with project managers. Further, I wanted a deeper analysis of the pathology and psychology of these saboteurs... but then I suppose I would.

I kept being reminded of another much better book, called Why Things Go Wrong by Laurence Peter, the Canadian academic behind the famous Peter Principle: 'In any hierarchy, individuals tend to rise to their levels of incompetence'. In Why Things Go Wrong, Peter spelt out a number of corollaries to the concept. They are so much funnier than those in The Project Saboteur. Taste these:

• The cream rises until it is sour.

• For every job in the world there is someone, somewhere, who can't do it. Given enough promotions, that someone will get the job.

• All useful work is done by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

 Once an employee achieves a level of incompetence, inertia sets in and the employer settles for incompetence rather than look for a replacement.

 Lust gets us into trouble more than sloth.

 There is a tendency for the person in the most powerful hierarchical position to spend all his or her time performing trivial tasks.

 It's harder to get a job than keep it.

 Equal opportunity means everyone will have a few chances at becoming incompetent.

• The higher one climbs the hierarchical ladder the shakier it gets.

• Climb the ladder of success, reach the top, and you'll find you're over the hill.

• In a hierarchy, the potential for a competent subordinate to manage an incompetent supervisor is greater than for an incompetent superior to manage a competent subordinate.

 More competent individuals resign than incompetents get fired.

Peter also set out a number of wickedly funny and often politically incorrect principles related to his general theme. Thus he noted:

The Competence Principle The way to avoid mistakes is to gain experience. The way to gain experience is to make mistakes.

The Sexist Principle Most hierarchies were established by men who monopolised the upper-levels, thus depriving women of their rightful share of opportunities to achieve their own levels of incompetence.

The Levitation Principle When the foundation of a pyramid erodes, the top can still be supported on nothing but money.

There used to be hundreds of books on unhappiness (anxiety, depression etc) and just a handful on happiness. Equally, of the literally tens of thousands of books on how to be a successful leader there is a paucity on why leaders fail. This book may then find its place on the project management shelf next to all those weighty tomes that explain how logical, rational and competent project managers are. A shot of reality in an otherwise rather innocent world.

The Project Saboteur...and How to Kill Him by Jeroen Gietema & Dion Kotteman, Claret Press, £12.99

Adrian Furnham is a professor of psychology at University College London

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