advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Should I pull the plug on an employee’s pet project?

I’m an engineer and mid-level manager, and right now I’m dealing with a junior engineer who refuses to give up on his pet project. I admit it seemed like a great idea at first; I supported him 100% when he pitched it to me. But it’s been months now, and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to pay off. His time would be much better spent helping out on all the other work that needs to be done around here, in my opinion – and so far as I can tell, his colleagues agree. Trouble is, I just can’t convince him it’s time to pull the plug. How should I handle this..? – Name withheld       

As a manager, you’re in a tricky situation here.

On the one hand, you should absolutely be 100% supportive of all your employees’ efforts, to the extent that’s possible. This is, after all, the essence of great managing. Yet on the other, organizational priorities come first. Ensuring those you manage stay focused on achieving agreed-upon organizational goals is your responsibility too.

You do have a couple of things going for you. Having been initially supportive of his idea should give you some credibility. He’ll be less apt to think you never believed in him in the first place, or are terminating his project for political reasons. You mentioned too that his colleagues appear to be on your side. This is especially important, as I’ll explain in a moment.

But first, let’s look at why he may be so reluctant to move on.

There is of course the possibility he still genuinely believes things will work out as planned, or hoped, despite all the evidence amassing to the contrary. It’s difficult for any of us to admit when we are wrong, especially if we’ve a lot invested in something already. That time and effort is likely to feel wasted if things don’t pan out.

But allowing our decision-making to be affected by this feeling would be a mistake. Economists refer to this as succumbing to the fallacy of sunk costs – erroneously believing that past investment justifies future expenditures. Also characterized as “throwing good money after bad,” it explains why some people stay at the roulette table long after they’re deep in the hole, or hang on to a tanking stock when they should instead cut their losses and sell.[1]

Another contributing factor could be the mechanics of the organization itself. At many if not most businesses, promotions are awarded to those who have distinguished themselves from their colleagues in some way – like successfully executing on an idea that they themselves have conceived. If this junior engineer is at all ambitious (a good thing, by the way, and should be encouraged), he may see his project as his best chance to get ahead. The alternative—thanklessly slaving away on someone else’s brainchild—is, in a professional sense, far less likely to get you noticed.

But back to your sense that his coworkers agree with you.

If “good management” is fundamentally about supporting your employees, a distinction needs to be made between support for a particular individual, and taking action which supports the position of your employees collectively.

In this situation, since everyone except the engineer in question feels it’s time to move on, this is what you should do. Though this will come at the expense—and disappoint—of the one, it is consistent with the will of the many. This makes it good management. (It also makes it more likely to produce an optimal organizational result.[2])

There’s even some power to be gained by acknowledging this when you break the news to him, in my opinion. Here’s some words you might try:

You know, I had high hopes for this project too. But given its lack of progress, and the fact that your colleagues also feel it’s time to set it aside and move on, I’m having trouble justifying any further effort on it. I hope you understand.

By taking this approach, you’ll also be moving towards what management theorists refer to as peer control. This, the evidence suggests, is a more effective way to corral workers than traditional, hierarchical supervision. As business theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer explains:

“People frequently do what they feel is right or fair and will often expend considerable effort not to let their colleagues down.”[3]

It’s never easy telling someone something they don’t want to hear. You’ll want to be especially careful in this instance too, given this employee seems so motivated and eager to prove himself.

One thing you might do to soften the blow is offer to look the other way should he continue to pursue his project on his own time – provided, of course, he attends to his other responsibilities first (and provided your organization can spare whatever resources he may need).

Indeed, some companies have used this strategy to great effect. At 3M, for example, technical staff can spend up to 15% of their time on projects of their own choosing – a policy that perhaps most famously led to their blockbuster product: the Post-it note.[4]

But even if you’re not rewarded with anything nearly so lucrative, giving workers at least some measure of autonomy over their schedule and/or priorities is an excellent way to keep them motivated, and engaged in their work. That, in turn, will make them more productive – and ultimately ensure your organization remains competitive.

Good luck, and let me know how things turn out.

 

NOTES:

[1] “Sunk cost” Wikipedia entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunk_cost). Retrieved Nov. 9, 2023.

[2] According to The Wisdom of Crowds (2004, Anchor Books) by James Suroweicki “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them” (p. xiii).

[3] Pfeffer, Jeffrey. The Human Equation (1998), Harvard Business School Press, p. 219.

[4] Pink, Daniel H. Drive (2009), Riverhead Books, p. 93.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Bill

    This is an interesting case. What’s not mentioned by NW is how much dialogue there’s been between the manager and employee (or even, for that matter, peers) about the project’s success or lack thereof. I suppose we should also assume there are clear project milestones (even if in very rough form) everyone agrees on to gauge progress, and ongoing discussion with all relevant parties about how things are going. If that’s the case, the message suggested above seems like a good way to handle things. But if not, even though a softer form of rejection, it could very well result in a disgruntled employee.
    Definitely like the idea of identifying other motivators to offset the disappointment. Would love to hear more about how you think “peers” fit into this management approach/strategy (which I think you call “loerarchy”?).

    Reply

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