Dumpster Fires – Ideas That Go Horribly Wrong

In my recent podcast conversation with Suzanne Lucas, also known as Evil HR Lady, we delved into the realm of what she aptly terms HR “dumpster fires” – those projects or initiatives that start with good intentions but end up causing significant problems and prove incredibly challenging to resolve. Reflecting on this topic with another speaker from the Disrupt HR conference, we identified numerous instances of dumpster fires, spanning across both the realms of technology and project management.

Similar to HR-related challenges, these dumpster fires often involve situations where we can accurately anticipate what will go wrong and even pinpoint when it’s likely to happen. Despite having access to ample advice, many organizations fail to take the necessary steps to prevent these issues from arising.

In the realm of technology, this often revolves around neglecting technical debt – the consequences of inadequate maintenance, updates, patches, and upgrades which can eventually cause significant disruptions. Despite the foreseeable risks, organizations frequently prioritize chasing after the next big innovation rather than prioritizing the upkeep of existing systems, which often serve as the organization’s primary revenue streams.

This shortsightedness is exacerbated by the prevalent short-term focus of many organizations, especially those reliant on external funding or investment. For stakeholders with a short-term outlook, long-term investments hold little value, particularly if their ultimate goal is to sell the company in the near future.

A parallel can be drawn in project management, where teams are often assembled without due consideration for the capabilities, capacity, motivation, and accountability of those tasked with executing and maintaining the project’s deliverables. As a result, projects become bogged down with an abundance of advisors but a shortage of individuals actively engaged in implementation, leading to a cycle of blame and frustration. Despite extensive planning, stakeholder management, and reporting efforts, the lack of active involvement from those responsible for execution hampers progress and undermines project success.

In many cases, individuals entrenched in their routine business-as-usual responsibilities are hesitant to take on additional project responsibilities, particularly when they perceive the project as someone else’s priority. This reluctance can stem from loyalty to their department or a lack of alignment with the project’s objectives, hindering progress and contributing to the eventual failure of the endeavour.

Preventing dumpster fires in various organizational contexts requires a proactive approach and drawing lessons from past experiences. Here are some effective strategies to mitigate the risk of dumpster fires, incorporating insights gleaned from previous challenges:

  1. Proactive Risk Assessment: Conduct thorough risk assessments before initiating any project or implementing new systems. Identify potential pitfalls, anticipate challenges, and develop contingency plans to address them.
  2. Clear Communication and Expectation Setting: Establish clear communication channels and ensure stakeholders understand their roles and responsibilities. Set realistic expectations regarding project timelines, resource requirements, and potential obstacles to foster transparency and accountability.
  3. Investment in Maintenance and Upkeep: Prioritize ongoing maintenance and upkeep of existing systems and infrastructure to prevent the accumulation of technical debt. Allocate resources for regular updates, patches, and upgrades to minimize the risk of system failures and disruptions.
  4. Long-Term Focus and Strategic Planning: Encourage a long-term strategic outlook within the organization, emphasizing the importance of investing in sustainable solutions rather than chasing short-term gains. Align projects with the organization’s overarching goals and objectives to ensure continuity and stability.
  5. Competency-Based Team Building: Assemble project teams based on a careful assessment of individuals’ competency, capacity, motivation, and alignment with project objectives. Ensure a balanced mix of skill sets and diverse perspectives to promote collaboration and innovation.
  6. Training and Development: Invest in continuous training and development programs to enhance the skills and capabilities of team members. Provide opportunities for professional growth and learning to empower employees to effectively tackle challenges and adapt to evolving circumstances.
  7. Iterative Project Management Approach: Embrace agile project management methodologies that prioritize flexibility, adaptation, and continuous improvement. Break projects into smaller, manageable tasks and iterate based on feedback to minimize the likelihood of large-scale failures.
  8. Empowerment and Ownership: Foster a culture of ownership and accountability where team members feel empowered to take initiative and drive projects forward. Encourage a sense of pride and ownership in the work being done, motivating individuals to go above and beyond to ensure success.
  9. Regular Evaluation and Feedback: Establish mechanisms for ongoing evaluation and feedback to monitor project progress, identify potential issues early on, and make necessary course corrections. Foster a culture of openness to feedback and learning from both successes and failures.
  10. Adaptation and Flexibility: Remain adaptable and flexible in the face of unexpected challenges or changing circumstances. Encourage a mindset of learning from mistakes and adapting strategies accordingly to navigate uncertainties effectively.

By implementing these proactive measures and incorporating lessons learned from past experiences, organizations can significantly reduce the likelihood of encountering dumpster fires and foster a culture of resilience, innovation, and sustainable growth.

Tim HJ Rogers
Consult | CoCreate | Deliver

I support people and teams to grow, perform and succeed unlocking potential as a partner Consultant, Coach, Project and Change Manager. Together we can deliver projects and change, and improve the confidence, capacity, drive and desire of the people I work with.

ICF Trained Coach | MBA Management Consultant | PRINCE2 Project Manager, Agile Scrum Master | AMPG Change Practitioner | Mediation Practitioner | BeTheBusiness Mentor | 4 x GB Gold Medalist | First Aid for Mental Health | Certificate in Applied Therapeutic Skills