How well do you get rid of dead snakes?

by Matt Grimshaw
June 29, 2017

I came across this great blog by Richard Daly, CEO of global genomic data processing company DNAnexus, about the importance of killing off ‘dead snakes’.

A dead snake is “a project or feature you’re building that’s going nowhere. Dead snake projects are things that looked like a good idea when you started, but experience has now shown they’re not going to deliver on their original promise. The longer you pursue a dead snake, the more time and money you waste. The blog’s obviously written from an agile tech development perspective, but I think there are lessons here for big companies.

Every big company I’ve worked with wants to become ‘more efficient’. Almost always, this means ‘doing more with less’ or challenging the organisation to adopt new, agile ways of working that get work done more quickly.

But in my opinion, the biggest opportunity for most organisations is to become more efficient by just doing less.

As Drucker put it “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all”.

I don’t think it’s hard for employees in large organisations to identify pointless tasks, cumbersome ways of working and projects that aren’t going to deliver the value they initially promised.

So why aren’t companies better at killing off these dead snakes…?

1. We’re creatures of habit

Most of us operate on auto-pilot for parts of the working day. We don’t question why we’re doing something, we just get on with it. And if you do ever question if a task is worth doing, it’s unlikely you’re empowered to do anything about it or that your line manager will be particularly supportive of your rebellious streak.

2. It’s been promised in the plan

The danger with annual planning cycles and multi-year change programmes is that they tend to get overtaken by experience. But once something’s been signed off by the board, it takes a brave project manager to go back and say, notwithstanding the sunk cost, the project should be cancelled halfway through. It’s much better for your personal reputation to deliver the project and move on.

3. The culture of busy fools

Most of us love to pretend we’re super busy. In large organisations, people are often judged on whether they’re seen to be working hard and the extent to which other people appear to rely on them. If we’re honest, it’s easier to be judged on how busy you appear to be, than how effective you are. Very few companies make a hero of the employee who goes home early every day because they manage to do the same work as everyone else in half the time.

If you’re interested in a spring clean of your management practices please get in touch. We’d love the opportunity to hold up a mirror to the way you’re working; to help you identify opportunities to kill off things that are eating up your time and money and to create a new culture that makes this dispassionate efficiency sustainable.

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