While many business leaders are eager to embrace the wave of innovation and disrupt themselves, some sabotage their own intrapreneurs.

The most critical phase of a project happens before the team is even assembled. It’s the point at which the project is defined. Unfortunately, many projects end up falling into the realm of B-movie horror shows we wish we weren’t starring in.

So how do you slay a monster project before it rears its ugly head? You need to make sure you’ve got (lean startup) fundamentals in place before you start.

Let’s look at five of the most common monster projects intrapreneurs find themselves battling, and how we can avoid them using Lean principles. But first, let’s define these monsters in terms of their difficulty level.

Monster Project Difficulty Levels

There’s a simple equation to find out the difficulty level of any project:
Stakeholders × Complexity / Clarity = Difficulty Level

This component is easy to calculate. Just count the number of people and organizations feeding requirements into the project or who have veto power over some aspect of the operation. Remember, stakeholders can be both internal and external to the company, so the number of stakeholders is potentially infinite.

This scale goes from 1-10. 1 means the project is absolutely trivial, while 10 is highly complex, with many moving pieces that require someone with a 150 IQ, a 12-page spreadsheet, and a Gantt chart to even begin to understand it. The sheer size of the project also adds to its complexity.

Also a 1-10 scale. 10 means a crystal clear vision with actionable and achievable metrics. 1 means the project is completely baffling to everyone, including the person who proposed it. The clarity score includes having clear goals, objectives, success criteria, a clear path to success, and so forth.

With that equation in mind, here are five of the top monster projects, in order of difficulty, and some key tips on how to avoid them.

1) The Blob

This amorphous project is of indeterminate size and shape and could encompass everything or nothing. We’re not entirely sure what’s being asked of us but it has something to do with “going digital.” We’ve also been told to “increase brand equity,” which seems to be code for, “don’t screw this up.”

Difficulty level

Stakeholders: 5
The project is general enough that everyone thinks they are a stakeholder, and even we might think everyone is a stakeholder. It is also vague enough that those who don’t want to do any work can just decide not to get involved, even if they are critical for the project. So we only have 5 stakeholders that will admit to it for certain; meanwhile, we’re just waiting for critical feedback while the board is asking for status updates.

Complexity: 2
Actually not that complex. Really just a single cell organism gone awry.

Clarity: .5
Forget stakeholders and complexity, the lack of clarity overrides all other factors.

5 × 2 / .5 = Difficulty Level 20

Avoiding The Blob

The Blob appears when there are no clearly defined goals for a project, or for innovation in general. It thrives when an organization decides they are going to “do innovation” without defining an overall strategy, and how that strategy supports and contributes to the overall business strategy.
Make sure you have an overall innovation strategy that aligns with the business strategy, and that innovation projects have clearly defined goals – and “why’s” – that are congruent with this strategy.

2) The Shapeshifter

This project changes form every time it comes into contact with human beings. Every meeting results in moving goalposts, changing visions, and revising success criteria. We thought we had it nailed last week, but after that progress review meeting we are more confused than ever.

Difficulty Level

Stakeholders: 3
The number of stakeholders is not the problem here. The problem is the fact that these stakeholders change their minds every week!

Complexity: 5
The project itself could be only marginally complex. But with ever-changing goals, managing and prioritizing is nearly impossible.

Clarity: .5
We don’t know if we’re coming or going. We thought we had clear goals and now we don’t. We also know that next week we’ll surely get new goals.

3 × 5 / .5 = Difficulty Level 30

Avoiding the Shapeshifter

The Shapeshifter appears when there are no clear rules of engagement. Make sure every project has not only a clearly defined vision and goals, but clearly defined stages of development, with KPIs for each stage and clear behaviours and principles all stakeholders must adhere to. Make sure these rules are well-communicated, and employed by bottom-up and top-down. It’s a good idea to codify these in a “playbook” for everyone involved to follow.

3) Frankenstein’s Monster

A terrifying project of mixed up feature requests that might be beautiful to someone, but customers seem ready to pull out the torches and pitchforks.
More often than not, the problem here is too many stakeholders, each asking for slightly different things, with no one agreeing on who this project is actually for. Every feature is built just right for some specific target audience, and because of that, no one really wants it.

Every stakeholder is excited. They are most excited about the part of the project that was “their idea.” They think that is the most important part that saved the whole thing!

Difficulty Level

Stakeholders: 43
So so many stakeholders. So many vested interests. Every salesperson has a giant client with special features that must be fulfilled this quarter. And apparently our job is to keep them all satisfied.

Complexity: 9
So so many feature requests. Each one as important as the last one. This complexity is making the project ugly, but every stakeholder is calling it a beauty!

Clarity: 9
Sure there is clarity. It is clear what everyone wants, and it’s a lot of stuff. It is also clear that everyone is crazy.

43 × 9 / 9 = Difficulty Level 43

Avoiding Frankenstein’s Monster

What customer segment are you actually focusing on? Make sure that’s clearly defined from the get-go. Defining the characteristics of your prototypical customer allows you to hone in on the specific problems you are trying to solve, and keep your project laser-focused.

And be sure you have some protection in place. Get a high-ranking stakeholder to act as the “decider” and provide air support to shield you, and the project, from interference.

4) The Vampire

A project that will never be released, refuses to see the light of day, and will suck the life out of our career. It’s hard to get evidence to shut the project down because feature creep prevents it from ever being released.

These projects are typically powered by an unholy bargain with a single senior stakeholder who protects the project at all costs and simply can’t look in the mirror and see that there’s nothing there. They also have the unnerving ability to convert others into devotees of the grand vision.

Difficulty Level

Stakeholders: 1 + 50
Just one, but it’s a very, very powerful stakeholder with a lot of minions devoted to their vision.

Complexity: 8
While they seem simple, they are deceptively elaborate. Just when we think we have a grasp on them, the business model throws another twist and another dependency. These projects are hard to kill precisely because there is always some excuse for why a little more development is needed, e.g., “It’s a four-sided market and we can’t release until we have minimum features sets for all sides.”

Clarity: 7
The vision is clear; it’s just that it’s never-ending and always one step beyond our reach.

51 × 8 / 7 = Difficulty Level 73

Avoiding The Vampire

Lean is all about validated learning. Get a minimum viable product up and running quickly, and design simple tests that allow you to adapt your plans and features quickly according to actual customer desires and feedback.

And get finance on board early on. Finance hates projects that bust the budget with no ROI in sight.

5) MechaGodzilla

Too big. Too complex. Devastating to anyone standing within 100 miles. It’s Godzilla, but made of metal. There’s a good chance of being stepped on just by being in the wrong spot.

On the plus side, it’s not deliberately out to get us. On the down side, very, very, very hard to kill.

Difficulty Level

Stakeholders: 100
Big, nasty, and a lot of people are concerned about the impact of this project. Everyone is pouring resources in, and everyone has an opinion.

Complexity: 10
The most complex of all projects. It’s just too many moving pieces of technology that are a little bit beyond everyone’s grasp.

Clarity: 10
Almost too clear. We can see it from 100 miles away!

100 × 10 / 10 = Difficulty Level 100

Avoiding MechaGodzilla

Lean startup tactics are invaluable here.

Often, a company asks “can we build this?” and, if the answer is yes, it’s full steam ahead. Lean tactics begin with a different, and far more important question: “should we build this?” Each potential project is a hypothesis, and customer feedback and data either proves or disproves that hypothesis.

If the answer is “yes”, start small: small experiments, handled by small teams. Let them get MVPs out the door and data flowing back in. Give them ownership: the freedom to build, measure, and learn, and connect those learnings back to the hypothesis. Then, you can see if the project is scalable and worth continued investment.
Additionally, make sure Lean principles are understood and supported throughout the organization. Explain how applying these principles will help solve specific business problems that leadership cares about, and they will be far more likely to jump on board and give you the resources – and clearance – you need.

Here there (not be) monsters

There are more monsters out there, but these are the five most common. If you’re a business sponsor currently setting up a project, don’t set your team up for failure! To avoid creating something nightmarish for your intrapreneurs, just remember the equation:
Stakeholders × Complexity / Clarity = Difficulty Level

And be sure you’ve got the (lean startup)  fundamentals in place before you start moving forward, so you can keep your project well out of B-movie territory. Want to do that? Join Tristan’s Advanced Lean Startup Workshop, London, 1-2 March 2018. More info and registration here

This is a guest post by Tristan Kromer, edited by the Innov8rs Team. A version of this article first appeared here: Ten Monster Projects That Will Kill Your Career as an Intrapreneur.