How to Handle a Hot Potato

Hot Potato projects, every organization seems to have them.  And just like a literal hot potato, you want to avoid catching one if possible.

Audiobook version of Incentivize

Audiobook version of Incentivize

An experienced corporate politician once told me, “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”  Hot potato projects are the ones that most people in the organization recognize as a pending failure.  The politically savvy try to avoid them.

Are all hot potato projects disasters in the making?  Not always, but more often than not, they are poor bets to place, offering more downside risk than the potential for success and reward.

What can you do?

Avoidance should be your first hot potato strategy.  If people are hesitant to take on a project, there is probably a good reason.  Your initial instinct should be to avoid the project by dodging it, refusing it, or just being “too busy.”

Of course, avoidance isn’t always possible.  The second line of defense is to alter the project to make it more likely to succeed, or to appreciably reduce the consequences of failure.  This can be done by redefining what “success” means, managing down expectations, or by giving plenty of warnings as to the project’s problems and risks.

If neither of these strategies work, try to get rid of the project.  You can do this by shuffling it off to someone else, much in the same way you were stuck with it in the first place.  One way to make that happen is to get involved in something more important than the hot potato, and then make the point that you won’t have time to do both.

Killing the project is another way to manage a hot potato.  This can be tough in many cases as the reason the project has survived as long as it has is because there is some senior sponsor that can’t or won’t accept “no” as an answer.  The best way to fight this type of battle is to focus on facts and try to leave the aspirations and hopes of the sponsor out of you arguments.  Even the most unreasonable boss, when confronted with the facts, will admit wanting something to work doesn’t mean it can or will.

If none of the above tactics work, the only thing you are left with is to apply full effort to try to bring the project to successful conclusion, despite whatever long odds you are facing.  While no amount of hard work will change the laws of nature, sometimes people can accomplish amazing things when they put everything they have into a difficult job.

A little Mixology

Early in my career, I was stuck with a hot potato project.  One of our customers had an automotive air conditioning system design (from a competitor, no less) that wasn’t performing well, and wanted help developing a solution.  It seemed that warm and cold air weren’t mixing properly and the temperature was coming out of the outlets unacceptably stratified.

While on the surface this shouldn’t have been particularly difficult fix, with the constraints imposed – no change in major components, geometry, or cooling performance with minimal cost impact – it became nearly impossible.  The project bounced around from engineer to engineer until it eventually landed on my desk.

At that time, I had no idea that this was likely a dead end, and I failed to understand the political implications of accepting the challenge and failing.  So I took it on.

Fortunately, through the dint of hard work and a little luck, I came up with an air baffle that could be added to the present design.  Surprisingly, it actually worked.  It did, in the opinion of the customer’s staff, cost too much.  The customer did, however, get a solution and saw what it would take to solve the problem.  As a result the hot potato project was resolved, and I could at least declare it a “tie” if not an outright victory.  Of course, since it wasn’t our product to begin with, it earned me absolutely nothing with my own management team.

It was only afterward that I realized I’d taken a huge risk by agreeing to the project, and there was essentially no reward for succeeding.

In that instance, I was lucky.  What I probably should have done was to come up with a way to toss the hot potato, just like everyone else had done.

New Market plus New Product equals Big Problems

Much later in my career, I inherited a development project that had been making the rounds among members of senior management.  I think I was the fourth or fifth “father” by the time it was sent my direction.  I suspected the project was about to become an “orphan.”

By this point in my career, I realized that any development project that had been around six years with five leaders was probably a lost cause.  My boss was the project’s sponsor, however, and there was no way I was going to avoid the project, alter the definition of success, or readily dump it.

As a result, I set out to determine once and for all if the project had any possible chance of commercial success.

It took a year of pushing on the right buttons and asking lots of questions, but in the end it became obvious the project would never succeed because it represented a threat, or at the minimum an unnecessary problem, to the key decision makers that would have to specify it.

That was when I killed the project.

A year is a long time to hold onto a hot potato, and my fingers were (figuratively) singed a bit by this one.  Given the situation I was thrust into, however, I thought I handled it fairly well.


Hot Potato projects are hot for a reason.  You should avoid catching one if at all possible, and if you find one in your hands, you should get rid of it at the earliest possible opportunity.  29.1

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To the right is the cover for INCENTIVIZE.   This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.