Project problems – people prevaricate

Prevaricate, from the Latin praevāricātus, covers misleading and outright lies. People prevaricate to make you do something you would not do if you knew the truth or were told the missing parts. Prevarication is a principle project poison.

Who prevaricates?

Bosses who want to shift the blame for failure to someone else will lie about causes and effects. They might hire a contractor to "fix" the problem but what they really want is to make the contractor look like the contractor is responsible for the failure. The instant the contractor says the wrong thing about where the project could go, the manager can fire the contractor then tell everyone the contractor is at fault.

Middle level management are often given bonuses for cost cutting. They may cause a $50,000 loss just to get a $1000 bonus.

On one project, I was told I would lead a team of three but the third person had no relevant skills and just sat at a desk reading email or wandered off to staff meetings.

On more than one occasion, I was allocated staff with no experience. That works only if they want to learn.

The boss lies about what you can do.

What happens?

An example of a boss shifting blame. A project is planned. Several months work. The end date is fixed. Management stuffs around trying to cut costs as their bonuses increase with every cost cut. The project is started late or without adequate resources. The boss puts a contractor in charge knowing the project will not arrive on time. The manager can then fire the contractor and request extra money or resources. The boss claims all the glory for saving the project.

False cost cutting. A project running for several months with 5 people earning about $100 per hour. A manager delays the start by a week to "rewrite" the project to save $10,000 as that is what the manager needs to get the next cost cutting bonus. The project manager puts off the start of the project for one week while working out how to cut the budget by $10,000. The one week delay is 5 people at 40 hours each by $100 or $20,000 in wages. The people will have to work those hours as overtime and might get a 50% loading for working overtime. Those 200 hours will eventually cost $30,000, an increase of $10,000. To reduce the overall project cost by $10,000, the project manager has to cut $20,000, not $10,000.

As a contractor, you could be working for a manager or a project manager who does not understand the work. You could be assigned people with the wrong skills. If they are staff, you often cannot complain or have them reassigned. They might be allocated to you because they failed to do anything useful where they previously worked. The uselessness of one worker on a small team has a big impact you cannot cover.

A small team. One or two trainees per experienced contractor. I know how to lead a team of 600 people with no experience. I know how to teach 20 or 1 person when they want to learn. There is nothing you can do when they do not want to learn or they think their job is safe and they do not have to learn. Big companies can carry that load by assigning the useless as person 11 on a team that needs 10 workers. you cannot carry that overhead on a team of 5 or 3.

Limits on what you can do should be discussed before the project plan is finished. I was asked to work projects where there is an extremely good free open source framework to cut development time in half. After accepting the project on those terms, I was told, in more than one case, to use existing closed proprietary software. Closed software cannot be analysed so tou waste huge amounts of time testing the software. The documentation may be missing or incomplete or plain irrelevant for the project. The documentation may be out of date. Proprietary software cannot be changed to fit your requirements. You may have to change the way the company works to fit the software instead of the other way around. I see projects where the required software costs $100,000, $1,000,000, or $100,000,000 and just does not do what was promised by the sales person.

On one project, the supplied software had never been used for anything like the current project. The software developer, a big company, recommended a contractor who demanded three times the going rate for that type of work. The contractor mislead people about his experience with that type of application and delayed the project completion as it was way above the regular amount earned by that contractor.

When is prevarication an issue?

Lies and misdirection before a project can be picked up by analysis. In a good project, the initial phase is a planning session by the staff. Then they should pay a member of the contractors or the final team to review the plan and ask the difficult questions. There may be some data for analysis. The team leader can look at the people selected for the work. During that process, the majority of misrepresentation should be found. Restrictions, like using a completely unknown proprietary application, can be allowed for with plans for study of the software and support from the software supplier.

Where does prevarication occur?

Geography is an easy excuse to lie. An Australian company buys software from a foreign country. The fine print says the Australian company cannot sue the American company for fraud committed in Australia. Instead they have to sue in the foreign country where legal action is expensive, difficult, and all the witnesses have to be flown over to the other country. The foreign lawyers can just delay and delay at the last minute. Can you afford to house a dozen witnesses in a foreign country for the years the court case might last?

Trade deals can be useless. Australia has trade deals that do nothing for 99% of Australian companies. A deal with another country might help Australia export a little more wine to that country but the rest of the trade terms slam Australian companies into a hopeless corner. Support for software from Europe might be outsourced to India where every call from Australia will be answered by a new person who knows nothing about the product and just follows a script.

On one project, a person from "South Asia", as we are now told to call them, offered a bribe in the form of a commission on the hours billed by support in South Asia. The briber bragged about how many ways support bills could be padded. Hours of "research" doubled. Problems introduced so a "solution" would require more work. He described how they downloaded code from the Internet then billed hundreds of hours for "writing" the code. A team of four would be just one of his cousins and a student. A bill of $35 per hour would be $5 for me, $10 for him, and $5 for his cousin.

Some countries join trade monopolies like the European Union then treat everyone else as future victims. A company exporting to America and Australia will put America first as it is a bigger market. A software company in that situation might send their best people to America and send "support" staff to Australia who are just failed trainees.

Within Australia, most laws are state based, not country wide, and you can have problems with projects that cross state boundaries.

Why worry?

You can be blamed for something outside of your control. The blame can be shared through an industry gossip network. You can lose good opportunities as a result. Some of your work details are protected by law but that does not stop the rumours and social media.

You are particularly vulnerable if you specialise in contracting to a niche, like federal government work, one of the state governments, a specific industry, or you are male.

One HR manager told me how her organisation handled complaints. If the complainer is male, they have to have proof or a witness but female complainers did not need either. A male complainer was recorded and the details given to the target of the complaint. Not for female complainers. Female complainers had to be kept anonymous. A male target of a complaint from a female could not be told what they did wrong or when, just that they had a mark against them in their file and would be dismissed after three. Male contractors would not have their contract renewed with just one mark.

The next time a contractor applied for work in the same industry, the next HR person would immediately contact the previous HR person. Although disclosure might be illegal, they had ways of sharing the information.

There are so many weird forms of discrimination, you will often miss out on lucrative projects because of stupid sounding reasons. One boss told me I was not family or the right religion so they hired some niece or nephew then they looked for someone to actually do the work. Hence the hiring of a contractor instead of hiring a new member of staff. My work would be credited to the family member.

With everything pushing against you, you do not want to create more speed bumps or roadblocks. If you do run foul of prevarication and have difficulty finding good projects, you might have to change industry or work through a company owned by someone else.

One big corporation offered me specifically a contract at a rate negotiable up to $50,000 per week but I had to bill through a specific big corporate supplier. The customer management said they were not allowed to contract direct with a person. The big supplier was happy to bill the customer $50,000 per week and offered me only $3,000 per week and no expenses. The project required interstate travel and hotel accommodation. $3,000 without expenses would not cover the disruption. I said no. The supplier substituted someone else. The customer cancelled the whole deal.

As a contractor, the odds are stacked against you so learn to ask questions, negotiate, and say no to projects likely to crash.

Way forward?

Find an experienced contractor who is happy to partner with you. Learn from them the traps and the tricks to finding the traps. If you can avoid most of the traps, you will succeed. One big success in an industry can gloss over minor problems plus it can help you move to a different industry for a while if one of your failures is visible.


A good reputation means you will be asked first. You can pick the most interesting projects or the top money or travel, whatever you like. Reliability and predictability make money. You will get more work lined up with some projects delayed to fit in with your availability. If you cannot achieve that yourself, work for a small company with a good reputation and friendly management.

You can work through agencies and their sales people might use you to fill out a failing team. Size matters. Can you talk direct with the agency sales person then with the prospective customer? A small focused agency might pay less but are more in tune with your skills and actually care about you succeeding.

Yes, it is work working out what you are good at and partnering with people who have the skills you do not have or do not want to develop. Avoid businesses that are all sales and no project management. Look for a balance. Some of my customers have a business rule that they will deal only with companies of a certain size, say five people. That is good enough to have one contractor with a flair for sales, one with some accounting or business management experience, and the rest covering the specifics of the industry you work in.

Somewhere around 20 to 50 people, management and sales people lose contact with individuals. They become BIG companies. Getting the sale might be more important than you succeeding.