Trojan Horses are not Trojan Mice. 5 Questions to Spot the Difference.

Trojan Horses and Business Case Option Appraisals. I’ve always had a deep suspicion about the option appraisals you see in business cases. It feels to me like a one of those corporate games that lurk in the shadows. You play by the rules and get the answers YOU want. It might not be the best answer for the people on the receiving end of your plans, but you’ve followed the rules. So it doesn’t matter (from an organisational governance point of view), youve followed the rules.

This post is a reflection on how you understand if someone is just playing the game. Have they really looked at multiple options and tested them rigorously? Does the options appraisal reflect that, or is it just a Trojan Horse? Something they have become emotionally attached to. As part of the ‘Review Panel’ you are just playing your part in the game.

So, here are some thoughts on how it applies to the much loved ‘pilot project’ and some questions to ask... let’s begin.

How did the other pilots go? An innocent question to ask anyone talking about their options or ‘pilot project’.

A common response… tumbleweed… silence… nothing but embarrassing silence and the shuffling of feet…

Confirmation that ‘The Game is On’.

Phased Implementation is not a Safe to Fail Pilot. I want to paint this in 6ft high letters somewhere so that; ‘Policy Wonks’, PRINCE2 Practitioners, Think Tank Strategists, and Corporate Policy Leads can see it every day.

Phased implementation of a single big idea, quite often gets disguised as a ‘pilot project’. In reality it is just a Trojan Horse. A sneaky way of introducing a single idea as a method of solving complicated problem. This sort of phased implementation is not a pilot. It is certainly not an experimental ‘safe to fail’ pilot to test different ideas. (Link here to previous posts on ‘safe to fail’ pilots.)

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about managing risk and learning from failure. These were with people who had seen more than their fair share of public (and private) sector projects over very many years.  We ended up agreeing on the following:

  • A large number of projects are developed on the basis of working towards a single well-defined ‘perfect’ product or outcome,
  • This often doesn’t account for the context of the situation or the fact it is complex;
  • Frequently, as part of the planning stage there will have been very few alternative options considered;
  • Ideas generation is at best restricted to a carefully controlled focus group, or brainstorming session (packed with groupthink);
  • If you are lucky there might have been some ‘stakeholder consultation’;
  • If options have been considered, most of them will be variations on the same theme;
  • There will always be a ‘do nothing’ option thrown in for dramatic effect;
  • Many of these projects claim to have gone through a testing or pilot stage, in reality they haven’t;
  • What this ‘testing’ and ‘piloting’ actually amounts to is phased implementation;
  • The ‘pilot’ phase is actually a Trojan Horse for getting the idea introduced beyond the point of no return;
  • Very few (if any) of these tests and pilots are ever killed off, or substantially changed; and
  • Learning from failure isn’t a phrase you will hear very often (if ever).

Apologies if that sounds a bit sceptical. I just wanted to get across the point that the phased implementation of a single clever idea is not a real pilot exercise.

How to spot a real pilot exercise. If someone starts banging on about their pilot project, be suspicious, in a nice helpful way…

Here are five questions to throw into the conversation. Check for the reaction and listen for the responses. Be prepared to deal with a tumbleweed moment

  1. How did you generate different ideas for your pilots?
  2. How have the other pilots gone?
  3. Did you learn much from the ones that failed?
  4. Do you have anything in place to stop this pilot if it starts to fail?
  5. How will you be sharing the learning from your pilot?

Possibly a bit cruel, but remember; Trojan Horses (single idea, phased implementation) are very different to Trojan Mice (multiple safe to fail experiments run in parallel).

So, what’s the PONT? 

  • Pilots (testing things rigorously) are very different from phased implementation. Trojan Horses are not Trojan Mice.
  • A good pilot exercise is best done with a diverse range of ideas to test.
  • Ask the five simple questions to test if something really is a pilot, and be prepared for the tumbleweed moment.

Picture Source. How did the other pilots go?….  a tumbleweed moment. I particularly like the person leaving the scene in the road sign….

Tumbleweed at a gas station in Chelan, Washington by A.Balet.

Linked Posts:

Trojan Mice – explanation here.

Agile Project Management link.

Safe to Fail Pilots & Dave Snowden link.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

18 Responses

  1. johnbromford

    Sometimes I think you must be hacking into my phone. I’ve been banging on about this for ages. Very few if any pilots that I’ve come across would pass your 5 question test. I think we are just starting to get the hang of sorting the mice from the horses though. We have a number of pilots about to start which are definitely Trojan Mice and very refreshing it is too.

  2. Interesting! Your comment about consultation is an interesting one – are they lucky or unlucky if there’s been consultation? Most people’s experience of consultation is so poor that I’m not sure they’d feel that their input would genuinely influence a pilot project (check out this BBC blog from Mark Easton

    As the public service is in a space where we need to do things differently, we really need to have the public on board. I think effective public engagement would come under one of the ideas in your conclusion – “a good pilot exercise is best done with a diverse range of ideas to test”.

    Great stuff as always!

    – Dyfrig

  3. Of course, question 1 that identities whether or not it’s actually a pilot is: what’s your plan for quickly killing it. It’s not an experiement if you can’t switch it off in an instant with zero casualties. If not, that’s when the Frankenstein breaks free!

    There are five types of change Invention, from Revolution, from adaptation, out of innovation out of old fashioned exploration in places you don’t know finding things you never thought of.

    All five are different and require equally different space! Few people know the origin of the word ‘pilot’ is foot, the bit that the bloke who knew the waters, used to turn the boat! He didn’t build the boat, he know the waters and had a go, so that others could learn the way!

    “Trojan Mice’ is a very silky quote!

  4. Hi Chris. Always interesting stuff and just a brief comment from me.

    I think it’s interesting to examine the motivations and status of the ‘ideas person or persons’ in relation to pilot projects. I suspect pilots are often created to prove they will work when scaled up, when they should be created to prove they will fail. If they don’t fail then you obviously have something to work with. Fear of identifying failure is therefore present at the very beginning and so the recognition of it is avoided at all costs.

    It could perhaps be argued then that ego and status are contributory factors in producing fear of failure.

    Give responsibility for developing pilots to the new people, the young people, the outliers 🙂

  5. […] As far as I’ve seen the idea of small ‘experiments’, testing multiple ideas, accepting that failures will happen, and a process of learning and iteration rarely feature. The ‘Transformation Programme’ is about certainty and guaranteed success, there can be no room for failure (it’s too big to fail). I’ve touched on this idea before in the comparison of Trojan Mice with Trojan Horses. […]

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