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Project Espionage
I have conducted two polls on the question of “Have you ever had a spy on your project.” Both polls suggest that approximately 40% of project managers have experienced this phenomenon.

- Does this surprise you?
- What is your opinion regarding the root causes of this issue/concern?
- Does this shine a negative light on a project manager?

I’m interested in getting everyone’s opinion on this subject, from the NextGen to the Seasoned professional. Bottom Line: What thoughts get triggered when you ponder the existence of spies on projects?
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Dear George
Interesting your question
Thanks for sharing

There are two types of spies to watch out for:
- External to the organization (business / industrial espionage)
- Internal to the organization

The kind of feelings they provoke are quite different

I'm a bit surprised by 40%, I think I would not take it positively at least not at first. I show a lack of transparency and what is it to say about the confidence they had on the PM.
It would certainly be interesting to have a case presented here.
An interesting topic indeed! Luis makes a helpful distinction between external vs. internal spies.

It might be useful to further distinguish (both of those categories) by "intentional" and "accidental".


External intentional: someone who actively communicates information to a competitor

External accidental: someone who mentions information to a friend without realizing the friend's connections or that the friend might pass the information further

Internal intentional: someone who actively passes information elsewhere in the organization who may sabotage the project due to power relationships, private goals, etc.

Internal accidental: someone who mentions something informally at coffee or lunch to a colleague from another unit, who passes the information to someone who might sabotage the project.

Each is a concern in its own way, of course. And speaks to organizational culture/environment topics.
@Luis, @Vincent, and @Scott:

The polls were done in the context of “Internal Intentional”. Personally, I wouldn’t put the “accidental” category into the context of the question, but it is a good point.
1 reply by Jim Branden
Jan 31, 2020 9:49 PM
Jim Branden
Internal Intentional can mean (1) spying for others in the org. or (2) sabature for personal gain at the project / PM’s expense. I wouldn’t call the second ‘spy’, however I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of sabatures who were jealous of my success; not to steal my tools and techniques!
Dear George
Thank you for your clarification and for refocusing your question

When someone in our organization places spies on the projects we are managing, it is because they do not trust us

What solutions can be considered?

Right now I see two (but there will certainly be possible nuances)

1. Try to identify the person who was capable of such an action
Clarify the reasons that led them to do this
In case there is no clear explanation, "slam the door"
I would go further ... make the biggest noise with the sponsor
2. Once the spy is discovered, use that person to pass on information about the project

A percentage of 40% surprises me really. Long story short, I am not in line nor do I support the idea of having a spy in your project and it reflects disrespect, mistrust and demotivates the whole team.

This is my professional and personal opinion.

Hello George: Thank you for conducting the polls. The responses are interesting. I have never had a spy on my project that I am aware of. Yes, this surprised me and it would make me feel like leadership did not trust me. I'm with Rami. The poll outcome and spies in the workplace are troubling.

is a spy a good thing or not? Ask the CIA.

Having a spy probably violates the value of honesty, but supports the value of responsibility, maybe fairness.

So even ethically there is a judgement to make.

I installed a spy in my own team and it saved us from serious trouble.

Most organizations have a structure and organization. They also have a hidden relationship map (who is friend of whom). Yes it is politics.

As a project manager you better are aware of that map, borrow power from it and influence it. Spies are excellent tools for this.
In one of my old position's we had hired several persons from one of our larger competitors. One of those persons became disenfranchised because of promises made with respect to his 407K plan. Those promises never materialized and he left to return to his former employer. At the time we were developing a line of new products, and at later trade show some time later, we were stunned to see "our" product in their booth. He had stolen our design and given it to his employer. We thought of legal action, but in the end decided against it. Instead, we redesigned our product to be even better than "their" product. Lol.
1 reply by George Freeman
Jan 31, 2020 7:06 PM
George Freeman
Hi Steve,

I’ve also had similar experiences. I had one wherein an outside firm was given responsibility to manage a team that was made up of 80% internal developers, and 20% from the firm that was managing the project. Their job was to deliver a bleeding-edge product component that I had designed, and I was managing the development of a related product on the other side of the pond. After a couple of months, that development team imploded and upper management was told that the team could not realize the design, and that nobody could realize it – a statement that was backed by the outside company that was managing the project.

I had my hands full, so I didn’t fight it and adapted certain parts of my project to accommodate their abort of this component. A few years later, what did I find out? That company realized my design, with some changes and was marketing it and building it into other products. This type of thing unfortunately occurs in all sectors of the software industry.
In my experience, spies are likely to materialize on:
- International Projects
- Bleeding Edge Projects
- Large Scale ERP Implementations
- Large Scale – Anything (where there are multiple teams across a disparate organization)

As mentioned, trust is the primary issue. Why, there are often multiple teams across a disparate enterprise, both in terms of culture, region, departments, etc. The degree of change and risk is high, with every executive concerned to what their organization is going to look like post implementation.

Spies may be planted for what many would consider good-faith reasons, as @Thomas stated. However, there is the other side of the coin as well. In either case, an astute PM will leverage the opportunities created by the spy, both from a functional and political perspective.

To what extent are spies “industry specific?” Keep the thoughts flowing.
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