The Politics of Project Management

13 July

For better or worse office politics is the art of getting things done and whether you like it or not it exists on every project. I realized many years ago that staying away from the politics is not necessarily the best policy and “neutrality” does not guarantee that you would not get affected by the politics anyways.

First, what do I mean when I refer to office politics as it relates to project work? To me it means having to address inadequate execution processes of the organization. Typically these processes or lack thereof, have to do with poor business case development, project prioritization, allocation of human resources, establishment of unrealistic deadlines that have been communicated to the top of the house and inadequate funds to meet the requirements of the project. Each of these ‘political footballs’ need to be resolved to enable you to execute your project successfully and if not addressed will set you up to fail.

Ideally, as project managers, we follow best practices when managing projects, we keep the project on track in terms of budget and timeframe, and we keep the customer as satisfied as possible.  If we do all of that, then we’re successful, right?  Yeah, but getting to success requires political maneuvering. The project manager who does not understand or chooses to discount the impact that the organizational culture or political environment may have on the project may be destined to a life of mediocrity at best. The project manager must be aware of cultural and political elements and seek to understand them. To completely avoid their influence is not a good idea.

The real middle ground is becoming sensible, accepting the fact that politics is inseparable from any organization, and is therefore a necessary means for achieving goals through bargaining and negotiations. This is true for any member of an organization, but probably even more relevant to project managers in particular, as they are commonly known to have high level of responsibility without appropriate level of authority.

To play the political game the right way you need to know what matters most to your key stakeholders and the organization. If you want to influence changes to processes you have to have your personal agenda aligned with the overall mission of the stakeholders.  So you have to ask yourself if you know why this project is important to your key stakeholders. Usually a strategic project is tied to individual goals which when achieved probably mean a bigger year-end bonus. That’s important information to know when you are trying to get your project prioritized or trying to get resources and/or dollars allocated to hit established target dates.

You need to ‘sell’ your ideas to change things by getting the stakeholders to see that what you want to do will add value to the project and eventually benefit all project stakeholders. Working successfully within the organization requires savvy. Knowing how the company really works and whom to trust and whom not. Recognize that there are two kinds of organization charts in any organization. The official one that is printed based on title and rank and the unofficial one based on the people with real influence and clout to do things or stop things from getting done.

To develop organizational savvy you need to become a student of the organization and understand why things get done the way they get done. Keep your eyes open as you go about your daily routine to position yourself to answer the following questions:

Who are the real decision-makers in any given situation?

What kind of results tend to get positive recognition and rewards?

Which members of management can make things happen and which just blow hot air?

What types of behaviors and attitudes are valued around here?

Pay attention to the dynamics of how things work or don’t. Ask open ended questions of key stakeholders:

What’s the consequence of finishing this project 1 or 2 months late?

How fast to do want to go?

What are you willing to accept as slippage on a milestone before an escalation process is triggered?

What requirements are critical and what are nice to have?

Ask each key stakeholder those questions and document the answers. Cultivate your relationship with stakeholders to resolve gaps in the answers you receive. Find out who you need to please to make things happen and who you need to squeeze. Learn to see things from their perspective. Learn what tactics work and what doesn’t when dealing with key stakeholders. Approach the politics of a project straight away. Get the issues on the table early and work them until you get what you need to be successful.

The reality is that office politics exist in most environments and can often be integral to the way business decisions are made. Unfortunately, the connotation of office politics is that they are a set of negative behaviors and activities associated to the individuals or groups that adopt these tactics. In an environment where internal politics are prevalent, it stands to reason that risks to a project can be significantly higher depending on the level and nature of the politics within that environment.

The objective of office politics is to manipulate a situation in order to achieve an outcome that will benefit one individual or group at the expense of other individuals or groups. In the project management arena this typically involves gaining control or authority in order to influence decisions that can affect project priority, scope, and/or the allocation of funds and resources. If you want to play successfully in the high stakes game of executing strategic initiatives you have to understand how to play the political game the right way. How well you the play the game can be a contributing factor to project success or failure.


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