How to Win at Project Politics

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“We’re project managers: we’re not politicians.”

I find myself saying this quite a lot during training workshops and seminars, as participants over-interpret the brief I present them with. I want them to focus on the basic management principles.

But then, of course, I always came back and explore the political dimension. Because, it is always there in real life. No matter how much you may want to, you cannot escape politics, at work (though in this blog we have offered advice on how to avoid external politics from trumping your project).

There are many ways to maneuver the web of power and politics, but you do need to understand the basics and understand what kind of political operator you are (or appear to be) in the context of your projects. 

Understanding the Stakeholder Landscape

The first thing I like to do to reveal the political dimension of a project, is draw out a map of all of the stakeholders. Two approaches work particularly well.

Proximity Map

Start the first approach by drawing concentric circles, placing your project in the middle. Each circle represents a set of stakeholders at a distance from your project. So, the innermost circle is your project team – or maybe just your core team. Subsequent circles represent stakeholders at greater distance from your project: colleagues and other departments of your organization, business partners and parts of your supply chain, customers and the public, regulators and pressure groups, for example.

Allocate each stakeholder into their circle. I sometimes use placing left to right to represent different levels of opposition or support to my project. Or positioning top to bottom to denote strength of influence. This is a quick and easy chart to create.

ProximityMap

Sociogram

A sociogram can take longer to produce, but is a more powerful tool for understanding the political dimension. It reveals patterns of political influence among your stakeholders.

Start by identifying influential stakeholders and place them as points on a large sheet of paper. Then draw lines between them representing connections. Where one primarily influences the other, add an arrow to the line. If the influence is both ways, add two arrows, and if it is merely (in your understanding) a social connection, use none. You can also use strong and fine lines to denote the strength of the connection or influence.

Now add other stakeholders to your chart, building out the web of influence. This social network diagram will start to reveal what the natural grouping and alliances are likely to be, who the powerful political players are, at the hubs of those groups, which individuals span across groups and link them together, and who are the outliers. Armed with this diagram, you can be well-placed to navigate your project’s political dimension.

Sociogram

A Combination

I have never tried this, but you may want to overlay a network onto a proximity map too. This may be messy, but it could reveal the routes by which your innermost stakeholder can connect with more distant stakeholders.

Know the Power Holders

The next thing to understand is where your stakeholders get their political power from. We can compare your project to international politics to help us.

The Appointed Leaders

Some people have power because their role or status grants it to them. The system gives them the power to make decisions and expect others to comply. Heads of state and senior officials have this. So too do bosses, project sponsors and Boards.

Hard Power

If you have a big stick and are prepared to use it, people are likely to comply. Coercion or promises of protection are powerful political tools, but they fail to build strong relationships. Avoid flexing your muscles and be wary of corporate bullies – either organizations or individuals.

Economic Power

Some nations and corporations have the resources they need to exert power. Anyone who can grant or withhold money, materials, equipment or people has this kind of resource power. Often, within organizations, these are gatekeepers, with relatively low status roles, but the ability to say yes or no to your requests. So charm them. Never be misled by their status.

Knowledge as Power

Whilst access to information is a form of resource power and therefore linked to economic power, the ability to use that information is quite different. You need experts who can interpret knowledge and put it to work. Typically, they need to feel your respect. But beware of the trap of trusting experts beyond their domain of expertise. Also note that experts have a habit of being more certain than the evidence warrants, in unfamiliar contexts. And projects are often just that.

The Power of Alliances

Among the most powerful political operators are those with wide network of alliances: NATO, the European Union, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the African Union… This is a model I recommend for serious project managers who want o build a long-term career. Build up a network or high-trust relationships within and beyond your organization. Take a longer view than just one project by creating a valuable personal asset.

Personal Power

The ultimate political power base is the respect and trust that others have for you. The necessary starting point for this is integrity. Other factor that will contribute to this are your character, personality and intellectual authority. The more you can build this aspect of your personal power; the more successful your career will be.

How to Build Political Capital

In talking about the power of alliances, and personal power, I have advocated these as deliberate strategy on your part. So, you want to know, how do you carry it out?

Building political capital is a four-step process:

  1. Understand the power structure
  2. Attract people to you
  3. Create your reputation
  4. Build alliances

Since I have already discussed step 1, let’s look briefly at steps 2, 3, and 4.

Attract People to You

What are the characteristics that attract people to you? Enthusiasm, confidence, and being helpful often come easily to people who thrive in project management roles. We are also attracted to people who inspire us and who make us feel good about ourselves.

On the other hand, if you set yourself apart from the people around you, ten not only does it make it harder for people to get to know you, but it also reduces their tendency to like and trust you.

The simplest way to attract people to you is to give openly and unreservedly: you time, your support, and you advice.

Create Your Reputation

Reputations are built on achievements, so there is nothing sustainable that you can do to through talk alone. It is actions that count.

You can create the reputation you want, by choosing the things you do, and by doing them exceptionally well: whether it is as an implementer, a leader, a thinker, a creator, a listener… Start by thinking about the reputation you would like to have, and then set out to build a substantial track record of excellence in that arena.

Build Alliances

Long term professional alliances take time to build. We do so in stages. WE jump start them by agreeing on some shared goals and values, by making the assumption that the other person is worthy of our trust, and by focusing our relationship on action and progress. We then deepen the relationship by exchanging favours. Gradually, we find new areas to work together, to collaborate in ways that are valuable to both parties. And, finally, we harness the growing alliance by partnering to make new connections and sharing each other’s reputational capital.

What Kind of Political Operator are You?

If you are attracted by the ideas in this article, you will be prepared to do what it takes to become highly aware of your political landscape. And you will also be committed to investing in long term relationships, rather than seeking quick wins that turn out to compromise your political status in the long run. This will move you towards the category of a “Wise” political operator.

what kind of power are you?

Not every project manager manages (or even seeks) to attain this. Some are far more alert to short term opportunities. Their stakeholder engagement is targeted more on the immediate concerns and they will worry about tomorrow when it comes. They often come across as savvy and street wise, but are rarely aware of the risks to their long-term reputations. These are “Smart” political operators.

Of course, we have all met some people who aspire to be smart like this, but fail, because they are insufficiently aware of what is going on, who really has the power, and how to influence effectively. We can describe these project managers as “Inept.”

Finally, my experience is that far too many project managers take a purist attitude to our discipline. They don’t really want to acknowledge the politics and they certainly prefer not to have to be involved in it. Their awareness is low, although their intentions are pure. Their concern is for their long-term reputation, but they don’t understand that the political dimension is every bit as important as their professionalism and skills.

These are the “Innocent” political operators. They have the capability to manage a project well, but only in a vacuum, or with shrewd political leadership from their sponsor or a trusted colleague. If this sound a little like you, then my concern for you is this: you will continue to deliver technically excellent projects, but you will equally fail to achieve all of the recognition you think you deserve.

Because, ultimately, project management and politics are inextricably linked. They always have been and, perhaps sadly, they always will be.

Whatever your political position, you’ll have to agree that with the right tools a project is better served. ProjectManager.com offers you the visibility you need to better lead your project, with collaborative features that make planning, monitoring and reporting easier than ever. See for yourself by taking this free 30-day trial.

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