Must Read by Wed. - Project Politics

01/31/2016 12:07

Would it surprise you to know that projects can implode from the inside? Every project requires a balance of external and internal support. In our field, Mark Mullaly is considered one of the experts on this topic. Read this by Wednesday - many of these points will be addressed in future exams.

The Choices They Won’t Tell You That You’ll Have to Make

I’d like you to think back to when you learned to drive a car. It might have been with an instructor, or a friend or--sorry about that--with a parent. In any event, it probably started in a very safe place, which for most of us was a large, empty parking lot. In the confines of that lot, we figured out how the car worked, how to control it and how to manage getting ourselves around.

Whatever confidence we might gain in a parking lot, though, it did little to prepare us for the real world, where we would have to engage with other cars, other people and other obstacles. However good we got at driving a car in isolation, actually negotiating traffic was a whole different challenge.

Project management is a lot like that. On paper, there is a compelling logic to it. Write a charter, gather requirements, define scope and think about risks. Define a WBS, develop activities, estimate them for effort, time and schedule, and pull it all together. Get it approved, deliver on the plan and make sure you do a lessons learned review at the end. Boom. A formal, logical, common-sense approach to continuing to evolve how you deliver projects.

Engage in a project in the real world, however, and what we encounter is a very different experience. We have to deal with sponsors, customers, stakeholders, team members, advisers, steering committee members and casual observers who nonetheless have strong opinions about our project. All of a sudden, the reasonable and theoretically useful structure of our project management process starts to seem woefully inadequate.

Most of the challenges that we face, if we are entirely honest about the situation, have very little to do with process and a whole lot to do with politics. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. A lot of how project management is taught presumes that we can simply follow a process and be successful. The reality is that personal, political and organizational dynamics are erratic and unpredictable. Process does not really apply in these situations, at least not to the extent that we might like it to be relevant.

The difficulty, then, is recognizing the challenges that we will face--and the choices that we will need to make--in dealing with these situations. While politics doesn’t necessarily comply with process, there are situations that are (sadly and distressingly) more common than we would like them to be. Knowing about them--and having some strategies in our back pocket to respond to them--is more than a little useful:

1. Rogue sponsor. What we get taught in project management school is that sponsors are our friends. They want the project, and they are there to make decisions, provide guidance, cast a watchful eye over our progress and ensure that any roadblocks are dealt with in a timely (meaning immediate) fashion.

The reality is that they are often absent, usually difficult to contact and frequently indisposed. They may not understand their role, may not value the project as much as they probably should, and may not fully appreciate how they are supposed to engage with us as project manager. The result is varied attention, inconsistent decisions and occasionally chaotic expectations of the project.

Sponsors are critical to project success, but the reality is that good sponsorship is a rare commodity. To be successful, we need to negotiate sponsorship expectations from the outset, and maintain focus on them throughout the project. That means sometimes needing to be quite firm with our sponsors about what we need, why we need it and what the consequences are if attention is not appropriately paid.

When sponsors are several rungs above us on the corporate ladder, that can be distinctly uncomfortable. That doesn’t make it unnecessary. Start with being clear about the importance of the project, reinforce their role as sponsor and be clear about the decision you are needing--and what you recommend as a solution, and why. Also be prepared with why other approaches may be less desirable. Even if they choose a less-desirable alternative today, they will remember--and appreciate--the fact that you guided them in a different direction earlier.

2. Disagreeing stakeholders. When we learn about negotiating requirements, it is all too often described as a rational exercise of listening to what everyone wants, writing it down and getting them to rank their desires on a scale of “mandatory,” “desirable” and “nice to have.” The problem is that it is extremely rare that stakeholder expectations neatly align. More commonly, they actually outright conflict.

This is particularly true in terms of defining what is mandatory, desirable and nice to have; the rule book isn’t helpful on what to do when one stakeholder says “mandatory” and the other one says “over my dead body.” Requirements negotiation is a negotiation process; we need to help people to define their interests, understand where they come from and evaluate potential compromises.

What is essential is paying close enough attention to the process to recognize when stakeholders are disagreeing, and to anticipate the implications of those perspectives. We need to get those stakeholders in a room, and facilitate a resolution. Most importantly, we need to recognize that while we need a resolution, we don’t own the problem. It is their disagreement to sort out; we just need to facilitate the process of doing so.

3. Disagreeable team members. In a perfect world, team members get along, collaborate well and deliver on their commitments on time and on budget. In this world, team members are human beings. They have their own frustrations, challenges, disagreements and expectations. The result is that one person’s sense of entitlement is guaranteed to trigger a bout of apoplexy in another member of the team. And you, as project manager, live in the middle of the problem.

Unaided, some teams never leave storming. That means that conflict and sniping are daily--if not hourly--occurrences. Project management starts to feel a lot like refereeing in the playground at recess. What we need to recognize is that expectations regarding productivity, commitment, focus and work style quite literally get dialed in at the first meeting. We don’t get weeks to set the tone of how our team is going to function; we need to set those expectations at the outset. When team members are having issues, we need to address it; hoping it will go away is tempting but futile. And if someone is genuinely not contributing--no matter how talented and capable they are--then they need to leave. No team can sustain the consequences of a member that is undermining the collaboration and effectiveness of team interactions.

4. Absentee resources. Of course, dealing with team interactions is only possible when team members actually show up. The more likely consequence, given the resource constraints in many organizations, is that we don’t actually see the people that are theoretically assigned to our project. The pressure of operational expectations and commitments to all the projects that aren’t ours mean that attendance is questionable and attention is non-existent.

We need to be clear about our resource requirements up front, and we need active engagement and support from our sponsor in securing them. We also need to be diligent in monitoring work and following up when effort isn’t being made. Allowing slippage early is only going to compound itself later on. In either instance, management of resource commitment to ensure deadlines or client expectations of possible schedules is essential.

5. Unsupportive resource managers. When tackling absentee resources, our first line of contact is often their manager. This is also the first point of apathy and inattention. It’s not that resource managers are wholly unsympathetic, it’s just that they have their own priorities. Our project, while important to us, may be far lower on their list than we would optimally desire.

Initial setting of expectations is important. Following up when expectations are not met is critical. Escalation when follow-ups land on deaf ears is likely and necessary. While we want to be seen as effective and capable, reluctance to escalate is not going to win us respect. If we aren’t getting the support we need, and we lack the influence and control to get it, then escalating to those who can get results is essential.

6. Mistrustful organizations. Let’s be honest: when we took that course, we thought project management was pretty awesome. There was logic, structure, reason and flow. Really, what wasn’t there to like? And yet, here’s the thing: there are a (not inconsiderable) number of organizations in which the process that you want to follow is going to be considered evil. That may seem harsh, but it’s true.

To many, project managers are bureaucrats; they call unnecessary meetings, create irrelevant deliverables and require completion of meaningless forms. For us, that means we need to be conscious of the process that we follow, and how much of that process we make visible. We may be in love with our own process, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will be. And while we may still value that process, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be--or should be--visible. We need to take stock of the environment we are in, and determine whether process is valued and seen as valuable. If it isn’t, we may still use it; we just aren’t going to show it.

There is a lot that traditional project management courses teach us about process. Unfortunately, there is a lot that they leave out about politics. Being successful as a project manager means navigating both dimensions. We need to be judicious in the process that we employ. We also need to be conscious of the politics that we engage in.

While much of that process is inherently subjective, and the appropriate response is going to vary from organization to organization (and sometimes from day to day), there are still lessons we can learn and circumstances we can be aware of. How we respond is our choice, and it is a choice we will need to make. Informing ourselves about the choices we face--and the options available to us--is critical to our long-term survival and success. That’s a lesson worth learning.

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at


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