Do Project Managers have to Deal with Politics?

It has been quite a month for me – lots of turmoil, activities, tasks and yes, politics.  I was talking with two peers at a local Washington DC PMI event and this topic came up.  This is one city that certainly knows something about politics, but governmental politics is not what we were talking about.  I’ve had to deal with company, client and project politics many times in my career. My recent conversation with my peers made me think about how prepared PMs are for dealing with the inherent politics that come from working in almost any organization of people.

Did you study anything in your PMP prep course or classes on dealing with politics?  Or, did you see a “politics” chapter in the PMBOK?  You are not alone if you have had to deal with politics and people but felt unprepared to navigate those waters. The problem is, being a good project manager often requires that we do so!

I am not trying to say politics are bad – in fact the definition of politics is:

Workplace politics, (office politics or organizational politics) is the use of power and social networking within an organization to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it. Influence by individuals may serve personal interests without regard to their effect on the organization itself. Some of the personal advantages may include access to tangible assets, or intangible benefits such as status or pseudo-authority that influences the behavior of others. On the other hand, organizational politics can increase efficiency, form interpersonal relationships, expedite change, and profit the organization and its members simultaneously.

So, there can be positive political networks and affiliations which actually help managers and PMs to obtain success in their projects.  To quote Dale Myers, “…politics is about power, influence, and access. It’s about working the system to get what you want (or your project needs)– which may not necessarily be a bad thing.”

However, if you are a new manager or PM you may not be versed in how to 1) deal with bad politics or 2) how to utilize politics to help you succeed.

Trying to describe or talk about office politics in a single post in impossible, but here are a few tips I use to succeed in political environments:

  1. Treat people with integrity and honesty. Learn that most people want to trust and be trusted. Be honest and ethical in all your dealings – don’t play favorites and don’t play “games.” I always tell people who work for me “treat people the way you would want to be treated.” This doesn’t mean try to make everyone “like” you (rarely does everyone like the PM), but you want to be known as fair and open minded.
  2. Build relationships at all levels. Naturally, you will want to build strong peer relationships and good subordinate relations. Learn to work outside of your immediate circle of relations and expand your network. Build your network without imposing personal agendas. Take the time to form alliances with other organizations, support staff, other PMs, and anyone who you can bring into your network. This really isn’t hard – it can be a simple favor or a willingness to assist in a relatively minor task that builds the bridge between you and another person.
  3. Be aware and knowledgeable of the “Shadow Organization.” Oh yes, it exists, and many times it is more powerful than the formal organization and roles. Find out who has the power, influence, and respect in the organization or project. These can be powerful allies politically, or can blockade your project success. Learn how to find the shadow organization, then network within it.
  4. Learn how to form coalitions. Anytime humans are involved there is power in numbers! You will need to have allies and others who will back your position or decision. If you have formed the right relationships and have developed respect/trust, then you will be better able to get things done. Remember, power doesn’t just come from the organization chart—informal power and influence often works just as well. Every PM needs to have powerful coalitions to help change the way things are done and to counter the organizational antibodies that oppose new ideas.

In your PM role, are you a political pro, or novice?  Please share your tips with us!

Thanks for participating in the discussion.


New Year, New Job? What’s Your Plan for Success?

If you are like me, your new year coincided with a new job, CONGRATULATIONS!

If again you are like me, you have probably hit the ground running. That’s the natural response. No doubt, there are many of things on your plate—some of which your boss wants done ‘yesterday’.  So I understand your situation, but I want to encourage you to take moment to consider the following question:  “What’s your plan for success?”  Whether you are in a new job or not, taking the time to answer this question can improve your professional success, as well as the success rates of your projects.  And what better time to do a plan than at the start of a new year?

As you consider your plan for success, here are seven things to think about:

1.  What’s the culture of your organization? Even if you are in the same job as last year, the culture may have changed based on new management or direction. Knowing what’s important and highly valued in your organization gives you information you can use when you are making decisions, working with partners or team members, resolving problems, and presenting to upper management.  There are many factors that drive internal variations in the culture of business functions (e.g. finance vs. marketing) and units (e.g. a fast-moving consumer products division vs. a pharmaceuticals division of a diversified firm).  One of my favorite books related to leadership and culture is written by Edgar Schein, Organizational Leadership and Culture.

2.  Which resources and tools does everyone use? You may not have strong SharePoint skills, for example, but if that is how your organization collaborates and shares information, you’d better learn quickly or you will be left out.  Figure out if there is a process or tool that is the key to your new position and make sure you become an expert at it!  This may mean asking for documentation (good luck), job aids, books or finding training to acquire the skills and knowledge you need.

3.  How does the organization communicate? Is there open, honest communication, or do people hoard tips, project status, and critical information?  If it’s the latter, you’ll have to prove yourself and build your network quickly to be able to get what you will need to succeed?  Become an effective communicator in your new role and it really takes practice, practice, practice.

4.  How are people resources selected for, and managed on projects?  Are there a few key people who seem to be on every project, overused and overworked and in short supply?  If so, why? Is the organization thin in the project resources you’ll need to succeed? Is outsourcing a possibility if hiring is not?  Is there a resource management or resume database you can review to get a feel for skill gaps that will affect your projects?  Or even better, are there resources in the organization that everyone has put into the “wrong” jobs and just need your “management” to motivate them into a better role in order to succeed?

5.  Which projects are key?  If your organization has many projects ongoing, and you’ve been tasked to manage more than one of them, how can you quickly figure out which projects are important, and where to focus your attention? Perhaps there is a project portfolio that ranks the projects and indicates the business strategies each of them supports. If not, schedule a meeting as soon as possible to understand which projects are most critical to your management.  Be sure to learn any tips from peers or books on how to avoid the pitfalls that may have already been done.

6.  Get to know and understand your new boss.  I wrote a post in 2009 about Surviving a New Boss, and many readers have told me this is a key for success in a new role.  Be sure you plan out your strategy and plans for

7.  Don’t neglect your own development.  The New Year is always a good time to reflect on the success you want to achieve within this job, and as you plan for your future growth.  I recently read a good little book Breaking Tape: 7 Steps to Winning at Work and Life. It’s a practical seven-step guide to help you define and achieve success to make the positive changes you desire.

I hope these suggestions help you get started on the right foot this year, whether you’re in a new job, or not. Do you have other tips you can share?

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