The Politics of Project Management

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Every project, whether great or small, involves a level or degree of uncertainty. Even in cases where the reason for the change is clear, whether that change can be delivered may be less so. This uncertainty may not come down to technical complexity or professional competence, but office politics.

Politics is the process by which groups of people make collective decisions. However, the decisions that you make as a project manager affect people outside your project team and impact a much, much wider group. Further, not all of the decisions that affect your project are yours to make; many of these will be made by your steering group, or by others with the authority or the power to affect you.

Notice that I did not say the authority and the power. There are people both inside and outside your organisation who can exercise real power without having authority. These people are influencers and their views needs to be taken into account if you are to deliver your project successfully. It is therefore in your interest to know who might be affected by your project and what are they likely to do as a result.

Stakeholder management is the process by which you identify those people who may be affected by your project so that you can manage their expectations and influence them. But why do you need to manage your stakeholders in the first place?

You need to actively manage your stakeholders so that you are able to:

  • Explore and share perspectives
  • Set expectations
  • Build relationships
  • Win their support
  • Generate enthusiasm and momentum

Who are your project’s key stakeholders?

Start off by identifying the key stakeholders in your project. These will include:

  • People directly affected by the project, including customers, the project team and anyone who will have to contribute something in order for your project to deliver;
  • People and groups indirectly affected by the project, such as members of other departments which may suffer a temporary or long term change in the way that they work as a result of your project;
  • People and groups who stand to lose or gain from the outcome of the project but who aren’t directly affected by it. This can include members of teams or departments who may lose out if your project is successful. Don’t think that just because is justified and will bring benefits that it won’t have people who will try to stop it from succeeding.
  • People or groups who are not affected, but may be interested in the progress of your project.

Divide and conquer? No, provide and communicate

Once you’ve identified the stakeholders divide them into four key groups, depending on (1) their level of importance, and; (2) whether they are likely to be supportive of your project or be against it. For each one, determine how to communicate with them so that they get positive, persuasive information about your project on a regular basis.

Enthusiastic Change Agents

For those people who are both important and supportive, make sure you involve them as agents of change so that they can use their power and influence to support you. People who fall into this category include:

  • Your project’s sponsor
  • Members of your project steering or governance group
  • Members of your project team
  • Your key supporters within the organisation who have been championing the project.

Cheerleaders

For those who are supportive, but not very important within the organisation, see if you can involve them in the project. Their enthusiasm may help to swing other people behind your project, especially if they are connected to people who are likely to be against it.   People who may fall into this category include:

  • Front-line staff
  • Key users (if you are changing systems and processes)
  • Your customers.

Challengers

You need to actively manage and influence those who are important but who are not supportive. They have the power to shut your project down and they may be right to do so – don’t assume that their opposition to your project is for any other reason than they are doing their job. People who fall into this group include:

  • Members of your steering group
  • Those who are responsible for financial control, audit or security
  • Those who represent business or IT operations, as your project could have an impact on the day-to-day business.

The key questions for you to answer are:

  • Who isn’t sold on the idea and why not?
  • What do you need to do to convince them?
  • Which of the advocates for your project can you enlist to win them over?

Finally, don’t forget to keep an eye on those who would appear to be lacking in importance and support. They can still influence others to take a more negative view of what you may be doing. These people can come across as sceptical, but they may have an interest in seeing your project fail, especially if it interferes with their interests. The people or groups you should watch out for here include:

  • Your peers and colleagues who may profit from seeing your project fail;
  • Your competitors, whether this is someone with an alternative to your project or other companies that are in competition with your own;
  • Those whose budget may be reduced in order to fund your project.

Chameleons?

Lastly there are those whose interests are harder to identify but could come out against you at a critical time. Be on your guard for them but remember that the more you work on winning support and maintaining support, the harder it will be for them to move against you.

Conclusion

The small amount of time spent identifying and analysing stakeholders is more than repaid by the knowledge and understanding that you will gain that will help you to deliver your project. However the real payoff for you will come from your consistent efforts to manage stakeholder relations and expectations. If you get this right your long-term success, whatever the outcome of any individual project, is guaranteed.


“The Politics of Project Management” © 2011 Bryan Barrow