Practical Project Politics

April 13, 2014

PMI expects project managers to be politically smart and recognises that the appropriate and skilful use of politics and power help the project manger be successful (PMBOK® Guide Appendix X3.7). But what is organisational politics?

no-politicsProject Managers tend to be ‘doers’ that like the action of delivering tangible results, things that have value. Most successful PMs are skilled at managing project sponsors or steering committees and their cross functional teams, and the best are good at navigating complex organizational structures. But, project managers are usually not office politicians and are usually not very good at playing corporate politics.

They see ‘playing politics’ as an undignified form of behaviour where logic, discipline, transparency and loyalty are replaced by deceit, secrecy and subterfuge. And whilst this may be true of some ‘political operators’ everyone in corporate management is involved in organisation’s politics and the biggest mistake a project manager can make is to assume that organizational politics don’t exist.

Project Managers need to understand corporate politics so they can see the warning signs of danger, and can position themselves to survive in politically charged environments. Politics is normal and dealing with it is just another part of an overall stakeholder management strategy.

Organisational politics is neither good nor bad in itself, it simply how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis. It is about power, influence, and access, and about working with the system to get what you need; which is not necessarily a bad thing.

A good definition of politics is: ‘the use of one’s individual or assigned powers within an organisation for the purpose of obtaining advantages beyond one’s legitimate authority. Those advantages may include access to tangible assets, or intangible benefits such as status or pseudo-authority that influences the behaviour or others’.

‘Good politics’ is about working with the system to achieve positive results and helping to meet or exceed your project’s objectives. It’s about maintaining relationships and getting results at the same time. This can be achieved by finding win-win solutions and working to achieve mature compromises.

‘Bad politics’ is when someone works the system to make themselves look good at the expense of others. Bad politicians are focused on winning at all costs and abusing power systems to impose their will on others. This usually result in win-lose situations that can be highly de-motivating, destructive and dangerous to all involved.

Some traits of political players you need to be wary of include:

  • Self Promoting: they take credit even when they have not earned it
  • Manage up: they buddy only with power brokers
  • Spread gossip and talk badly about others who are not present
  • Distance themselves from failure
  • Throw bombs into situations and then retreat into the shadows
  • Extract information and opinions, without sharing their own.

Some of the ways to counter these traits and position yourself for success include:

  • Consistently meeting and/or exceeding the expectations of your stakeholders. Delivering results brings you organisational credibility that is not easily negated by the words and actions of others. This is best achieved by proactive stakeholder management!
  • Learn the political landscape of your organization. Be aware of how politics are unfolding around you. Determine the political players in your organization. Observe their actions and tactics. Anticipate what they will do next. Identify the power blocks and alliances that exist. The more you know, the better you can determine the course of action that is best for you.
  • Actively manage your reputation. It’s ok to talk about your successes and to self-promote in a positive way. And, also promote your team and/or the people around you who helped with the success.
  • Do not let negative talk fester. If someone engages in negative talk about you, your team or your accomplishments confront them with facts – address it quickly.
  • Don’t take sides unnecessarily. Try not to become part of one of the existing power blocks, this often limits your options going forward. Instead keep your options open.
  • Create your own alliance with people who are aligned with your values and engage in ‘good’ politics. Recruit people into your circle of influence by offering them support, encouragement, information, input, feedback, resources and access to others in your network. Earn their trust and respect through positive deeds and actions. Building your network will take time but it is worth the effort
  • Don’t denigrate others. It’s easy to be trapped into a discussion where negative sentiments are being expressed about someone, even if you do not agree. Say, “I’m not comfortable talking about ‘Person X’ when they are not in the room. If you have an issue with them I suggest you talk about it with them directly.”
  • ‘Keep your friends close, your enemies closer’. Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, understood that you have to be able to think like your enemies if you want to defeat them. So don’t shut out those who practice “bad” politics – rather, engage them, try to understand their perspectives, and learn their patterns. The more you know about them, the better you can manage your relationship with them.
  • Remember, it’s not personal. Stay detached, don’t let your emotions dictate your actions, find support in your network, stay positive and, focus on delivering positive results.
  • Think and look for Win-Win solutions. Win-lose outcomes will create enemies.
  • Be true to your core values and principles. If a person or action does not fit within your core values you need to reconsider your path going forward.
  • Be trusting but expect betrayal. Pragmatic trust is the key to successful engagement, if you are not prepared to trust people, they will not trust you (see more on The Value of Trust).

Organisational politics can be an ugly game in organisations that are not well lead and governed, often played by those whose only objective is complete, selfish victory (for one effect of this see: Poor Governance creates complexity). To avoid project failure, we have to recognise those who engage in bad politics, protect ourselves and our teams from them, and steer clear of situations where we might violate our core values.

To succeed as project managers, we need to link good politics with good stakeholder analysis and  management and proactively use one’s individual or assigned powers within the organisation to obtain the support and resources needed to achieve your project’s objectives and ‘meet or exceed’ your stakeholder’s expectations. In reality, this is the only way you can succeed.


Using negative feedback

April 5, 2014

In January, my blog The art of giving feedback looked at the topic of providing actionable feedback on performance to your team members. The post suggested all feedback should be actionable and most should be positive. However, it is inevitable that some feedback has to be critical in nature and ways to deliver this to achieve the maximum effect were discussed.

What was not discussed in January, the focus of this post, is how we can make use of negative feedback directed to us! Every manager and team leader has a supervisory role that requires them to offer feedback to their ‘team’ (or direct reports), whilst also being part of their manager’s team making them the recipient of feedback from their ‘bosses’ as well as from peers and in more open organisations subordinates. In short we all give feedback and we all receive feedback!

Receiving positive and constructive feedback is a pleasant experience that lifts our spirits and increases motivation and commitment; it’s easy and enjoyable. Making positive use of negative feedback is more challenging, particularly if the feedback is not well constructed, but is also the key to real improvements in your performance. You need to listen then act (see more on Active Listening).

The starting point is to accept that the negative feedback with openness and gratitude, even if you do not agree with it. You must keep in mind this type of feedback is intended to relay information that may be useful to you as long as you hear what is being said. What you then choose to do with the information is your decision, to be made later; but before you can decide on a course of action, you have to have listened to, and understood, the full message. After you have listened to the feedback say, ‘thank you’ and ‘I appreciate you taking the time to bring this to my attention’.

But be careful, unfair and overly negative feedback is used as a tool by bad managers and workplace bullies to demean and control others and requires a more robust approach discussed in Dealing with difficult people. You should not put up with this kind of attack, if you do, it will persist. However, even whilst ‘pushing back’ against this type of attack, there may still be opportunities to learn and grow – it’s sweet revenge on the bully to be able to use their ‘put-downs’ to help you advance your career.

So regardless of the intentions of the person providing the criticisms, the ways to turn negative feedback into a positive learning opportunity include:

1. Own it. Accept the feedback and make any necessary changes. Do this by turning the feedback into a list of actionable items and write down a SMARTER solution (see more on SMARTER) for each piece of negative feedback. Then work your plan.

2. Assume good intentions. Don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that the person providing negative feedback is ‘out to get you’, and remember that they are (or should be) criticising your work, not you as a person. Once you’re able to do this, it is much easier to make positive changes.

3. Clarify expectations and goals. Use the negative feedback as a chance to clarify your manager’s expectations and as an aid to understanding your role.

4. Build rapport. Use the negative feedback loop as an opportunity to bond with your manager. Their job is to help you develop, whilst yours is to bring results. Schedule regular meetings to discuss your progress and goals; get to know your manager and understand what he or she values most in an employee. This is your chance to show that you’re open to change and capable of growth, and is a great opportunity to show that you are mature, cooperative, and able to make necessary changes.

5. Get a mentor. Use this as an opportunity to find a mentor or strengthen your relationships with co-workers. If you’re in a situation where you need help or support—this is a great time to build those relationships.

6. Use reflective learning. This as a good time for some serious self-reflection. Use the opportunity to think about all the ways in which you can improve your behaviour and attitude.

7. Appreciate the attention. Remember that all constructive feedback (even negative feedback) is a sign of interest and a sign that people want to help you do better.

None of these ideas are particularly difficult to implement once you make the initial transition from seeing negative feedback as an ‘attack on you’ and reframe the criticism as an opportunity to learn and improve your performance. Achieving this needs ‘persilience’ but is well worth the effort (even with bad managers) – the alternative is to become negative and defensive which can only lead to dissatisfaction and eventually leaving or losing your job.


Poor Governance creates complexity

March 23, 2014

All projects and programs have four dimensions that in aggregate determine how difficult they will be to manage. The four basic dimensions are:

  • Its inherent size usually measured in terms of value;
  • The degree of technical difficulty in creating the output (complication);
  • The degree of uncertainty involved in the project; and
  • The complexity of the relationships (‘small p’ politics) both within the project team and surrounding the project.

These aspects are discussed in our White Paper: Project Size and Categorisation 

Of the four, size and technical difficulty are innate characteristics of the project and are not affected by governance, they simply need to be properly understood and managed.

Uncertainty always exists to a degree and can affect what techniques and which processes should be used for the best effect (what to do) and how to achieve the objective (how to do it). The biggest challenge with uncertainty is making sure all of the key stakeholders are ‘on the same page’ and understand what the currently level of uncertain is, and how the project team are planning to resolve the uncertainties. In combination, these uncertainties create four basic project typologies requiring different management approaches (also discussed in WP 1072). Most residual uncertainties can be managed through risk management processes.

AmbiguityUncertainty is not the same as ambiguity – at the start of the construction process for the London Olympics there was a very high level of uncertainty concerning the extent and types of contamination affecting the ground and waterways, the best techniques for removing the contaminates, and the total cost and time that would be required to complete the work. However, there was absolutely no ambiguity about the requirement to fully decontaminate and remediate the site and the waterways. As the work progressed, the uncertainties reduced, the extent of the problem was defined, the site was fully remediated and the requirement was achieved.

Complexity is similar to uncertainty; there is always a degree of complexity associated with the many and various stakeholder relationships in and around the project. Internal ‘politics’ can be managed, controlled and used in a positive way provided the organisations governance and internal management disciplines are effective. External stakeholder relationships are more difficult to control and tie into the organisation’s overall corporate social responsibilities (CSR) and public relations (PR) activities.

But this is not the way many practitioners are experiencing complexity. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has recently published its latest Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity

The worrying finding is that among the organisations surveyed whose portfolios were filled with what they defined as ‘highly complex projects’, 64 percent cited ambiguity as a defining characteristic of complexity in their projects while 57 percent cited the issue of managing multiple stakeholders. I would suggest neither of these characteristics is a true measure of complexity; but that allowing either to exist to the detriment of a project is a clear indication of weak or non-existent governance.

Ambiguity generally means the people working on the project do not know what they are supposed to achieve or there are different interpretations of what is to be achieved. Given unresolved ambiguity is a guaranteed way to ensure project failure, the open governance question is why are so many organisation allowing their managers to waste money working on a ‘project’ when there is no clearly defined objective? Good governance would require the waste to be stopped until the objective of the project is defined and the associated uncertainties understood. This does not require masses of detail, but does require clarity of vision.

When JFK stated in 1961 that “the United States should set as a goal the landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth by the end of the decade”; no one knew how to achieve this in any detail but there was absolutely no ambiguity associated with what had to be accomplished and when it had to be achieved. What Kennedy did was not ‘rocket science’ (that came later); what he did was to create an unambiguous objective against which all future management decisions could be judged and empower everyone to keep asking “is this decision supporting the achievement of the objective (or not)?” Being a ‘good governor’ Kennedy had sought and received assurances that the goal was achievable before issuing the challenge, but he did not try to tell his engineers and scientists how to do their work. And as the saying goes, ‘the rest is history’.

The second area of complexity, identified in the PMI report, involving diverse politics and views will in part be resolved by creating a clear vision. However, the frequently occurring ‘turf wars’ between executives are very much a symptom of poor governance and control. A well governed and disciplined management team should vigorously debate concepts at the initiation stage, but once an investment decision has been made, recognise that working against the success of the initiative is counterproductive and damages the organisation. A key aspect of governance is creating a management culture that supports the organisation in the achievement of its objectives, turf wars and destructive politics are a symptom of weak executive management and poor governance.

Within the PMI findings, the one area where genuine complexity exists is where a project (or program) has multiple external stakeholders with divergent views and expectations that are frequently ‘unreasonable’ from the project’s perspective. A typical example is the motorists who will appreciate the reduced congestion and travel times after a freeway is widened but complain about the delays caused by the road works and the environmentalists who are opposed to the whole project ‘on principle’, knowing the money would be better spent on ‘clean’ public transport upgrades. Thousands of stakeholders, hundreds of different positions, wants and needs and everyone ringing their local papers and politicians…… this is real complexity.

In these situations there are no easy options, the only way to minimise the damage is carefully planned and implemented stakeholder engagement strategies that combine traditional communication options with more sophisticated corporate social responsibility (CR) and public relations (PR) initiatives. This is hard work and never 100% successful but essential to minimising the effect of complexity and to contribute to achieving a successful project outcome. The Stakeholder Circle® has been designed to provide the data management and analysis needed for this type of heavy duty stakeholder engagement.


What price should you pay for perfection?

March 8, 2014

What price should you pay for perfection or alternatively how do you mange genius?

3D Scan of the building by the Scottish Ten Project

3D Scan of the building by the Scottish Ten Project

The Sydney Opera House is now over 40 years old, is the youngest cultural site to ever have been included in the World Heritage List, is the busiest performing arts centre in the world, supports more then 12,000 jobs and contributes more then $1 billion to the Australian economy each year. The fact is cost nearly 15 times the original under estimate with a final bill of $102 million pales into significance compared to the benefits it generates.

Over the years, we have written about the project and its value on numerous occasions some of the key discussions are:

What I want to focus attention on this time is the genius of Jørn Utzon and the inability of the NSW Government bureaucrats and politicians of the time to understand and appreciate the value of the work he did 50 years ago.

Utzon focused on developing partnerships with ‘best of kind’ manufacturers to prototype and test components then incorporating the best possible design into the fabric of the building. The process appeared relatively expensive in the short term (especially to bureaucrats used to contracting work to the lowest cost tenderer), but 50 years later the value of careful design and high quality craftsmanship is becoming more and more apparent.

Much of the structure was carefully designed precast concrete units, they were used extensively in the shell roofs, podium walls, sunhoods and external board walks. 50 years later the near perfect condition of the concrete despite its continuous exposure to a very hostile saline environment shows the genius of a person focused on creating a lasting landmark rather then seeking the cheapest short-term solution.

Similar longevity can be seen in the tiles that clad the shell roof, the glazed walls and most of the other work designed by Utzon (for more on this see the recently rediscovered, iconic 1968 film Autopsy On a Dream).

Contrast this clarity of vision leading to a high quality, long lasting, low overall cost outcome to the high costs of maintaining and/or replacing the elements of the building designed and installed by others after Utzon was forced to resign. The internal concert and opera halls are planned to be rebuilt at a mooted cost of between $700 million and $1 billion; and changes to Utzon’s design for the precast ‘skirts’ around the podium have resulted in $ millions more in repair costs.

The Sydney Opera House and the National Broadband Network have a lot in common. Both were inspirational schemes intended to cause a major change in culture and move society forward. Both were the subject of opportunistic political attack. Neither was well marketed to the wider stakeholder community at the time, very few understood the potential of what was being created (particularly the conservative opposition), and after a change of government both had the fundamental vision compromised to ‘save costs’ and as a result the Opera House lost much of its integrity as a performance venue with poor acoustics and an ineffective use of space.

Hopefully over the next 10 years $1 billion may solve most of the problems caused by the short sighted ‘cost savings’ in the finishing of the Opera House so it can at last achieve its full potential. The tragedy is repairing the damage done by the short term cost savings and compromises in design to appease vested interests are likely to cost 30 to 40 times the amount saved.

I’m wondering how much future telecommunication users will have to pay to drag the sub-standard NBN (National Broadband Network) we are now getting back to the levels intended in the original concept. The cost savings are focused on doing just enough to meet the needs of the 20th century such as telephony and quick movie downloads – simple things that politicians can understand. Unfortunately the damage this backward looking simplistic view will do to the opportunities to develop totally new businesses and ways of working that could have been facilitated by the original NBN concept of universal fibre to the premises will not be able to be measured for 20 to 30 years. Envisioning what might be requires a different mind set and a spark of genius.

In both the situations discussed in the blog, and when looking at the next bold concept proposed by a different ‘visionary’, the challenge will still be answering the opening question. How can businesses, bureaucracies and politicians learn to manage genius and properly assess a visionary multi-generational project to achieve the best overall outcome? There’s no easy answer to this question.


PMI Voices Post

February 26, 2014

My latest contribution to the PMI Voices on project management blog has just been published: The Power of Happiness – I’m not sure how my attempt to educate PMI on the joys of cricket will go but the underlying message on the link between happiness and team performance is universal.

My earlier ‘voices’ posts are at: http://blogs.pmi.org/mt-search.cgi?blog_id=1&tag=Lynda%20Bourne&limit=20


Should you send that email?

February 14, 2014

Emails can be communication, spam or worse, a completely pointless waste of time!

Every communication you send should be for a specific purpose and optimised to achieve the desired affect. This includes emails and particularly anyone you ‘cc’. Even spammers have clear objectives and measure the results of their obnoxious, but profitable, trade.

Before sending you next email read through this infographic from Visually – it’s amusing but carries a valuable message. Then decide if your next email is a useful communication.

Infographic courtesy of Visually. http://visual.ly/

Infographic courtesy of Visually. http://visual.ly/


Meeting Management

February 9, 2014

meetings#1One of our more downloaded White Papers is WP1075 Managing Meetings.  If your job involves arranging meetings then you need to get both your strategy and your tactics right to create a short, effective, useful and enjoyable experience for everyone!

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Strategy focuses on the vision and purpose your meeting should:

Be planned to achieve an outcome:
To get the most out of your meetings, you need to plan them wisely. Prior to each meeting, write down the specific objectives that you want from the meeting. Then work out how you’re going to achieve them!

Contain a carefully crafted opening and closing
People remember the opening and the closure the most. So open and close your meetings carefully. When you open the meeting, tell them what the purpose of the meeting is, what you want to get out of it and why it’s important. This gets their attention and sets the scene. When you close the meeting, tell them what has been agreed / achieved in the meeting and the next steps going forward.

Be controlled
You need to be in complete control of the meeting at all times, to ensure that:

  • The meeting follows the agenda
  • You never get stuck on a single issue
  • One person doesn’t dominate it
  • Everyone has their say

Start by standing or sitting in a prominent place in the room. Raise your voice a little to add presence. Jump in frequently when people talk too long. Be polite but strong. Control the meeting as a coach would control a football team – by constantly watching, listening and directing the team. If possible, ask someone else to record the minutes. This gives you the time needed to control the meeting so that the agenda and your goals are met.

Be focused, don’t be afraid to ‘park issues and move on’
Issues and disputes can consume the majority of the meeting time. Provided the issue is not related to your specific meeting goals, then tell the team to ‘park it and move on’. Record the issue on a whiteboard or paper and address it with the relevant team members separately after the meeting. This keeps your meetings short and focused.

Be kept ‘action orientated’
Make sure that where possible, every discussion results in an action to be completed and the ‘action item’ should be assigned to a responsible owner for completing.

meetings2

To achieve this strategy, use the following tactics:

  1. Send out a meeting agenda in advance with any anticipated items that you may need specific attendees to address highlighted to that person. This way people can come prepared to provide meaningful contributions.
  2. Start and finish the meeting on time. Your attendance and participation level will be better if people know you have a reputation for getting right to business on time and that your meetings don’t run on forever. Start it on time, be productive and then end it.
  3. Don’t repeat everything for late-comers. If you have to update someone on a key point that has already been discussed in their absence, do so quickly. And if they missed their time to discuss their specific tasks, move them to the end of the line–get back to them after you’ve gone through the rest of the team. If you have a reputation for being on time with your meetings you won’t have too many problems with people arriving or calling in late.
  4. Release everyone as soon as business has been conducted. When the meeting is over, close it out with a brief verbal summary of action items and let everyone know the action list will be circulated within a few minutes. And then end the meeting.
  5. Cancel a meeting if you believe there’s nothing new to discuss. If you’ve set up a meeting but there’s nothing new to discuss or key contributors cannot attend, then cancel it or re-schedule it. On the flip side, be careful not to do this too often. Otherwise people will come to expect your scheduled meetings to not happen and they will either come unprepared or not come at all.
  6. Focus the meeting on the agenda. Try to recognise when the side discussions start to get out of hand and ask those individuals to call a separate meeting to discuss or ‘park it’.
  7. Publish action items within minutes. Action items are delegated to specific people, but he list is sent to everyone (see more on delegation ). Follow up with the minutes containing a status summary of what was discussed, decisions that were made, action items that were assigned, when things are due and when the next meeting will be held within a day. Send it out via e-mail and ask attendees to respond if they see anything incorrect or feel that anything should be added. That way you’ve essential documented that everyone is on the same page.

For more detailed advice on managing your meetings download our White Paper WP1075 Managing Meetings.  Applied effectively these ideas can free up a massive amount of time!


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