About Project Politics

No project is politics-free.

Most projects run within organisations, so they inherit existing organizational and office politics and often become a natural arena of political activities. Moreover, as a new endeavour with achievements to be acknowledged and potential failure to be managed, projects also create their own politics.

Project politics are often seen as a risk which needs to be acknowledged and managed. If managed properly, however, politics can also be used as an important management enabler.

Therefore, it is important to manage Politics, not only because of their potential negative impact on the project but also in order to actively exploit and manage politics for the benefit of the project.

To do this, one needs to be familiar with the context of a project: the problem that is to be tackled, the meetings that took place, the negotiations, debates and decisions, the rejected ideas, the relationships between the stakeholders, and all the background dynamics that resulted in its current state.

Politics exist as part of the organisational landscape, or they can emerge as projects come into existence and can be shaped by how the projects are managed. Organisational and office politics are continuous and often transcend projects, teams, units, etc. They can therefore influence projects in non-obvious ways as causes and effects of politics interplay between past, present and future.

Politics are an expression of the defence of territories of influence, as well as the pursuit of personal and/or professional goals and interests by permanent structures within the organisation, groups or individuals. They can be aligned with the broader interests and goals of the organisation, or they can be a result of unproductive and selfish hidden agendas.

Politics are always there, even when they are not explicitly expressed or visible. They are highly dynamic and can easily change depending on external factors or the phase and state of the project. They can remain dormant while the project landscape remains unclear or fluid but can then “appear out of nowhere” during a “rough patch” when things start to go less well, or even when things start going unexpectedly well and people start fighting over the ownership and visibility of success.

Some stakeholders will only offer their support to the project once they have negotiated and secured returns for their domain of influence now or in the future. Such returns commonly relate to an increase in power/influence, budget control, visibility, career advancement, etc. They can be aligned with organisational goals or can be purely their own personal/professional goals (though often well masked) which may even be misaligned with organisational goals.

Read the second part of this post: Guidelines for Managing Project Politics

There are many types of politics originating from many different sources. Politics can be:

  • personal or interpersonal, internal or external, unit/departmental/organisational in origin.
  • related to project budget, governance, outputs, process, outcomes and benefits (or potential disbenefits in the form of negative impacts/side-effects).
  • strategic/deep (long-term) or tactical/shallow (short-term).
  • complex politics (aiming for derivative gains) vs simpler (straight forward) politics.
  • visible/expressed or invisible/hidden/unexpressed.
  • favourable politics (favourable to the interests of the project) or opposing politics (opposite to the interest of the project).
  • negative (petty/destructive) or positive (constructive) approach to pursuing them.
  • predatory or benign.
  • high-opportunity (potential for high gains) or high-risk (high threat of damage).
  • easy/cheap to deal with vs costly/complicated to deal with.
  • residual politics – what is left as a politics landscape after you’ve managed them.
  • secondary politics – what new politics are created after dealing with current politics.

Unproductive management of project Politics happens when Politics are not managed, that is, managers under-invest in identifying and managing politics, or when Project management is driven by politics, in which case there is an over-investment in creating/managing politics and excessive dependence on favourable politics.

Some observable consequences from the ineffective management of Politics are summarised  below:

  • Politics infiltrate and hijack the project derailing it from its real purpose and using it as a vehicle for the achievement of other agendas (a.k.a. “Political Battlefield Project”).
  • The project is lacking control, always blocked or changing based on unknown political agendas and priorities.
  • Fertile ground is provided even for petty politics to emerge and influence the project.
  • Project sponsorship is unclear and unstable.
  • Unproductive conflicts and crises come out of nowhere.
  • Projects are faced with risks and issues that could have been avoided.
  • Several conflicting priorities exist and there is a lack of cohesiveness and consistency in decisions and actions taken.
  • There is disorientation from the project’s purpose.
  • Trust and respect become scarce.
  • Progress is slow and costly.
  • There are frustration and feelings of powerlessness within the team and team members lose work meaning, enthusiasm and commitment.
  • Necessary channels of communication become closed or go unused.
  • Project management becomes unnecessarily complicated.

In the context of project management, politics need to be managed in a way that either enhances or (at least) minimises their negative impact on the project’s goals.

Read the second part of this post on Guidelines for Managing Project Politics.

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