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Projects managers and corporate politics in conflict

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Most major companies, if not all, will have some dimension of internal politics that can impact project managers and the projects they are responsible for. In an ideal world all the key stakeholders would be aligned to provide political support for the project. But I’m not sure we’ll ever live in that ideal world.

Most project managers would prefer to focus on the challenges, problems and risks that all have to be overcome to progress from an idea on paper to a tangible deliverable. If they were political animals they probably wouldn’t have chosen to be project managers. But some of the challenges inherent in a project can be the result of internal politics so project managers can’t bury their heads in the sand and avoid the politics if they are to deliver successful projects.

How corporate politics impacts projects

New projects often arise because a problem exists for example: a business process is inefficient; technology is lacking; a competitor has a better product; or new laws have been introduced. So, initiating a project exposes flaws within the organisation. That fact, in itself, can be enough for the project to get a red light. After all why throw a spotlight on a situation that may have happily existed for years? We know the answer to that in theory, but reality doesn’t always conform to the sensible approach.

Projects are exposed to senior executives and stakeholders who may not be fully committed to the change the project will bring – the project may threaten their personal interests or careers. Project managers, then, can be fighting a battle from the outset to implement a project fully. Stakeholders can have hidden agendas that thwart progress, be complacent about the status quo or, worse, be absentee stakeholders who are never available to make the decisions required to move a project forward.

Even when projects have been approved and are making some progress, achieving real and substantial change is never guaranteed. We often talk about end users failing to embrace what the project has delivered but senior executives are just as culpable. They have the power to limit budgets and resources, which can result in a project deliverable that just doesn’t provide the anticipated benefits.

After all most projects are about change, and change stirs up an emotional and political response in many organisations.  Should we expect these responses? Yes. But how should project managers respond, what strategies can we adopt to manage these political pressures? 

Strategies to overcome political influence on projects

Of course, the irony is that internal politics can often be detrimental to the corporate interests. Yet in order to achieve anything at all, project managers may need to accept the prevailing situation. But should they? Do they?  Projects are inherently political endeavours, but in my view it’s not the role of the project manager to engage in internal politics but to harness its power to strengthen the governance arrangements for the project.

As project managers we represent the needs of the project for clarity of objectives, proper resources and funding, effective decision taking and delegated responsibility to deliver. Political decisions such as the strategic direction of the project, the viability of the project and fit with other project are the responsibility of the senior management, programme managers, sponsors and project boards. Our job is the help these senior managers understand and accept their ownership of these decisions.

Most project managers will have some experience of conflict and negotiation simply because projects are introducing change. However, project professionals often focus on conflict and negotiation concerning budgets and schedules, differences of opinions over solutions or changes to the project scope. They could equally well use their conflict resolution and negotiation skills in a more diplomatic way to address and resolve the ‘hidden’ political agendas holding back a project.

Whilst there are many times when compromise is necessary on a project, if every project becomes a compromise then the organisation will be failing to grasp business opportunities; because when there are compromises no-one gets what they really want. Time and money will simply be expended to deliver solutions that are limited in scope or flawed in some way.

If project managers genuinely want to solve corporate problems in organisations where strong political influence is at play then they have to learn to think politically – to become politically astute project managers. This can be alien to people used to employing rules, processes and methods to achieve their goals. But there is no such thing as best practice in a political situation.

Project professionals must also be brave enough to challenge the status quo – and in a non-confrontational way. That’s a fairly big ask by anyone’s standards but building support among other project managers in the same situation can help.

Final thoughts…

Having originally stated that project managers tend not to be political animals I’m convinced that they should be; maybe we should learn some of the diplomacy strategies that others adopt.

I’d be interested in other project managers’ experiences in these sorts of situations. Have you ever compromised on project deliverables or have you ever gone into battle? What was the outcome?



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  1. Anna Preston
    Anna Preston 15 October 2020, 11:34 AM

    Very true Paul that many projects threaten, or appear to threaten, personal interests of senior management. As project managers, we more often consider the perceived threat to those working at the coal-face and put time and effort into reassuring and re-training those people if necessary. Less often, in my experience, do we put the same effort into allaying the fears of our seniors. Yet if we did so we might experience less of these politically charged situations surrounding many projects in the workplace.