Shaping project politics
- Does a project make politics, and if so, in what context?
- Is politics made in the project?
- Or even with the project?
To clarify the terminology, first take a look at Google with the search “politics meaning”. It says, among other things, “method, way of asserting one’s own ideas against other interests.”1 Or also: “Politics refers to any kind of influence and shaping as well as the assertion of demands and goals, whether in private or public spheres.”2
In both definitions, I find the statement of assertion very concise, in the first case even explicitly against the interests of others.
Lived project politics
Applied to my first question, this means that ONE PROJECT tries to push through its ideas (possibly jointly developed in the project) AGAINST those of the OTHER PROJECTS or even the LINE ORGANISATION. This is what we typically find in the allocation of resources. And indeed, in my experience, this is rarely a consensus-driven process.
If one follows the above definitions, politics WITHIN the project is arguably even more uncomfortable for those affected. Here, project staff or stakeholders try to push through their own ideas AGAINST those of the OTHERS INVOLVED IN THE PROJECT. This then directly affects the operational work in the project.
Successful project managers do a lot to prevent this: Kick-off meetings, the joint development of a project vision with the involvement of the client and the discipline of stakeholder management are important aspects that are also repeatedly emphasised in project management training. Research on project failure suggests that ignoring these best practices significantly increases the chances of failure. Thus, practising project politics in the project seems to be the opposite of guaranteeing success.
And last but not least, enforcing ideas WITH THE PROJECT. This is also no stranger to the project business. For example, IT projects are always used to initiate necessary process changes. Experienced project managers know this and take appropriate precautions, e.g. adequate involvement and accountability of process owners. Less experienced ones fail and then usually get the blame.
“In addition, it can also be observed that declaring undertakings as projects is a good way to acquire additional budgets. So if it becomes a means to circumvent an existing grievance within an organisation – the provision of budgets is refused because corresponding titles are missing in the annual planning – then it is little wonder if projects fail. The aim was never to make them successful, it was always about something else.”3
So project politics with the help of the project is not a pleasant situation either – neither for those involved in the project nor in total for the company.
A remedy for “unhealthy” project politics
All three scenarios are not unknown. In my role as a global project manager and as a leader who has also set up and led three large Project Management Offices (PMOs) in global corporations, I know countless real-life examples and their consequences.
The whole thing sounds pretty unhealthy, in my opinion anyway. And at the same time, we must not overlook the fact that there is and will always be project politics. People represent their interests, project staff stand up for their projects and goals, those involved and affected argue about priorities. The central difference and also the reason for the often negative image of project politics is the form of cooperation.
And what can companies do for better cooperation and against “unhealthy” politics in and with projects? They can improve the handling of and in projects. For example, they can install a Project Management Office (PMO). A PMO is a permanent function in project management that performs supportive tasks for projects and management. This includes, for example
- the development and definition of methods, processes, tools and best practices, closely related to this also the determination of specifications and guidelines,
- the coordination of project portfolios and resources,
- the provision and coaching of project managers,
- operational support in projects, e.g. to improve interaction with stakeholders or to clarify objectives and conflicting goals,
- or active learning from other projects or in the project itself (lessons learned).
A PMO can ensure professionalism and transparency as well as mediate conflicting interests (assuming appropriate training). In this way, “asserting” can become “shaping with each other”, rather in the sense of the definition “politics means active participation in the shaping and regulation of human communities.”4
Project culture and power
Project politics in the sense of the definitions quoted at the beginning of this article has a lot to do with power and little to do with pooling resources that are usually scarce anyway. It costs the organisation energy and motivation, there are winners and losers. The people, projects, departments or divisions involved rarely take the dispute over different interests sportingly, which almost automatically has massive effects on the corporate and project culture. Trust between all those involved cannot develop in this way, rather tendencies towards tribal thinking can be seen.
Often in such cultures we see the well-known silos that (secretly) control projects, or projects that never come to an end (also called cockroach projects). While this contradicts the basic idea of projects as “commissioned, purposeful, one-off, risky, contextual, resource-dependent, and possibly complex undertakings”5, it is still somehow accepted. If possible, home is sought among the “winners”, and home – as we know from social research – is what people need.
Which brings us to the cultural aspect, in my opinion the crux of the matter. If a company is about “asserting one’s own ideas AGAINST other interests”, even a project management office will not be able to change this just like that. At least not at short notice or at the push of a button.
The culture in a company and also in and with projects is the result of past cooperation. If this result is characterised by, among other things, “asserting one’s own ideas against other interests”, then to my ears this sounds like know-it-allism, bossiness, a lot of potential for conflict and a striving for power.
Such a policy excludes both a coordinated, joint approach and a change of perspective as a methodological component. Projects that need a serious and constructive commitment of those involved in order to be successful – and these are often those that shape the future in an organisation – are difficult to manage in a culture dominated by “unhealthy” project politics. Instead, there is often a dispute, almost a small war, over resources, priorities or tools. Project content and cooperation in a coordinated, common direction fall by the wayside.
To a certain extent, the interaction in projects and the handling of projects in a company is a mirror of the existing corporate culture. A project management office can help develop the project culture of a company. However, not at the push of a button, but through communication, coordination and participation. This requires perseverance and mediation skills and the support of management. The latter is often more attached to its own line interests, which harbours the danger that the PMO itself reaches into the “method box of unhealthy project politics”. Of course, this is counterproductive because it promotes a culture war of project versus line. Here, the PMO needs awareness and understanding for the other interests beyond the project world in order to take the lead in promoting and exemplifying healthy, professional project politics and thus ultimately to help shape the culture throughout the company.
And above all, all participants need more of “we as a company” and less of “we as a project/line” and certainly not “the main thing is me”. In practice, this is certainly more of a long-distance run than a sprint for many companies. But from my own experience I know that the effort is worth it. In terms of a healthy project politics and for successful projects from which everyone in the company benefits.
Notes (some in German):
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 Universal-Lexikon: Politik
  Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: kurz&knapp: Politik
 Excerpt from Why do projects fail?
 Excerpt from What is a project?
Astrid Kuhlmey has published more articles on the t2informatik blog, including
Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.