Project Practitioners > Do You Have a Political Plan?

Do You Have a Political Plan?

By Randy Englund

You can be a political victim of a win-lose situation or you can take steps to create win-win victories. How do you optimize project results in politically charged environments? A worthy goal is to discover and create more project-friendly environments. Power is the ability to cause or prevent an action and make things happen. Since project management is all about getting results, it stands to reason that power is required.

The challenge is to create an environment for positive politics. That is, people operate with a win-win attitude. All actions are out in the open instead of hidden, below the table, or behind closed doors. People demonstratively work hard toward a common good. Outcomes are desirable or at least acceptable to all parties concerned. Good, smart people, who trust each other (even if they do not always agree), getting together to solve clearly defined and important issues, guided by effective, facilitated processes, with full disclosure and all information out in the open, can accomplish almost anything.

It is important to recognize that organizations are political. A commitment to positive politics is an essential attitude that creates a healthy, functional organization. This may be a change for the organization. Create relationships that are win-win (all parties gain), actual intentions are out-in-the-open (not hidden or distorted), and trust is the basis for ethical transactions. Determining what is important to others and providing value to recipients are currencies that complete project managers can exchange with other people. Increased influence capacity comes from forming clear, concise, convincing, and compelling arguments and communicating them through all appropriate means. These actions help create leadership legitimacy.

Develop Legitimacy

Influence exists in people’s hearts and minds, where power derives more from legitimacy than from authority. Its presence occurs in the implementation of decisions.

Legitimacy is what people confer on their leaders. Being authentic and acting with integrity are factors a leader decides in relations to others. In contrast, legitimacy is the response from others. Position power may command respect, but ultimately how a leader behaves is what gains whole-hearted commitment from followers. Legitimacy is the real prize, for it completes the circle. When people accept and legitimize the power of a leader, greater support gets directed toward the outcome; conversely, less resistance is present.

Power is not imposed by boundaries. Power is earned, not demanded. Power can come from position in the organization, what a person knows, a network of relationships, and possibly from the situation, meaning a person could be placed in a situation that has a great deal of importance and focus in the organization. Leading with power in a project based organization is about earning legitimacy in complex organizational settings.

Instead of lamenting about a failed project, program, or initiative, it is possible to learn about power and politics so that project success is optimized. Knowledge, wisdom and courage, combined with action, have the potential to change your approach to project work.

Build a Guiding Coalition

A common theme for success or failure of any organizational initiative is building a guiding coalition—a bonding of sponsors and influential people who support the project or initiative.

Taming chaos and managing complexity are possible when stakeholders establish a strong sense of purpose, develop shared vision and values, share information as an enabling factor, and adopt patterns that promote cooperation across cultural boundaries. Getting explicit commitments up front, the more public the better, is important to implementing any project or initiative. It also takes follow through to maintain the commitment. But if commitment was not obtained initially, it is not possible to maintain throughout. It all starts by investigating attitudes and assessing how things get done.

Views of Politics

Politics will be present anytime an attempt is made to turn a vision for change into reality.  It is a fact of life, not a dirty word that should be stamped out. A common view is what happens with negative politics, which is a win-lose environment in an under-handed or without-your-knowledge-of-what's-happening approach. People feel manipulated, and the outcome is not desirable from their point of view.  Secret discussions are more prevalent than public ones.  Reciprocal agreements are made to benefit individuals rather than organizations.

Project managers who shy away from power and politics are not being all they can be. A big pitfall people fall into is not taking the time to fully assess what they are up against—learning how to operate effectively in a political environment. A negative reaction to the word “political” could be a barrier to success.

Being political is not a bad thing when trying to get good things done for the organization. A political environment is the power structure, formal and informal. It is how things get done within the day to day processes as well as in a network of relationships. Power is the capacity each individual possesses to translate intention into reality and sustain it. Organizational politics is the exercise or use of power.

Since organizations by their nature are political, complete project managers become politically sensitive. That means to be aware of how things get done in an organization but not get dragged into negative political battles. Beware of ambivalence towards power and politics. Take a stance where motivation is to create a win-win situation that is out in the open. The alternative is to become a political victim of a win-lose situation that is conducted not in the open but in a back room or out of sight of full disclosure. History is replete with scenarios where growth is limited or curtailed by dictators, mob controls, or special interests. Free markets and open organizations accomplish far more in shorter time periods.

Ran alf poli planCreate a Political Plan that addresses the power structure in your organization, levels of stakeholder impact and support, who forms a supporting or guiding coalition to make the vision become reality, and what are the areas of focus that constitute a strategic plan.

Document the findings in a plan (see template on the web “Offerings”) that includes:

  • Assessment of environment
  • Description of political jungle
  • Stakeholder roles
  • Potential issues
  • Approach to stakeholders and issues
  • Strategic response, such as positioning and steps to take
  • Action steps

Leading change in political environments is a learned skill. It involves assessment, identification, skill-building, planning, and application. It also involves knowing the potential of project management and the willingness to apply a disciplined process to a web of simultaneous projects across the organization. Like all learning, being effective in this environment involves movement between reflection and action.

An overlay to the project management process is to prepare a political plan. This plan involves observing how an organization gets work done and performing stakeholder analysis. It further incorporates creative human dynamics to encourage proactive thinking about how to respond to and influence other people in the organization. Complete project managers develop political plans as well as effective project plans.


Join Alfonso Bucero and Randy Englund to learn more about and practice developing a political plan, “Integrating People, Organizational, and Technical Skills: The Complete Project Manager,” at PMI SeminarsWorld, happening October 7-10. 2015 in Orlando Florida, and December 7-10 in San Diego, California.

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