jim@millikenproject.com

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Project Politics: Good Thing. Bad Name.


          Politics has a bad name – so bad even politicians sneer at it. Pretty much every other day, some leader of a national party dismisses the opposing position in the healthcare debate as “politics.”  Bad stuff, he/she is saying. Dishonest and exploitive.
          It’s almost astounding to realize that politics once was considered a noble calling. Nowadays, the polls rate this – dare we call it a “profession?” – incredibly low in public esteem. Somewhere in that six-mile-deep Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Lower than whale droppings. It gets no respect. None.
          So you’re up against it when you remind everyone that politics is an essential function of civilization, to say nothing of democracy. It is equally at the core of project management. It is the art and science of accomplishing a mutually-valued outcome among disparate parties.
          The unsatisfactory alternatives are dictatorship, war or surrender to unsolved problems.

          Project managers actually have a much more favorable reputation than politicians – or should that be “a much-less-unfavorable” reputation? (Did you hear the one about the cannibals who lived happily within a large organization until they were exposed? One of them carelessly ate a janitor instead of the customary project manager. The janitor was missed instantly.)
          In fact, politics, like project management, can be practiced very well or very poorly. Or somewhere in the vast range of quality between the extremes.
          Similarly, the issues of either profession can be vitally important. Healthcare, so obscured by irrelevant and inane argument, really matters. People are dying because they can’t afford care, and people are going broke trying to pay for it. The country can’t continue to afford the way we’re going
This has been on the national agenda, in one form or another, since at least the days of President Theodore Roosevelt. We should all get our heads together and do something about it. You don’t have to take one position or another to think that would be an important thing to do.

It’s a project. A project within the humongous, revolutionary project that is the United States of America. And don’t believe there isn’t plenty of risk in them both, particularly the survival of the way of life we enjoy in this country.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin referred to the newly-formed entity as “a republic, if you can keep it.” He was not at all alone among the founding members in understanding this thing needed careful tending. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
It would have been too clumsy for Franklin to have said, “It’s a project, if you can manage it.” Or Jefferson to have warned, “Constant risk management is the price of democracy.”
The entire enterprise, at the time of that years-long “project charter” negotiation, was politics of the highest order. Washington despaired of getting the battling factions to agree on anything – but he kept it together through determination, persuasion and leadership. He was the ultimate political project manager, and without him the whole thing would have come apart.

In our infinitely smaller way, we project managers need a sufficiency of the same characteristics to do our job. It’s not all Gantt charts and work package specifications, however necessary they are.
You don’t have to call it politics if that offends you, but you’d better practice it that way if you’re going to hold your stakeholders together and navigate the political challenges of your projects.