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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Congress, the Project

          The United States Congress has a problem. Its approval rating in the polls is about 9 percent. The nation’s citizens are mostly contemptuous of how the senators and representatives conduct their business.

          So. Big problem for you if you’re one of the 535 senators and representatives, right?


The vast majority of incumbent senators and representatives get re-elected easily, with up to 70 percent of the vote. That’s unquestionable approval from their constituents. Nine out of 10 representatives who sought re-election in November were successful. Many of them campaigned against Congress to attract votes.

          Negative 90-10 for Congress, positive 90-10 for our own guy or gal. What’s that all about?

          Performance against expectations, that’s what.

          This is instructive for us in illustrating the problem-solving so integral to project management.

In the congressional arena, people (hundreds of millions of stakeholders) want the institution to do certain things and not do others.

This sets up the basic problem. There is absolutely no way each and every citizen in each of the 435 House districts can have his/her wants and needs met.

          Yet, as a whole, the American electorate is strongly in favor of the process generally referred to as “compromise,” meaning a pattern of working to find consensus through give and take.

We don’t see that happening. Hence, the high level of dissatisfaction with the performance of Congress – often fanned by exaggerated assertions and promises from candidates eager to win voter support.

The problem is immensely complicated by the individual voter’s favorable attitude toward his/her own representative. The district rep, unlike this truculent and ineffective Congress, is seen as fighting for my way of seeing the nation and defining its possibilities and obligations.

In election campaigns, this candidate reinforces my expectations, and so I vote for that person, and see him/her doing battle for me in Washington.

But this loyalty is conditional. If my member of Congress gets involved in some “compromise” that allegedly serves the national interest but is counter to what I voted for, I’m not happy. When someone else promises to do things my way, I switch my vote.

Knowing this, and desiring re-election, my rep is quite likely to be one of those intractable combatants rather than a “compromiser.”  I could care less about some outsider’s opinion of what’s good for the country.

So my rep may behave in anti-consensus ways to meet expectations,back home, which are infinitely more important to her/him than serving the interests of people nationwide who don’t control the congressman’s destiny.

And, of course, 434 other House members in their immensely disparate districts across this vast country are doing exactly the same thing for their wildly different constituencies.

           Project managers ought to be watching and studying what goes on in Washington, and understanding how the lessons reverberate in our organizations and our projects.

          Expectations are established in multiple places, and the project manager must be a student of those that drive his stakeholders, and their importance in the project context.

          This is an area that most openly illustrates the place of politics in project management. Why are these people involved in my project? What do they want? Who dominates the development of their expectations? What are those expectations? How can I find the common ground that will align their efforts with those that advance the project?

          The project management lesson is incomplete without consideration of the “leadership” and “compromise” referred to often, and longingly, by citizens and, accusingly, by combatants.

          Putting aside the fact that both terms are widely misunderstood and brutally distorted in the current war of words, they represent the answers to both the immediate congressional mess and the structural misalignment that underlies it.

          Those who serve in Congress must lead, taking seriously the obligations they undertook when they swore to uphold the interests of the American people.

Part of that is taking responsibility for truly understanding issues and possibilities, and making it their business to instruct and convince their constituents rather than simply pandering to perceived preferences.

Another part of congressional duty is taking the time to familiarize oneself with all pertinent points of view, and searching sincerely for areas of mutual interest.   

          If competent project management were at work in Congress, the current destructive struggle could become a joint drive toward common success. No problem.

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