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Monday, August 6, 2012

Magic Isn't. Politics Is.

     We all thought getting folks to do some challenging thing was  impossible, but someone pulled it off anyway. That wasn't magic. It wasn't just luck, either, although luck always is a component of success. It was politics.
     Politics, like project management, often is described as a variable blend of science and art. There's a reason for that common description, because the two professions are essentially identical.
     Politics, when it works, is the process of assembling and advancing reasons for disparate parties to act in each other's behalf to achieve an outcome that is valued by all. Usually, a person or a number of people explore and communicate interests among the various parties, searching for patches of common ground that encourage movement away from adverse positions.
     Opposing actors begin to see advantage in such movement, and they develop a willingness to sacrifice some less-desired benefits in the interest of gaining others of greater value. They re-examine convictions and suppositions in search of bargaining chips. As open discussion progresses, they improve their understanding of other positions, and see previously unnoticed value in offerings from different protagonists.
      There is nothing simple about such negotiations, particularly since all the parties typically have connections and obligations to other interests not at the table.
     Leading the effort takes sensitivity and tolerance, and an alert sense of real and potential motivations. It takes talent, skill and vision to negotiate the pitfalls, and to take advantage of the unobtrusive or unexpected opportunities that arise. You have to b both patient and intimately involved.
     All of that applies to the reality of projects, properly understood. You cannot simplify the management burden  to make it less daunting and more controllable. If you try to do that, you must then create some shrug-off to account for the resultant diminished results. You know. Projects never meet requirements, come in on budget, hit the schedule.
     It would be much like politicians blaming the opposition for intransigence when in truth they themselves failed to show leadership in convincing their constituents of hard truths and dealing honestly with their opponents.
     Project managers can't limit their work to operating the technology, reporting the processes and inventing the excuses. They must commit to hard outcomes and influence human behavior, often in circumstances of great difficulty and resistance.
     That's politics.
     The science of project management is visible on the surface, captured in the documentation and managed through organized, disciplined performance. It is PMI's 42 processes as outlined in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. It is an absolutely essential base for good project management -- and it can be manipulated as the refuge of mediocre managers. It is nowhere near all there is to this business, and it is an easy cop-out to pretend that it is.
     The art of politics, and of project management, is the nuanced work that goes on in convincing people -- including those who are powerful, convinced and antagonistic -- to see payoffs in doing what they originally may have had no intention of doing. It is the patient development of trust and candor through countless conversations and decisions, making collaboration possible. It combines empathy with decisiveness, example with engagement.
     It is your in-process assistance to people and guidance of ongoing events.
     This latter skill set is painfully learned and not always appreciated. It is at the core of quality project management. When you hate politics, you're thinking of the lazy, mean-spirited or dishonest corruption of a marvelous set of skills.
     When politics is done well, the results can seem magical. Close examination reveals that it's not magical at all -- just marvelous and admirable.