TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. Here’s his response to a recent inquiry from a TechRepublic member.

At my current job with a consulting company, we realize that our project management processes are seldom the cause of project problems. Politics seems to be the thing that causes the most problems. I’ve read a lot of the project management literature, and for me, the problem is that they all assume that you will know what to do as soon as you recognize that a situation is political. I continue to struggle trying to recognize and operate in a political environment.

Your question is a good one. When you talk about politics, we should first try to set a common definition. To me, politics is all about interacting with people and influencing them to get things done. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, depending on the tactics people use. Usually, when people talk about office politics, they are talking about it in a negative context.

Ever seen an Office Politics 101 class?
As you said, there is not a lot of literature or training in this area, and I don’t think I have ever seen a class that focused on raising the political savvy of project managers. Office politics is something you learn over time.

People who are good at it tend to get further up in the organization. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Much of the good side of politics is being able to work with people and organizations to get things done. The bad side is that sometimes you get done what you need at the expense of other people or organizations. Again, they don’t teach you how to do that in a class.

You cannot readily distill the essence of politics into a learnable, repeatable process. In project management, we have processes for managing a workplan, managing scope, managing risk, and so on. However, politics is people related and situational. What works for one person in one situation may not work for another person because people, and their reactions, are different.

Proactive communication to some is politics to others
Some office-politics tactics are blatant and obvious, but the best are subtle. Take an example of an upcoming meeting in which a major decision is to be made. You may decide to meet with some of the attendees ahead of time to explain the situation and what your recommendation will be. To you, this is just making sure people have the appropriate information to make a decision. To others, this might be seen as politicking.

Some project managers have more control and authority than others, but none of us can succeed alone. You need to understand who has the power to get certain things done and how to work with those people to get what you need.

Advice for political lightweights
I agree that most project managers do not have all the political savvy they need. Usually if you deal with people honestly and manage expectations, you will do fine in a political environment. Others may display political gamesmanship, but your best course is to determine how to proactively shape future events based on knowing the specific players and circumstances involved.

For project managers who are uncomfortable or unable to shine in the political spotlight, I offer this advice:

  1. Try to recognize events on your project where politics are most likely to be involved. This could include decision points, competition for budget and resources, and setting project direction and priorities.
  2. Deal with people openly and honestly. When you provide an opinion or recommendation, express the pros and cons to provide a balanced view to other parties. Communicate proactively with all stakeholders.
  3. If you feel uncomfortable, get your sponsor or your functional manager involved. They tend to have more political savvy and positional authority, and they should be able to provide cover for you.

All project managers participate at times under the broad definition of politics. If you do not have the comfort and confidence to play politics with the “big boys” in your organization, stick to the three pieces of advice given above. If you do have the ambition to play politics, be careful. On the other hand, you might be president some day.

How do you deal with politics?

Do you have an approach that works well in highly political situations? What have you learned about office politics during your career? Are there special rules for consultants to follow regarding office politics? Send us your ideas.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project-management methodology called TenStep.