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How to Navigate Internal Politics on Projects

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Have you ever wondered why project stakeholders don’t quite respond the way you were expecting? It’s probably internal politics at play.

Recently I interviewed the authors of A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders. They shared their insights into why engaging stakeholders on projects doesn’t always work out the way you expect. Today it’s the turn of Jake Holloway, who shares some tips on how to navigate internal politics on projects.

Hello, Jake. What’s the difference between the textbook approach to managing stakeholders and your approach?

Standard project management textbooks assume that stakeholders are universally compliant, rational and available.

You mean they’re not??

The reality is that some of them will not even read emails or attend meetings, and are completely irrational! They might even be completely opposed to the project for any number of personal and professional reasons.

The reality is that stakeholders are people, which means that they are potentially irrational, selfish, and proud. They like authority, influence, money, status. And sometimes they don’t like other people, and they don’t like change.

Think of our approach as bringing a political and social dimension to project management. Like Machiavelli did with The Prince.

Well, there’s a gap in my literary knowledge exposed. I’ve never read The Prince. Tell me about the most unhelpful stakeholder you’ve ever worked with.

We have all had very demanding sponsors/steering cos – so I don’t think that counts as difficult. I had a project sponsor who said in our first meeting, “I want you to know that this project shouldn’t exist and I will oppose the final recommendations, whatever they are.” Strangely enough that wasn’t the most difficult because at least he was being honest!

I think the most difficult was a CEO who took away an 100% essential technical specialist from a project, and then fired me for not being able to hit the schedule without him!

We need to be able to turn those people around. Do you see people doing that?

Good project managers do this all the time. It is what separates good project managers from bad ones. It works because they persuade, motivate, sell, enthuse and even manipulate! They don’t hide behind Gantt charts and reports and RAG statuses.

They also take the time to truly understand their stakeholders and what motivates them. They listen and empathize and put themselves in the stakeholders’ shoes, rather than think about the project only from their own perspective.

Tick box technocratic project managers are useless in projects with powerful and difficult stakeholders.

Quote about good project managers
Your book explains that contractors can be just as difficult. Surely they’d pull out the stops for their clients? Why can they be so difficult to work with?

External suppliers, including individual contractors, have their own commercial objectives.  It is in their interest to have projects go through change controls that increase profits. It suits them if the projects take longer to increase revenue.

This conflict of interest is not always balanced out by the external suppliers making the right decisions for the client. Even if the team delivering the project want to do the right thing, the sales person might be directly financially motivated to prevent it.

If you as a project manager pretend otherwise, the suppliers can get the upper hand. For evidence, see almost every single Central Government IT contract ever!

The team has a huge part to play in all this and they can be equally difficult. What’s your top tip for project managers struggling with their project team?

Whether they are being difficult or in full-on mutiny, the key is understanding the team and looking for what is behind the behavior.

Are they bored, stressed, not learning? Is it a personality clash? Different cultures? Only once you have a handle on this can you start to come up with solutions.

Three simple things always work for me:

  • Be completely honest with them.
  • Talk to them much more than you think you need to.
  • Have some fun together.

Thanks, Jake!

Read my interview with one of the other authors, Roger Joby here: The Reality of Difficult Stakeholders.

About my interviewee: Jake Holloway is an experienced project manager, consultant and Business Development Director in the areas of IT, Digital and Marketing. He has managed and sponsored hundreds of projects and portfolios, and has been involved in building and designing project management systems.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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