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Are Office Politics Killing Your Project?


Have you ever included ‘Office Politics’ as a risk to your project? Probably not, but maybe you should. While it may sound silly, consider the potential implications of ignoring this challenging dynamic. The objective of office politics is to manipulate a situation in order to achieve an outcome that will benefit one individual or group at the expense of other individuals or groups. This typically involves gaining control or authority in order to influence decisions that can affect direction, scope, the allocation of assets and resources, etc., especially when this would not normally be the case.

The reality is that office politics exist in most environments and can often be integral to the way business decisions are made. Unfortunately, the connotation of office politics is that they are a set of negative behaviours and activities associated to the individuals or groups that adopt these tactics. In an environment rife with internal politics, it stands to reason that risks to a project can be significantly higher depending on the level and nature of the politics within that environment.

A project risk, by definition, is any potential event that could have a negative impact if it occurs. In order to manage the risks to a project, it is necessary to:

  • Determine the probability of the risk occurring,
  • Identify what the potential impact to the project will be; and,
  • Develop plans to mitigate the risk if it does occur.

While it is unlikely that ‘Office Politics’ would be listed directly as a risk on the Project Risk Register (imagine the political implications!), it is quite likely that the one or more of the outcomes of it would be noted. Consider either of the two following scenarios:

Scenario #1: Two projects have to compete for scarce resources

Both projects are approved but the demand for resources required by each project may exceed the supply. Resources may be in the form of access to staff, equipment, tools, services, etc. The risk that office politics will be a contributing factor is significantly higher if there is a perception that one project may attempt to usurp those resources from another. The risk may identify the impact to the project schedule and milestones if the necessary resources are not available at the required time.

Scenario #2: Two (internal) business units are indirectly competing with one another

Team A has a project that has been approved but Team B is fundamentally opposed to the project. Team B believes Project A is a threat to their mandate and will impact their ability to meet their business objectives and targets. Team B proceeds to interfere with Team A’s project by attempting to discredit the project and influence the decision makers in order to prevent it from proceeding. Team B is actively engaging in office politics in order to negatively impact the project. In this instance, the risk may reference stakeholders and what their association is to the project.

While it may not be possible to prevent individuals or groups from engaging in office politics that may impact a project, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate office politics from becoming a risk within the project and within the organization.

1. Identify and Include Stakeholders

Stakeholders are the individuals or groups that have a stake in the outcome of the project. Identifying stakeholders and including them in the project ensures that they are consulted on aspects of the project as well as informed about outcomes.

In the second scenario provided above, the inclusion of Team B as a stakeholder may mitigate the risk by including them in the project. For instance, ensuring that Team B is represented on the project’s Steering Committee provides the opportunity to participate in a structured forum that is responsible for the oversight of the project. While this may not completely eliminate the risk, it may reduce the likelihood that Team A’s project will be ‘blind-sided’ by Team B.

2. Set-up Project Governance and Decision Making Frameworks

Project governance is the management framework wherein the decisions that affect the project are made. The project governance framework needs to provide a structured, repeatable, decision making tool that can be applied across the organization that is independent of the organizational framework and oversees the project portfolio and investment. The framework needs to ensure the following:

  • That there is a defined structure for the steering committee
  • A Project Governance Policy is established
  • The portfolio of projects is managed
  • Roles and responsibilities related to the management of projects are defined

3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is how the project informs the stakeholders and decision-makers on the progress of the project and supports the decision-making process. It includes reports and updates that identify the status, risks, issues, actions, and milestones of the project. It defines the channels, methods and frequency of communication by the project, including the responsible parties.

The Take Away:

While it may not be possible to eliminate office politics and they may not ever be included in the standard list of project risks, it is important to acknowledge their impact. When you do find yourself managing a project within a tricky political environment, keep in mind the following guidelines:

  1. Identify Risks: Mitigating risks begins with identifying what the source of the risk is, the probability it will occur and the potential impact to the project.
  2. Identify Stakeholders: Identifying and engaging stakeholders including those that may be indirectlyimpacted by the project improves communication throughout the project and mitigates risk of being ‘blind-sided’.
  3. Establish Project Governance: Establishing a formal project governance framework ensures that there is a standard, repeatable structure in place to manage and oversee projects across the organization.
  4. Communicate: Ensuring continuous communication throughout the project keeps stakeholders informed and facilitates decision-making.

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