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  • Writer's pictureNathalie C. Chan King Choy

Tools to Navigate Company Politics for Project Success


An organizational chart and a compass on a map

Company politics put projects at risk


Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just got along, built great products hand-in-hand, constantly delivered value, and prospered together?  Sadly, factors such as scarcity, egos, and conflicting agendas lead to organizational politics, which can derail projects.  As project managers, we need the business acumen to navigate these politics to keep our projects running smoothly.


You need information to be able to navigate


The best way to navigate company politics is to seek advice from folks who you trust who have been there a while.  But, in many cases, you don’t have access to trusted advisors or haven’t built those relationships yet.  Your next best option is to draw your own map for navigation.  


How do you draw your own map?  You will need to gather information to gain an understanding of the context & dynamics. 3 tools to help you gather this information are:

  • Organizational charts

  • RACI charts

  • 1:1s


How can you use each tool to identify risks early and make informed decisions?


Organizational (“org”) charts


Know where your project team members and stakeholders land in the company’s org chart.  How many levels up do you have to go before the team members share a common leader?

The farther up you have to go, the greater the risk of a misalignment of priorities within the project team.  Allow for extra time & set up discussions between leaders to reach alignment. 


Aside from the solid line reporting relationships, are there “dotted line” relationships where someone is expected to take direction from another who isn’t their official manager?  Sometimes dotted lines are good: 2 separate parts of the tree are very aligned & 1 team is supporting another.  Sometimes they are bad: The dotted line report ends up spinning their wheels because they have 2 bosses telling them different things to do - if that's the case, you should make the bosses aware of this issue so they can commit to a percentage split of the report’s time and communicate about priorities.


Who makes the final decisions for your project team?  Are they high enough up in the org chart to give you confidence that their decisions will stick, or is there a risk of someone higher changing the decision?  If you need to change “decision” to “proposal” and get approvals from higher ups, build that in as a phase gate into your project.


RACI charts


RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. A RACI chart is a table of project stakeholders' roles in key areas: those Responsible for work, the one Accountable to ensure everyone did what they were supposed to, those who must be Consulted to weigh in, and those to be kept Informed of status.


Many teams don’t publish a RACI chart at the beginning of a project.  So often roles are implicit and hence not agreed upon, so:

  • balls get dropped because it’s not clear who is responsible or accountable for what

  • sudden course corrections happen because someone wasn’t consulted until the last minute

  • non-issues get escalated because of misunderstandings from key people not being kept informed


You can suggest the exercise of creating a RACI chart to a team, if you think they will be amenable to it.  But even if a team doesn’t want the overhead of creating/maintaining a RACI chart, you can build one in your head and validate what you think the roles are through your conversations with the team and stakeholders.  Asking them about their role(s) in an initiative and who else they know who should be involved allows you to populate your mental RACI chart.  You will probably notice gaps, and can flag them to the team or leadership for resolution.


1:1 calls or meetings


Org charts and RACI charts are a more objective source of data.  But politics don’t arise just because your tree or table aren’t well structured.  Subjectivity plays a big role.  You might get a feel for people’s priorities, passions, strong care-abouts, ambitions, concerns, and fears in group meetings.  But many people will be more guarded or feel peer pressure when in a group setting and might not say what’s on their mind.


1:1s allow people greater freedom to express what they think, if you create a safe space and ask open ended questions.  This can add nuance to your understanding of how the organization works.


It’s important honour the trust that someone puts in you when you have a 1:1.  So, be sure you understand what information should not be shared and what information you can act upon to help them and prevent stumbling blocks for your project team.  While you can't do much about an individual's ambition or ego, a lot of politics arise due to miscommunication, misunderstandings, disconnects, misaligned expectations, and lack of context. Project managers can help to resolve the latter to improve the project's chances of success.


Also remember that 1:1s are giving you 1 person’s point of view.  Everyone has biases and interprets events via their own lens.  Combine diverse perspectives for a more accurate map.


Conclusion


Company politics can be a source of frustration and put projects at jeopardy.  


To navigate the politics successfully, if you have trusted advisors who have a lot of experience at the company, seek their guidance.  Otherwise, create your own map to help you navigate the risks and make better decisions by examining org charts, RACI charts, and having 1:1s with key people.

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