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Dispatches from the PM Front Lines

No matter how long you’ve spent in an industry or profession, it’s never a bad idea to revisit some of the basics you learned at the start of your career. They rarely change very much and they can often help to put things in perspective later on. And it’s no different in project management. One area where this is only too true is coping with project politics in the trenches, right up front, where the action is.

How can you make Project Politics work for you, not against you?

When thinking about the effort behind actualizing project objectives, it’s clear that formal and informal networks must be used to get work done. But it’s no easy feat to get individuals and groups with disparate goals working collectively. It requires patience, organizational awareness, and a broad, deep network of relationships.

For project-driven change to occur it needs cultivated, fertile ground and a deep well of resources. But creating that doesn’t happen overnight. While building relationships, cross-functionality is a great lateral first step to cultivation, it’s the caring and feeding of those relationships that sustain and maximize the effort, and provide a deep well of resources when needed. How does one dig that well, then care for and maintain it so the invaluable resources it contains are available when needed? It starts with creating VALUE.

Visibility. Ask questions; be curious about people; adapt your style to the style of others
Availability. Stop multi-tasking and be present for others
Lead by Example. Do what you say you’re going to do; treat others how you like to be treated
Understanding. Show empathy for constraints; lend a helping hand
Embracement. Create ownership by listening to and incorporating others’ ideas

Can you have more than one Project Sponsor?

The short answer: Yes. The better answer: The best-run projects don’t. Here’s why.

An organization that’s on a quest to run a project on time, on schedule and on budget may not realize the negative impact that having two or more project sponsors (the people that provide financing for the project and have the absolute authority to approve or cancel it) can have on the project. Think meeting time, scheduling nightmares, and decision-making challenges. Next, think overall increased costs to deliver the project due to the increased meetings, the meetings before meetings, and the time it will take to facilitate decisions on key issues across several project sponsors.

So what’s a project manager to do? From the moment you’re assigned a project, start getting your arms around the project structure by putting together a project organizational chart. The chart should clearly identify the names of the stakeholders, project team, project manager and the (one!) project sponsor. It can be used not only to get the project structure defined, but also to clearly identify team member assignments. Organizations succeed more often with a project organizational chart because:

  • If you don’t put it in a picture it’s hard to see
  • Until you see the picture with multiple stakeholders, you won’t realize how complicated (or ineffective) your project structure is, or will be
  • Sometimes it’s as simple as educating the organization on the difference between a sponsor and a stakeholder
  • You can’t win if you don’t play. Or, if you accept the structure given, you’ll later regret you didn’t try to influence it

How can you get greater Executive Support?

Executives have the ability to help us through project logjams, such as when stakeholders can’t seem to agree. When decisions need to be made, the supportive executive can help navigate the process in a timely fashion, reducing delays that would otherwise paralyze projects. They have the positional power to secure resources and funding, and can articulate the business need driving the project.

But while executives can help to get things quickly back on track when problems arise, it’s important that they be kept in the communication loop throughout the project. At the same time, don’t waste their time with details. Some of the biggest complaints executives have about their project managers include:

“They haven’t talked to me for three months and now they’re looking for more time and money”
“They bury me with details – just give me the headlines”
“They think this is my only job”
“They don’t take ownership of their projects”

So, if you don’t have executive support, you’ve got to ask yourself why not, and what can you do to get it? Consider how you’re communicating with your sponsor. Is the frequency appropriate? How about the level of detail? Should you be using more face-to-face than e-mail? When there are problems, do you bring options and recommendations? Do you know what the sponsor’s priorities are? If you don’t know what keeps your sponsor awake at night, it could be argued that you’re not doing your job.

Use a communication plan to keep people in the loop. Show that you feel the weight of the project and are proactively seeking solutions to problems. Don’t hide behind e-mail. Last but not least, develop a better relationship with your sponsor. Good rapport with your sponsor will pay enormous project dividends.

So get back to project management basics now and again and be surprised at how much you thought you’d forgotten, but really haven’t.

Ben Snyder is the CEO of Systemation, (, a business analysis and project management training and consulting company that has been training professionals since 1959. Systemation is a results-driven training and consulting company that maximizes the project-related performance of individuals and organizations. Known for instilling highly practical, immediately usable processes and techniques, Systemation has proven to be an innovative agent of business transformation for many government entities and Fortune 1000 companies, including Verizon, Barclays Bank, JPM Chase, Mattel, State of Oregon, Travelers, Bridgestone, Amgen and Whirlpool.

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