Project Management and Office Politics

An article describing the difference between transactional and strategic project managers and how the latter uses office politics to optimize project success.

I was teaching a project management course last week and presented a module on stakeholder management. In this module, I presented some techniques for identifying project stakeholders, some criteria for evaluating them to see which ones have an important influence over the project, and strategies for dealing with stakeholders who may have some moderate influence over the project but who are not involved in the day-to-day decisions in the project. In all, I thought it was pretty standard material.

What surprised me, however, was a comment from one of the students in the class. He said that he was taught (elsewhere) that the role of the project manager stopped at interfacing with the sponsor — dealing with secondary and tertiary stakeholders was the responsibility of the sponsor, not the project manager. At the time, I thought that this was preposterous — of course a project manager needs to deal with stakeholders other than the sponsor; later, however, I began to think more deeply about this and I came upon a new understanding of the issue.

For argument’s sake, let’s say there are two kinds of project managers: transactional project managers, and strategic project managers. Transactional project managers are focused solely on driving the team to achieve the project scope within project constraints (budget, timelines, etc.). Strategic project managers, on the other hand, focus on finding the optimum path to achieving business value during the project. This second type of manager does still concern themselves about completing the project scope within constraints, but has a different approach that tries to determine what other — hidden — factors may be considered to drive optimum project results.

Transactional project managers are performing standard, basic project management activities. I am not suggesting anything out of the ordinary here.

For strategic project managers, however, I am adding a layer of soft skills and business acumen on top of the basic project management skills to create a more sophisticated, nuanced approach. The International Project Management Association (IPMA) has been setting international standards for project management competency assessments for decades. The organization publishes the International Competence Baseline (ICB) which breaks down the knowledge and experience required by a competent project manager into three areas: PM technical skills (like scheduling, quality management, resource management, etc.), behaviours and traits (like negotiation skills, a results-oriented attitude, creative problem solving, etc.), and general business knowledge (such as programme management, organizational structures, health and safety regulations, etc.). I believe that the strategic project managers have deeper competence in the general business knowledge and display the required behaviours and traits at a deeper level of sophistication. In essence, the strategic project managers are more senior — more competent — than the transactional project managers.

Transactional project managers are given a project scope and some constraints within which to deliver that scope. They would then focus inwards on the core project team to ensure that the team is following a plan that will achieve those objectives. Strategic project managers are different: they focus outwards from the project team and look to the opportunities and threats that exist in the project’s business environment that may impact project results. The strategic project manager would meet with the sponsor and try to find out the details of the business case that led to the project, asking if there were any personal objectives of the sponsor or key stakeholders that the PM could consider when planning the project. After all, there are many paths to achieving project objectives, and some may help the sponsor to achieve other (perhaps covert) objectives along the way. This is where office politics comes in to play.

The project sponsor may have other initiatives that this project could support — perhaps without extra cost — through the way in which it structures its work or deliverables. And while the sponsor has his or her own personal agenda, so do the other project stakeholders. The strategic project manager tries to understand the influence of these stakeholders over the project and the relative importance of keeping these stakeholders happy. Sometimes, the PM will find out that some stakeholders can be safely ignored, or should only be paid lip service to, while others need to be carefully considered and approached with a strategy in mind.

Office politics sometimes can derail a project faster than anything else — by considering the external stakeholders, their power, their (sometimes) hidden agendas, and their level alignment with the project’s objectives, the strategic project manager can structure the project to more likely meet its transactional goals, and to do so while helping other further their own agendas. If he or she can pull this off, the strategic project manager will be seen as a person of influence and a strategic partner for various interests and factions within the business. Which, over time, leads to an even greater involvement in organizational politics. Let the games begin…

Kevin Aguanno is an executive project manager whose competence is certified by IBM and the IPMA. He is an award-winning lecturer for various universities and corporate clients, and is well-known professional speaker. Currently the Vice President of the Project Management Association of Canada, he devotes a lot of his time to supporting the growth of the project management profession. He can be reached via