Most of us are beyond the point where we believe that successful project management can be accomplished by following a formula or merely using the right system. It's not that the tools are unimportant, or that the systems don't work, because they do. However, the systems and the software only make the job easier; they aren't the elements of success.
What happens when your project sponsor wants a different outcome for the project than your other management team and stakeholders want? The answer is that each party tries to influence the project to get what they want. This is one way you get into project politics. The result is that the team is constantly pushed in different directions, trying to keep everyone happy, but not really doing what they were originally asked to do. The project team becomes stressed, confused, de-motivated and inefficient. It's your job as a Project Manager to ensure this doesn't happen.
Having a well defied set of project management processes will help you manage politics. People will know they can't go around the processes to get done what they want. However, project politics can't be solved by processes alone. You need to first work on the people element.
Step 1: Build relationships
It is easier to resort to office politics if you do not have personal relationships with the major stakeholders. It is possible that you have a relationship with some or all of them to start. It is also possible that you don't know any of the major stakeholders very well.
When a project starts, you can reduce the politics by building relationships with the major stakeholders. Building relationships makes it easier to work in a friendly and transparent manner. This starts off with stakeholder identification and stakeholder management, but goes beyond. Stakeholder engagement is about building relationships. These relationships will help when there is conflict and can keep you from getting into the dark side of project politics.
Build close relationships by meeting each stakeholder regularly to find out what they need from the project and why they need it. By listening to their needs, you're securing their buy-in and you may be able to save unnecessary conflict in the future.
Step 2: Create a Project Board or Steering Committee of key stakeholders
One way to get competing stakeholders on the same page is to create a Project Board or Steering Committee. This allows the key stakeholders to agree to the same project scope and objectives. The Project Board should include your sponsor, major customers and other people that may influence the project. The purpose of the board is to set direction, resolve issues, control the scope and make sure that specific targets are set and achieved.
By forming a Project Board, you create a space where the senior stakeholders can thrash out the politics themselves and come to a consensus. You then have one common group to manage. If you include all of the "influencers" within the Board, you can task them with giving you a single, consistent vision. That way, there is no confusion as to what must be done to deliver the project and people are not pulled in different directions all of the time.
Step 3: Manage Change
A big risk to a project is that the goal posts move, causing continuous change to the project scope. This is a breeding ground for project politics, because every stakeholder will have their own wants and needs to be met—and they may not all be consistent with one another.
You need to manage change carefully by putting in place a formal process for managing it. Your change process should involve documenting each Change Request, why it's needed and the impact to the project in implementing it. The Change Request should then be presented to the Project Board for review and approval. You need to make sure that when it's approved the board also approve the extra time, money and people needed to implement it.
Building relationships, creating a Project Board and proactively managing change will help you cut through politics to ensure your project success.