The ability to influence people is a good skill for a project manager. Isn’t it?
While working with some mid-level managers on communication skills, a recent Fortune article about how the new Ford CEO has been changing the culture there has generated some interesting discussions (see article).
Sharp elbows, fierce loyalties, and frequent turf battles were hallmarks of Ford’s management culture: The tough guys won.
He drives performance the way he did at Boeing, with the Business Plan Review, a meeting with his direct reports, held early every Thursday… There are no pre-meetings or briefing books.
Great. We had just been discussing “lining up your ducks” — where one gathers support and influences potential supporters before a decision meeting. And here’s an article with an executive outlawing that very technique. What’s going on?
Usually, when I hear someone use the term “it’s political,” it is being used pejoratively. The speaker is usually describing a situation where decisions are being made: A) with which the speaker does not agree; and B) that can only be explained by non-rational reasons (e.g. playing favorites, coercion, and a big #$*%^ mystery).
On the other hand, “influencing” seems to have a much better reputation. Isn’t it our job as PMs to influence people on the project? To find ways to get our stakeholders onboard? I would say, “absolutely!” I would go further and say that as PMs, we communicate (and communicate and communicate) expressly in order to influence getting to a mutually beneficial outcome.
On the other hand (my mind seems to need a lot of hands these days), could it be that one person’s influencing can be another’s political manipulation?
Hmmm…. well, it is true that some of the same techniques can be employed.
Some things do seem to be key differences:
A) Open to scrutiny — Political manipulation seems to occur most often behind a veil; there is an opaqueness to processes.
B) Source of power — Influencing more often relies upon the “power” of facts/data (this is not to say that “facts” are ever purely objective), as opposed to political power of reward/punishment.
C) Who benefits — Political motivation seems to be focused more on benefitting a small sub-group rather than a wide and inclusive view.
As PMs we are living and breathing influencers. But, do we ever cross over into political manipulation? Probably, and we should think about the implications — is it ever justified?
However, I guess I’m more worried about if, in our zeal to influence, we can be perceived as political players in the perjorative sense. What if some people see our numerous (and often unscheduled) meetings and conversations as furtive and secretive? What if they don’t understand the rational basis of our position? What if some people see our success as evidence of politics and don’t see how the stakeholders as a whole benefit?
As our discussions went on, it became pretty evident that there is a spectrum between clearly benign influencing and clearly evil political manipulation — and there’s the issue of perception.
Ford’s CEO is trying to shine a bright light into the backrooms. And maybe that’s one test on whether we’ve crossed over to the dark side: can our influencing actions withstand scrutiny? Would our parents be proud?