Politics is a word that we use so loosely that it risks losing meaning altogether. When we talk about office politics, as some recent posts by product management bloggers, we're usually expressing scorn for odious behaviors that stand in the way of some rational course of action. Every organization is susceptible to politics, in this negative sense, including every development team. Better to assume it, or even take advantage of it when possible, than to pretend that some magic tool or methodology will do away with politics.
Can't Live With Politics. Can't Live Without Politics
In their blogs, both Jim Holland and Jennifer Doctor recounted a session about politics at a recent Product Camp in Seattle. The topic struck a nerve, as evidenced by the outpouring of complaints from the audience. We've all heard them, whether we're product managers or not: Empire builders put themselves ahead of the interests of the group; real decisions happen in a back channel, instead of in the open; teams decide in haste, and repent at leisure . . . It sounds as if this session was as therapeutic for the audience as it was informative.
While these complaints may be universal, they do have special resonance for product managers. While the job description may vary across organizations, one aspect of product management is inescapable: you're in the business of persuasion. Requirement is just another word for making a case for what to build, and why. Go-to-market strategy is the fine art of prodding people who are very busy supporting the current products and services, thank you very much, to tackle something new. Credibility with the development team is a very specific concern for PMs. A lot of very smart engineers and marketers make lousy PMs because, however well they understand the technology or the market, they couldn't convince a thirsty person to buy water from them. Even the savviest salespeople often make bad PMs, because you're no longer selling the same things to the same people.
As Jennifer said in her post, PMs need to "recognize that politics and organizational dynamics are and will be visible in EVERY company." However many times you state that maxim, in however eloquent a way, it's still hard to get that point across fully. We'd all like people to be reasonable so that we can reason with them. The idea that, in every organization, 100% reasonable behavior is impossible is very hard to accept. To drive home the point, you need to put a human face on it.
Not Everyone Liked Ike
If you were to identify one of the greatest successes in the last century, the D-Day landings in World War II would certainly be among practically everyone's list. The planning and execution of a venture as colossal as D-Day could have gone wrong, very wrong, in many, many places. We might be tempted, therefore, to mine this rich historical vein for whatever nuggets about leadership we might apply to our own lives. Heck, we could even write a book about Eisenhower's secrets of success.
One of the striking things about D-Day is what a godawful political mess it was. Eisenhower was no philosopher-king, granted ultimate decision-making authority because everyone recognized what a brilliant general and all-around swell guy he was. One of Eisenhower's greatest skills as Supreme Allied Commander in the European theater was his knack for coalition politics, as well as experience in how to get things done within the US military and civilian bureaucracies. Ike could balance incendiary personalities like generals George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, and mulish personalities like Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. He had to deal with constant pressure from his superiors and less-than-perfect performance from the forces under his command. And yet, D-Day was a ringing success.
By the way, there are two kinds of WWII buffs. On the one hand, there are people who are technical enthusiasts, fascinated with equipment (tanks, airplanes, etc.), organization (for example, the constituent parts of an American infantry division), and tactics. The other type of WWII history buff is interested not only in these details, but also how things got done – including how Eisenhower was able to pull off the world's biggest invasion, which was in no way fated to succeed, in spite of all the hardware and manpower behind it.
If you look deeply into other great success stories – in science, the arts, sports, whatever – you'll find some combination of inefficiency, ego, rashness, inertia, rivalry, and all the other odious components of what we mean by politics in the workplace. Either you're not interested in how to get things done, in spite of these elements, or you're ready to dive into this mess and get things done.
Politics Can Be Another Word For Opportunity
Take heart in the fact that politics creates opportunities as well as inefficiencies. Agile adoption is a prime example. On more than a few occasions, I've heard PMs complain that, in adopting Agile, the development team blew past them. Suddenly, the world changes for PM, with developers talking about continuous feedback, user stories, voice of the customer, short iterations . . . Funny thing is, if you close one eye and squint a little, these look an awful lot like exactly the things PM had hoped the development team might adopt. The source of the development team's newly-discovered passion for getting regular feedback from customers shouldn't matter, as long as it exists.
Of course, "group dynamics," politics, call it what you will, can take dysfunctional forms. In these situations, new tools or techniques might make a difference. A better requirements tool than Microsoft Office can address problems like information complexity or lack of follow-through on customer input. The same requirements tool, however, might fail utterly if a dev manager or executive refuses to look at the new content it provides. You can't escape politics, nor will you ever completely tame them. If that sounds too depressing, you might think of another profession.