So what is the legitimate place for politics in technical organizations? Let's agree that purely technical issues need to be resolved technically. Once an issue moves out of the purely technical realm, then we admit politics. Examples of legitimate political issues include decisions on marketability, customer satisfaction, business impact, and so on. Because objective, technical criteria are harder to pin down in these areas, debate, including political debate, is necessary.
However, there are good politics and bad politics. Political scientists would, of course, disagree: For them, all methods are more or less efficacious in their own ways, and they are loath to make value judgments. They might consider my categorizations naïve, but I find them useful. Let's explore "good politics" and "bad politics" a little bit further.
The following techniques can be considered valid, legitimate parts of a political process:
Plato could get behind this kind of politics. In fact, it has been observed that in organizations that do a good job of consensus building, decisions often are implemented more smoothly because the consensus-building process causes diverse factions to come together and exercise reason, and to participate in making a joint decision. This process in effect "pre-sells" the idea, and the eventual solution has more buy-in from the participants than if there had not been consensus building.
By the way, I'm proud to observe that one of the hallmarks of the early Rational Software culture was an emphasis on consensus building to arrive at good decisions. A little later we needed to introduce "time-bounded consensus seeking," wherein if consensus was not achieved by a certain time, a decision was made through a somewhat less democratic, more informal process by the relevant manager in the interest of moving on. Even in this case, the period during which consensus was sought did tend to give a good airing of all the alternative points of view.
The following behaviors are in the gray zone. Some people admit them as part of a legitimate political process, while others abhor them. I make no value judgment here other than to put them in the "neutral" category:
"You do this for me and I'll do that for you" is basically yielding on one point to gain another, which is what I call bartering earlier in the chapter. One man's horse trade is another man's compromise. This is why I place this behavior in the gray zone.
Without belaboring the neutral zone too long, I move on to those aspects of the political process that most people find unpleasant and "over the line":
Sometimes this brand of politics is labeled "Machiavellian." This does a great disservice to Machiavelli, who had a lot more to say than "The ends justify the means."
What happens when you get into bad politics is that you now are dealing with people who don't view politics as an adjunct to getting their jobs done. You are dealing with people for whom the political process itself is the primary preoccupation. Winning, by political or other means, is more important to these people than getting the job done. They have their priorities reversed and, as such, are damaging to the organization. Certainly when you get to the last behavior, which basically says "There are no rules in a knife fight," you are beyond the pale.