When Things Get Political

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.[4]

[4] There is one other exception worth mentioning. Often a better technical solution may be a poor choice, if the existing organization is very effective using the tools and methods that are deeply embedded in its culture. Although moving to a better toolset might seem obvious from a purely technical point of view, the costs in disruption may overshadow the benefits. Here is where some intelligent political compromise is useful. And it doesn't hurt to apply a good dose of empathy to the problem, either.

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.

Good Politics

The following techniques can be considered valid, legitimate parts of a political process:

  • Education

  • Persuasion

  • Consensus building

  • Fact-finding

  • Intellectually honest discussions

  • Identification of common interests

  • Exposure of hidden or subtle facts

  • Seeking compromise

  • Reasoning together

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.[5]

[5] We need to be careful that consensus does not lead to "group think." The essence of the process is the vitality associated with competing opinions. When consensus is achieved through peer pressure, negative decisions and outcomes can result.

Neutral Politics

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:[6]

[6] Let's note once again for emphasis the North American bias. Some or all of the gray zone behaviors might be considered OK, acceptable, dubious, or very bad by Europeans or Asians. This is where things get very complex. But in order to frame the discussion at all, I needed to define three categories. What I put into them reflects the North American point of view, which itself is an approximation.

  • Cajoling

  • Ridiculing

  • Lobbying

  • Delaying

  • Defocusing issues

  • Positioning

  • Not telling all the truth all the time

  • You do this for me and I'll do that for you

  • "Spinning"

"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.

Bad politics

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":

  • Lying or deliberately misleading

  • Bribing

  • Intimidating, threatening, bullying

  • Undermining, conspiring, plotting

  • Personal attacks, abusive behavior

  • Filibustering

  • Needless arguing on minor issues to exhaust time and patience

  • Hidden agendas

  • Committing to do something you have no intention of doing

  • Committing to not do something you have every intention of doing

  • Appealing to authority to subvert the process

  • "The end justifies the means" or "All's fair in love and war"

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."[7]

[7] I apologize also to Sun Tzu, whom I could not work into this chapter at all.

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.

The Software Development Edge(c) Essays on Managing Successful Projects
The Software Development Edge(c) Essays on Managing Successful Projects
Year: 2006
Pages: 269

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