Problem solving practitioners in corporate / organisational environments are often faced with the obstacle of a hierarchy. Either they feel that they can’t approach senior managers for support, or they have to go through the ‘chain of command’ in order to gather information from outside of their own department.
A much bigger problem is presented by people who actively place obstacles to solving problems, perhaps by misdirecting or undermining the efforts of the project manager. There are myriad reasons why people do this, all of which come back to the same underlying fact – it’s in their personal interests to do so.
One of the most common ways that project managers aim to overcome these political problems is to seek a ‘project sponsor’; a senior manager who can ‘oil the wheels’ of the corporate machine. Unfortunately, such people are often overwhelmed by requests to be a project sponsor, with the result that a usually persuasive email from them to the obstructive managers goes ignored.
Rather than trying to enlist unreliable or unpredictable outside help, it is generally better for the project manager to develop his or her own influencing and relationship building skills.
There are countless books on the subject of influence, so to make it simple, we can distil all of the different influencing tactics down to one simple point to bear in mind. Whenever you need to enlist someone’s support, ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?”
No matter how ridiculous or disagreeable the answer may be, that’s the price you have to pay for their co-operation.
For example, if you know that a particular manager’s personal motivation is status and recognition, make sure that you mention him favourably in your project reports, even if he had nothing to do with it. You may find this unpalatable, and only you can decide if the price to pay for someone’s co-operation is too high for you.
Ultimately, you are responding to what different stakeholders value, even though it’s an unfortunate fact of life that this may not have much to do with creating business value.
The Influence Model
One of the biggest perceived obstacles to leading a team is that the project manager rarely has organisational authority over his or her team. However, with so many organisations moving towards flexible, matrix management structures, most managers now rely more on influence and engagement than on what they consider to be outmoded, hierarchical authority.
The Cohen-Bradford Influence Model was created by Allen R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, both leadership experts and distinguished professors. The model was originally published in their 2005 book, ‘Influence Without Authority’.
The Influence Model is based on the principle of reciprocity. For example, if you give a colleague some valuable advice that saves them time, you might expect, perhaps subconsciously, that she’ll do something useful for you in the future.
The Influence Model is useful when:
- You need help from someone but have no direct authority.
- The other person is resisting helping you, perhaps because they are busy.
- You don’t have a close relationship with the person.
- You have one opportunity to ask the person for help.
- You don’t know the other person well.
To use the Influence Model, follow these simple steps:
- Assume everyone to be a potential ally.
- Clarify your goals and priorities.
- Diagnose the world of the other person.
- Identify relevant “currencies”; theirs and yours.
- Deal with relationships.
- Influence through give and take.
1) Assume Everyone To Be A Potential Ally
Influencing someone else – especially someone who is seemingly “being difficult” – can make you feel upset, nervous, or unsure. However, don’t write anyone off: approach the situation by looking at the other person as a potential ally.
2) Clarify Your Goals And Priorities
Identify why you are trying to influence this person. What is it that you need them to do for you? Focus on your work goals, and leave personal motivators or drivers aside.
3) Diagnose The World Of The Other Person
Understand your potential ally’s world, and understand how he or she is judged. To evaluate this, ask yourself the following questions:
- How is this person “measured” at work?
- What are their primary responsibilities?
- Does this person experience peer pressure from her boss or colleagues?
- What does this person’s boss expect from them?
- What seems to be important to this person?
4) Identify Relevant “Currencies”; Theirs And Yours
This is the most important step in the Influence Model. Here, you need to identify what matters most to your potential ally. Cohen and Bradford identified five types of currency that are most often valued, as follows:
|CURRENCY||APPEALS TO PEOPLE WHO:|
|Inspiration||People who need meaning and significance in what they do; appealing to a greater cause or their sense of integrity.|
|Task||People who are interested in transactions and tasks, including resources, staff, time, money.|
|Position||People who seek status, recognition, visibility.|
|Relationship||People who want close relationships, empathy, understanding, gratitude. They want to feel part of the team.|
|Personal||People who want to feel personally valued and important, that their contribution or help matters to you.|
5) Deal With Relationships
Take time to get to know the person you’re interacting with. If you only talk to someone long enough to get what you want, you’ll probably find them not so helpful next time.
6) Influence Through Give And Take
Once you feel you know what your ally needs, and you’ve determined what you have to offer, you can make a negotiation. Show respect, empathy, and understanding to the other person. Show your gratitude to them for helping you, and keep looking for ways to help others.
In short, the Influence Model could be summarised as the art of giving someone a reason to do you a favour. Of course, once they have done you a favour, they might well expect one in return. This is why it is important to be clear on what you are ‘trading’ during your negotiation.
Most people only think about working relationships when they find that they need something from someone, and once of the most important background tasks to your role as project manager is continually cultivating the relationships that will make it easy for you to successfully deliver problem solving projects.
A common way to ensure that a project manager is able to drive a project forwards is for a senior manager to ‘lend’ his or her authority to the project manager.
This process begins with the senior manager saying, “I’m fully behind this project, and to make sure that it moves forwards, I’m giving Fred all of my authority, so if Fred asks you to contribute something, then that’s as good as if I’ve asked you.”
There’s an obvious flaw in this approach. If the senior manager doesn’t want to be involved in the project at an operational level then he or she is effectively signalling a feeling of apathy. When they say, “This project is so important that Fred is going to be my eyes and ears”, what most people will hear is, “This project is so unimportant that after I’ve finished my speech, I won’t devote any more of my time to it”.
Unfortunately, anyone who has a reason to be obstructive will have no respect for this delegated authority, and it really does nothing more than show that the project manager is politically aligned with the senior manager in question, and that may do the project manager’s reputation more harm than good.
Any manager who believes that he or she has power, and that that power can be delegated, is a politician. They often believe that their power and hence other peoples’ respect is implied by their job title. Unfortunately, in today’s complex corporate environment, influence grows from personal relationships, and hierarchical power is seen as a very ‘command and control’ management style which many staff respond badly to.
Even if a political manager has power over his or her own department, the very fact that a project requires cross functional support opens up opportunities for staff to either avoid the situation or to join in with their own political moves.
Imagine that you have asked for someone in your team to write and deliver an important document to you by the end of the day. They clear time in their schedule, on the proviso that you’re available to answer questions if they need you.
By lunchtime, they have a long list of clarification questions, so they come to find you. You’re in meetings, off site, and you’re not answering your phone.
When you get back to the office, you find a note on your desk asking you to call the person with the answers to your questions. The document isn’t finished and you needed it for a meeting, first thing in the morning.
Who is at fault?
You made a deal with someone. They agreed to deliver the document on the condition that you were available to answers questions.
Unfortunately, you allowed yourself to get tied up in meetings and you switched your phone off.
How can you expect this person to meet their commitment to you when you didn’t provide them with the resources to do it?
Now imagine that you agree a set of project deliverables and a timeframe with your manager on the condition that he will take responsibility for any contributor who misses an agreed deadline.
If you go back to your manager and tell him that you need his help, and he says that he’s too busy and you just need to be more influential, you are quite justified in saying that you cannot meet the project deliverables under those circumstances.
This may seem harsh or even unrealistic, yet your colleagues and managers will very quickly get the message that you are a highly professional and dependable project manager, when people do what they have agreed and committed to do. Ultimately, people don’t like being held accountable for commitments that they have fallen short of. Your colleagues can let their deadlines slip as much as they want – they’ll be working late at night and all weekend to make up the shortfall. You can choose to join them, or you can choose to make clear commitments to people, and expect them to do the same.
Some project managers think that they are good with people, good influencers, because they take individual stakeholders aside and have private conversations, within which they ’sell’ the project and get the stakeholder’s ‘buy in’. Unfortunately, the project manager often gets drawn into a number of different negotiations, each of which has slightly different terms.
Project managers who engage in this kind of approach often see themselves as ‘influential’, but it is generally they who are being influenced. The result is that the different conversations they’ve had with the various stakeholders turn into different expectations which all exert an opposing pull on the project manager, who ultimately experiences these expectations as stress and pressure to manage different stakeholders’ needs. Those needs are only different because the project manager allowed them to be.
The reality with a problem solving project is that the project manager is not selling a bespoke solution that is different for each stakeholder. The project manager is creating a solution based on a common business need, and that process can only take place in the open.