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Political Savvy and Leadership Behind the Scenes

Picture this. You’ve just worked for 2 months creating a great product that will improve the lives of thousands of people. You’ve finished working with the development team, who delivered everything on schedule. Then your product goes nowhere. No one sells it. No one promotes it.

How about this one? You’ve just proved that a new business model will be incredibly profitable for your company. You’ve presented it to the director and the VP. Both of them are on board. After sharing your new business model more broadly, you learn that the other teams needed to support your idea just don’t buy into it.

The experiences above are true. They happened to real people … friends of mine.

Chances are that you’ve been in a similar situation, though hopefully not as extreme. You have a great idea … or even a great product, but someone important doesn’t buy-in. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you care about the issue. “Why isn’t there more support for this?” you ask.

The reason is actually quite simple. Someone with power, either formal or informal, doesn’t want to play along. They may even agree that the idea is good, but something else is holding them back. Perhaps it wasn’t their idea. Maybe they’re not excited about the amount of work they would have to do to support you. We call this Organizational Politics.

When you’re caught up in a political battle, it’s hard to know what to do, especially if you’re not aware of the political landscape around you. The late Joel R. DeLuca, Ph.D wrote a book called Political Savvy: Systematic Approaches to Leadership Behind-the-Scenes. Unfortunately, Dr. DeLuca passed away in 2009, but his book continues to help leaders and PM practitioners manage the political landscapes in their respective organizations.

I found this book several years ago when I became aware that I was clueless as to how to improve conditions in the political environment around me.

DeLuca lays out a clear explanation of organizational politics, removing the stigma by helping the reader to understand that politics are not always bad. He focuses on awareness of self and the political landscape and offers a set of practical tools to navigate that landscape. DeLuca also discusses the “Political Style Grid,” demonstrating how people view politics in a negative, neutral, or positive light, and how they initiate, predict, or respond to politics with different levels of proactivity.

The part of Political Savvy that really made a difference for me is what DeLuca calls the Organization Politics Mapping Technique (OPMT). This technique involves a simple stakeholder analysis guided by simple questions regarding who the key players are, their power/influence in the organization, and their likelihood to support the matter-at-hand (read the book for the complete set of questions). Once the key players are analyzed, they are plotted on a chart, where several things about them are visually represented: their potential and applied influence, their changeability of influence, their relationships with the other players, etc.

Here are a few gems from his book:

Viewing people as problems blocking organizational productivity makes it difficult to see them as solutions to gaining a competitive advantage.

Political Savvy means ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about.

Linking agendas in an ethical way is a very powerful approach to build momentum… [I]dentify the multiple agendas, brainstorm the win-win possibilities, and build an action coalition… For example, start with an exploratory group session. Based upon information from that session, update the political map and potential agenda linkages. Then systematically work the human system. Arrange informal encounters with key managers. Ensure those with at least 51 percent of the influence are favorable to exploring the issue further.

I was hardly aware of my political landscape and would never have known that there were systematic tools that I could use to navigate it more effectively. If I hadn’t read this book, I would have continued on oblivious and frustrated. I definitely recommend DeLuca’s book, Political Savvy. Even if you feel pretty savvy yourself, it will be a good, insightful read.