No bull project management

dealing with the politics and people issues that bring projects down


What ensures a project's success? According to the Standish Group, a research firm that focuses on mission-critical project management applications, the Number 1 requirement for project success is executive support. The Number 1 unspoken rule of business is this: No Support, No Help, No Promotion. If you don't have support from your boss, your team or key executives, no matter how good you are it will be difficult to succeed.

This paper identifies the time consuming, energy draining, costly politics and people issues that bring projects down. The following No-Bull Critical Success Factors will positively attract management's attention and help you to gain executive support.

Position Your Project as a Strategic Investment

The degree of “fit” that exists between a project's goals and company strategy will influence the degree of executive support for the project. To get the right alignment, pinpoint the connection between your project and the company's direction. For example, “The LRS project will provide the products that will give real meaning to our company's motto, ‘We sell solutions’.”


Positioning is the battle for the minds of your senior managers. The key is to ensure that your project evokes a positive image. You will need to convey the message that project success = business success. Support your case by documenting the benefits to the organization in areas such as financials; time (e.g., first to market, window of opportunity); customer perception; and future business. Always position your project as a strategic investment.


Now that you've got the right message, gain visibility. Visibility leads to fortunate breaks in good times and will likely cut you some slack in tough times.

Get yourself invited to every meeting and company event attended by the right people. Sharpen your presentation to focus on your project's strategic investment connection. Repeat the message over and over and over again. As Jack Welch, former C.E.O. of G.E. says, “You've got to be out in front of the crowd, repeating yourself over and over again, never changing your message no matter how much it bores you.” The payoff for your efforts will be that your executives will be supporters. They will have a feeling of comfort knowing that they are bankrolling a sound strategic investment.

Define Success and Get Out of the Way

Your executives want to feel comfortable about their choice of you as a project leader. Leaders are recognized by what they do and how they do it. Your executives have the experience to know that winners don't manage people—they lead them.

Too many project managers (particularly in technical fields) over-manage. They practice snoopervision. They get in the way—and slow people down. This stifles initiative and risk taking. This creates bureaucratic sluggishness that kills inventiveness, new ways of thinking and ultimately, the project itself.

Effective leaders define success. They clarify outcomes such as deliverables, non-negotiable limits (e.g., cost, time, performance specifications, and approvals), assumptions (people, resources, time, information) and how success will be measured. Leaders let people know what is expected, give them an opportunity to perform, and get out of the way.

Micromanagers set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. They assume people won't take initiative, show responsibility and be self-motivated. When managers have these expectations, employees will generally behave as expected. They don't realize that most people are creative by nature and happy by default—so they practice a form of management that will squash those impulses. For example, when a project leader excessively regulates the employee's environment (dress, decoration of work space, etc.) this sends a message that conformity is valued above efficiency and creativity.

Leaders have some different assumptions about people. They believe that people will take initiative, can show responsibility and can be self-motivated to achieve objectives that they have had a part in setting. So they practice a form of management that brings out these qualities in people. The leader's goal is to help employees become self-motivated to do their very best, not to police them.

Micromanagers slow people down. They shrink people. Giants become midgets. Leaders fire people up. They grow people. Midgets become giants.

Be Easy to Do Business With


The last big change was the decline of the Old Economy and the rise of the New Economy based on the high-tech revolution. Well, the New Economy is probably dead. The bubble burst. The telecommunications sell off was sudden and total. The e-commerce sector tanked. Change is occurring so rapidly it appears there is no limit to the human imagination. For example, the Internet has absorbed radio, T.V., personal computers, telephones, and cameras. Nobody knows what's next other than success will require speed. Klaus Schwab, president of the Davos World Economic Forum, said it best, “We have moved from a world where the big eat the small to a world where the fast eat the slow.” The new winners will be the companies that are most responsive to changing market conditions.

What do executives value most in their project teams? After years of conducting Human Resources reviews with executives, we have found that the Number 1 value is responsiveness. Your executives want timely responses to their questions and concerns. They want you and your team easy to do business with. They want project teams to be quick moving and responsive to beat the competition.


In today's economy speed and innovation are everything. How will your operation respond to this rapidly changing reality? Will you accelerate and survive or will you die in bureaucratic sluggishness?

How easy is your department to do business with? Is that “correct” form developed a couple of years ago still relevant today? How many sign-offs are necessary to get anything done? How smooth are the hand-offs from other departments? Do your project team members quote rules as a substitute for thinking? Have organizational procedures and practices evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity, taking on a life of their own? Do these procedures control more of everything? Do they consume the very resources they are designed to protect? Do people often give up on good ideas because of the numerous restrictive hoops they must jump through to get something done?

How full of Bull can organizations get? Many people are security oriented. They carve out a niche for themselves and then spend most of their time and energy protecting their turf. In more extreme cases they play the territorial game. People construct walls between themselves and other departments. Informal rules develop as to who talks to whom. Secretaries lunch with secretaries. Managers stick to themselves. Valuable information does not get shared

Instead of focusing on fighting the competition, departments fight one another for resources. These turf battles breed a mentality of us versus them. The winners gloat. The losers are offended and sulk…And plot revenge. They strategize to find new ways to undermine “them.” Each side distrusts the other's motives. And so it goes. The result is wasted energy and negative, unproductive feelings. So how do you get the bull out and keep it out?

Eliminate Unnecessary Irritations

Make war on bureaucracy. Bureaucracy disrupts your real job of innovating, servicing, producing project deliverables with speed and quality, and communicating. Weed out bureaucratic functioning and the attendant fixed costs by operational streamlining and simplification. The key to doing more is to do less, better.

Nothing frustrates people more than red tape and useless pieces of paper. After years of conducting this experiment we can pretty much guarantee that 20% of the forms used in any department in any company will be useless. Some forms that once seemed great become obsolete but don't die naturally.

Ask your project managers about the dumb forms, procedures, or stupid practices that irritate them…and get rid of them! Ask them for ideas on streamlining project procedures or making the operation run more smoothly. Not only will you get good ideas, you will get buy-in and goodwill.

Simplify All Management Activities

Productivity through simplicity applies everywhere—but especially in management, where Bull reigns supreme. If you have a vision statement that is complicated, you're probably already in trouble. If you have a good product, you probably don't need a mission statement. If you don't have an organization chart—don't worry about it. Organization charts are frozen—the environment is dynamic. If people really followed organization charts—companies would collapse. Policy Manuals don't accomplish much—they're obsolete in six weeks. Job Titles are pretty meaningless in terms of real power. Real power is the capacity to influence and inspire. Two Job Titles would probably work for your project team—Leaders and Associates. Business plans are typically too detailed. They frequently lock people in to what the environment looked like 12 months ago—thereby missing opportunities. Theories of Management doesn't much matter. Anyone who blindly follows a particular theory will develop rigidity in thought and action. Management techniques are part of a toolkit—simply tools to be used at the right time. And just ignore the flavor of the month business fads. Preoccupation with panaceas, quick fixes, “effortless” solutions, current fashions and buzzwords are a waste of time.

Now Staffing is simple. Attract the best. Only by attracting the best will you accomplish great deeds. By the way, retaining the best people can be done more easily if your project environment is user-friendly and bureaucracy-free.

Manage Your Relationships

Make yourself easy to do business with by:

•   Being available when you're needed. Get back to others in a timely fashion.

•   Knowing your project and the organization. Answer questions succinctly and clearly.

•   Managing problems quickly.

Practice No Bull Communications

Effective communications, both upward and downward is the “oil” that keeps the project “machine” running smoothly. Only by having effective communication links can you sustain senior management support for your project. Management values sharing of information, two-way communication about problems, opportunities, plans and accomplishments.

Fuzzy Communications

When asked a question on the status of a project, a politically minded project manager will play the smokescreen game. When pumped for information he or she will toss out the rock bottom minimum. If still pressed he or she will ask for clarification of terms. If pressured, he will elevate the discussion to a higher level of abstraction (usually referencing some obscure theory)…and then keep on talking amiably and energetically, deflecting the conversation to other topics. When asked to comment on a controversial issue this individual uses the delicate art of ambiguity, zigzagging and trapeze somersaulting. When trying to convince folks on opposite sides of any question that he or she is deep down on their side this individual is able to suck and blow at the same time. And no one has the faintest idea what side of the issue he is for or against.

Then there is the jargon that drives No-Bull manager's nuts. For example, here are some euphemisms for the everyday term downsizing:

MIA—Management Initiated Attrition

HRRP—Human Resources Reallocation Program

FRI—Force Refinement Initiative

Eventually employees learn how to translate the jargon they hear bandied about. Here are the correct translations:

Outsourcing – Downsizing

Total Quality Program – Downsizing

Consulting Help – Downsizing

Empowerment – Downsizing

Reengineering – Downsizing

Organization Renewal – Downsizing

Manipulative Communications

People play the information manipulation game when they covertly omit or twist data to suit their own political interests. Withholding information that puts a favorable light on a rival project team is part of the game. Then there is droning on in meetings long enough to thwart someone else's ideas. Other shenanigans include “forgetting” about tasks that can be helpful to others, intimidation, setting up fake barriers as to why something can't get done, C.Y.A., sandbagging, and discrediting “enemies” who are supposed to be on your team.

If you've seen the movie Wag the Dog, you'll recognize the game of Invent a Crisis. The idea is to concoct an atmosphere of crisis so intense that senior management will be spooked and go along with whatever solution is recommended.…along with a hefty budget to prop up these ideas. And, of course, you've all seen the smoke and mirror presentations that use the best of flim-flam, gimmicks, and bells and whistles.

The problem with gamesmanship is that the player gains a reputation for manipulation and deception. Without integrity and respect of others, forget about management support.

No-Bull Communications

So what is No-Bull? It's simplifying communications. It's straight and direct talk. Open, and two-way.

No-Bull communications often involves more listening than talking. It's candidly communicating the good and bad news. It's getting everybody on the same page by being simple and consistent.

To practice No-Bull communications focus on the basics such as:

•   Avoid unnecessary acronyms and jargon

•   Ensure the right people get information when they need it

•   Consider recipient's need for detail and communication frequency

•   Deliver information in a way that is customer-friendly (e.g., email, in-person, telephone).

Promote Ideas/Reward Results

Some organizations create an environment for successful projects. Other organizations have a stifling environment. Have you noticed how the instinctive responses to a problem differ? In some organizations the natural impulse is to simply fix it. In others, the probable reactions are find fault, or blame others. For example, compare the tone between two different lodges used by companies for conferences. At the Far Hills Inn, good things just seem to happen. You drive up—someone parks your car. At dinner, someone always seems to appear at the right time to fill your glass with water and so on. If a problem occurs—they not only fix it—they recover. Someone always checks back to be sure everything is okay. The customer is treated like a king. By contrast, at the Chateau you can expect a line-up at registration, rooms not ready, and so it goes. When you report the same problem for the third time, the standard reaction is “didn't they fix it.” And you wonder who this ubiquitous “they” is. The customer is treated like a bloody nuisance.

In some departments whining and complaining is the norm. In tough times people will lash out, point fingers, lose focus, and play the blame game. It can come in the form of whispers, dissention, internal turmoil…and ultimately the project team rips apart. When finger pointing succumbs into dissension, individuals will begin to look after themselves and not work for the unification of the team. When the grumbling goes public…senior management takes notice.

In some departments, employees put their hearts into what they do. They enjoy looking for better ways to do things. Other organizations have a stifling climate where employees will resist any and all changes, are risk adverse, and study possibilities forever. Independent thinking is almost always discouraged. So what's the key distinction? It's a question of leadership. True leaders create an opportunity-oriented environment where employees are self-motivated to contribute their best. So how do you do it?

Foster Informality

Bureaucracy strangles. It breeds mindless conformity. Informality liberates. When you walk into an organization with an informal tone, you can feel it. People take their work seriously—but not themselves. They work hard—but also have fun. The atmosphere is results-oriented—but usually you'll hear laughter. If someone has a problem, others pitch in to help.

Encourage Creative Conflict

Most people fear change. They're given a job and told what needs to be done, and that's exactly what they do, day in and day out. They believe that standing still is the best strategy because it is safe. And when playing safe and avoiding conflict becomes the norm, people play the hunker-down game. They lay low in the bunker, plug their ears, close their eyes and hope…as the battle wages above.

When people play it safe, they avoid expressing controversial ideas. Meetings become stilted. They feel it is hell to work for a nervous boss—especially if you are the one making him or her nervous. So they play the game of making the boss look good. (e.g., throwing slow pitch questions to the boss in public forums).

Your company's greatest need is for creative solutions to customer problems. This means challenging the boss, challenging anybody, challenging everybody. When ideas are challenged, new and creative ideas emerge. Ideas are starting points, not endings. Positive creative conflict occurs when ideas are thrown out and people test them, modify them, expand them, mold them, and learn from them. Open and feisty communications in meetings can add zest, fun, and ideas for profitable new opportunities. For example, two divisions in an Aerospace Company are both confronted with the problem of reduced government spending on space programs. While the Space Division waited for direction, the Repair Division capitalized on opportunities created by the privatization of services at air bases. The business team generated entrepreneurial ideas and created new businesses such as flight simulator training, environmental clean-up, and repair and overhaul services for foreign governments. The Space Division was sold while the Repair Division became the company's core business

Leaders expect change and are always on the lookout for new ways to meet the challenges and opportunities that change presents. They create an environment where ideas are generated, challenged, and treated like bank deposits.

Let the Ideas Flow

Avoid artificial creativity processes such as Employee Suggestion Plans. Suggestion plans fail because of administrative difficulties and because the system stifles the discussion of ideas. People will guard their ideas to protect their potential ($) payout. They will not discuss their ideas with the boss because they've noticed that their idea becomes our idea, becomes the boss's ideas. Creativity comes naturally when you've done everything else right. Good ideas will get to the right person without much help. The main thing is to let people know creativity is valued.

Get everyone to participate. In an opportunity oriented environment every employee accepts responsibility to search for ways to do a better job, to identify and resolve problems, and to create simple methods of operation. Each employee's contribution is critical. All employees own the facts about the strengths and weaknesses of their own work situations—and can figure out ways of doing the job better.

The process starts with individuals or teams “looking in the mirror” and asking some basic questions such as…What are we doing? Is it working? If not, why not? What can we do about it? How can we make it better?

The payoffs are terrific. Employees find better ways to do their jobs; they cooperate with others to solve problems and they find new business opportunities. For example, 70% of 3M sales come from products that were initiated from internally generated ideas. Everybody wins. Employees enjoy using their creative juices and the company gains continuous innovation.

Continuous innovation requires continuous learning. Employees need to have the skills needed to do what's being asked. An effective leader sets people up for success by providing feedback on performance expectations, training, and necessary tools.

Reward High Performance

Effective leaders create the environment for ideas to flow, recognize good ideas and reward successful innovations and exemplary performance. Money and a piece of the action are great (employees who become owners behave like owners) but not always available to you. However, you do have discretion over things like recognition, time off, favorite work, advancement, personal growth and fun and prizes.

Have Fun and Get a Lot Done

Think of the last time you came home from work totally drained of energy. Did the circumstances have something to do with office politics? How often have you heard someone say, “I've just got to leave this place—it's too political”? Politics will never go away. But some organizations lose a sense of balance.

The norm in some organizations is the 21st century version of the Golden Rule—“He who has the gold makes the rules” and games are played to impress the boss. So if the boss has an aquarium, the office politician becomes an expert on fish. Some play the game of Looking Busy by greeting the boss coming to work in the morning strapped with cell phones, pagers and beepers…and casually commenting that he or she has been working on customer problems all night.

When office politics becomes pervasive, it becomes difficult to maintain a sense of humor. Laughter and a cooperative spirit give way to gamesmanship and a mentality of blame. Effective project leaders know that the effort, time and energy, and health problems consumed in these costly activities could be channeled into creating an environment that releases energy and creative sparks.

Think of a time when you were energized and felt really great. Did the circumstances have something to do with being recognized for an achievement? Were you having fun and being productive? Not surprisingly, studies at the University of California (Long Beach), have found a big connection between enjoying your work and doing good work. Business should be fun. For too many people it's “just a job.”

Fun is serious business. As sales people are known to say, “lighten up and your sales will brighten up.” Effective project leaders have figured out that you can have fun and make money at the same time. (The August 30, 1999 edition of Newsweek features a cover photo of Bill Gates with the caption—“Bill just wants to have fun.”) So what can you do to create energy?

Celebrate Successes

Look for ways to celebrate even the smallest project victory. Make people feel like winners. People like to know their contributions matter. People will go to the wall if they know what they do will be seen and rewarded. It can be as simple as announcing a win and bringing out the pizza. You don't have to hand out a new truck.

Recognize Achievements

Recognition and $$ are the two most powerful rewards. Sometimes a simple thank-you note—or a dinner for two. Perhaps a prize awarded in a public setting…or company T-shirts or baseball caps awarded to the team that came in on time and on budget…along with a lot of cheering and laughter.

Create Informal Communication Channels

Encourage team members to get to know each other. Softball games, bowling leagues, informal gatherings as a predecessor to formal meetings…these are just some of the ways to enhance communications, trust, and a cooperative spirit.


Effective project leaders know that you can be results-oriented and have fun on the job. They know that the costs of dysfunctional organization politics are high. They strive to get the Bull out of management. They find practical ways to navigate the politics and people issues that challenge many projects…and in so doing; they create a smooth running project. When people enjoy their work and cooperate with one another to solve problems—there is no time for political shenanigans. They are having too much fun beating the competition and winning.

True project leaders get their priorities right. They do things that create energy, not drain energy. They create a positive tone…then stay out of the way and let good things happen. They foster common-sense management practices that have a positive impact on the bottom line. This is what garners executive support.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



Related Content

  • PM Network

    Prepare for the worst member content open

    By Somani, Sheilina Bad things can happen on any project: Your major stakeholders fail to respond to project queries in a timely manner; a solution doesn't appear to be shaping up as you'd anticipated; a major decision…