Mastering team political capital in high risk/high profile projects



“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt (Miller, 1989, p. 89)

High risk projects are continually under attack from inside and outside forces. Projects that can adapt and even leverage these changing conditions thrive and succeed. Those projects that can’t adapt to these conditions implode.

Political capital represents the common ground between what the project needs and what individual stakeholders need. Echoing Roosevelt’s words, political capital is earned through pairing action with common interest. It fuels sponsorship, generates momentum to get things done, and creates flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.

The journey to mastering political capital starts with understanding what makes high risk projects so difficult, understanding organizational political dynamics and deploying strategies that cultivate common interest and collaboration.

What Makes the High Risk/High Profile Project So Difficult?

Political, business and delivery factors

High risk projects are projects that are highly visible, have a ’sweeping impact’ inside and outside the organization, and pose significant threats to the project team’s ability to deliver. The project leader fights through competing agendas, unrealistic stakeholder expectations, time pressures, entangled issues, project silos, and shareholder scepticism to navigate the project through ‘rough seas.’ In this environment, the project leader artfully balances the roles of lobbyist, architect and deal maker in anticipating risks and removing project obstacles (Turner, 2007, p. 1).

Political exposure (“highly visible”) encompasses how project outcomes affect the personal stock and creditability of key stakeholders. Rebuilding the Space Shuttle program in the face of the Columbia disaster was a project with significant political exposure. As shown in Exhibit 1, high risk projects face an entangled web of political stakeholders with individual agendas, challenging business cases, and, often, a hostile shareholder/public perception. Managing the amount of political exposure inherent in high risk projects become a ‘full time’ job for the project leader.

Impact to core business (“sweeping change”) addresses how project outcomes will affect an organization's value chain, including, but not limited to, business processes, employees and technology. Like the break-up of AT&T in the 1970s, high risk projects contain direct and indirect effects that transcend the organization and sometimes shake up an industry's ‘ecosystem.’ The AT&T break-up not only fractured the company, but spawned an entire new ecosystem of companies, technologies, and strategies. The project leader's challenges in understanding the impact to core business are twofold – the depth and breadth of direct impact and the peripheral vision to identify the indirect/invisible effects (Turner, 2007, p. 2). Often, projects demonstrating ‘sweeping change’ tend to drive up the political exposure. When the core backbone of a business is affected by an initiative, more stakeholders' personal success is tied to project success, leading to diverse agendas.

Factors Driving Political Exposure

Exhibit 1 – Factors Driving Political Exposure

Ability to deliver (“threats to ability to deliver”) focuses inward on the organization’s commitment and ability to deliver results. For example, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games posed significant threats to Salt Lake City’s ability to deliver. Infrastructure capacity, increased security requirements, funding availability and a time-boxed schedule posed seemingly insurmountable challenges that Salt Lake City overcame (Turner, 2007, p. 3). Projects demonstrating a lot of political exposure and/or wide scale impact to the business typically generate delivery challenges on multiple fronts for the project leader. As the stakes get higher, stakeholder pressure increases, thereby reducing the project leader’s ability to remove project obstacles as they arise.

Political challenges facing high risk projects

Organizational politics can create real problems for projects. Political exposure creates challenges that block effective decision making and adaptability, as the examples in Exhibit 2 show. These challenges include:

  1. Disputed vision of success – When stakeholders’ personal stock is at risk, stakeholders tend to fragment and maximize their own self interest. Each develops a separate vision of ‘what success looks like.’ With no compass pointing ‘true north,’ teams can more easily ‘get away’ with aligning their own goals with an individual stakeholder’s agenda, which may not be in the overall shared interest of the project.
  2. Dilution of authority – In high risk situations, team leaders feel the exposure and look for ways to transfer the risk to others. This does not reduce the overall business risk of the venture and fortifies walls between teams, walls that the project leader needs to play off of to get things done. At its worst, project management by détente may surface in which teams intentionally block other teams from success.
  3. The race up Mount Everest – In the pits of disputed success and diluted authority, project executives are more likely to mandate a foot race up Mount Everest. As momentum stalls, project executives create the ‘rally cry’ for the organization. The project executive will not only mandate the flag on top of Mount Everest but will also specify the speed, direction and method used to scale it. This leaves little room for the project leader to lead.
  4. Porous governance – While governance transparency is a success factor in high risk projects, politically charged projects might inadvertently translate this transparency into porous governance in which factional interest undermines the common good.
  5. Mutiny – If team members cannot identify with the political drivers of a project, they are more likely to become disenfranchised with the project – ultimately capitulating to failure instead of rallying around the organization's mandate.
A Story of Two Projects

Exhibit 2 – A Story of Two Projects

Why we care

The politically charged project is not ‘an against all odds’ proposition for the project leader. The project leader is not a victim of organizational politics, but an agent. As agent, a project leader can build and demonstrate mastery of political navigation. As the project leader moves towards mastery, the project leader can dissect the political wiring of a project and can craft ’shared vision’ and ’shared commitment’ to the project’s goals. The project leader’s skills as lobbyist become apparent as the project leader listens for and uses the individual agendas to further project goals. As architect, the project leader begins to devise decision making frameworks that bring disparate views together. As deal maker, the project leader can negotiate settlements between stakeholders and teams in such a way that momentum is maintained, if not increased.

Understanding the Political Dynamics of High Risk Projects

As a whole, the political dynamic can be daunting. Yet, when decomposed, each element comprising the political dynamic is tractable. Mastery requires rapidly learning the pathways to the key players; the agenda each is pursuing and the cultural norms for how influence is brokered. Beyond knowing the organization chart and divisional structure, investing time listening to individual contributors, stakeholders, and executives is necessary to reveal the forces at play that will bolster or challenge the project through its lifecycle. These forces include:

  1. Key Influencers – Organizations orbit around key influencers. This may be people with positional authority and control over resources or the thought leaders who wield influence in a division. While the org chart illustrates titled authority, it rarely identifies the connectors who are gatekeepers to the social networks that accelerate the flow of information and ideas. Also absent from the org chart are the Nay-Sayers, the vocal detractors who provide clues to what lurks in the shadows ready to wound or slay the project. To be astute, one must learn the viewpoints of these key influencers and then set strategies to shape their perceptions through the lifecycle of the project; either directly or through surrogates willing to go bat for the project.

    Assessing and engaging key influencers are integral to mastering the political dynamic, and without it, high risk/high profile projects cripple their chances of success. The material key influencers bring to the table include:

    • Issues – The “what” or “challenges” people bring to the project. Concrete, tangible, and often pertaining to ‘time,’ ‘money,’ or ‘method;’ issues are the surface manifestation of the deeper motives and needs for which a resolution is sought.
    • Interests – The crux of the matter, the underlying motives that drive political behaviour and compel political power into motion. Interests underlie issues, they may be latent and go unaddressed but a project leader knows that it is vital for them to surface. At the heart of the political dynamic are individuals reconciling their interests for self-preservation and success.
    • Agendas – Agendas are the positions people and workgroups take to accomplish their goals and satisfy their interest. Sometimes out in the open, sometime hidden, a project leader has to learn the agendas that are unfolding across the landscape.
    • Position – Proximity or distance from the epicentres of power. A key influencer that holds the mantle of C-suite authority commands immediate attention, regardless of how relevant or informed their demands upon the project. A key influencer on the project who does not have the ear of those allocating much needed resources, must create avenues to power or the project may starve.

    Of all the influencers on the project, special care is taken to monitor and shape where executives place their focus and attention. If the project goes off the executive radar, it runs the risk of being alienated if resources get swept-up by a more glamorous initiative. Inversely, a project that is positioned too close “to the sun” may be singed from micro-management. The stakes are especially high when project outcomes tie directly to strategic goals or to levers on executive compensation.

  2. Culture - Organizational culture is “the way things are done,” it is inseparable from politics and most visible when people broker power. Embedded in the values and brand, culture can mutate into sacred cows or organizational rituals. Those with political savvy adapt to the accepted behavioural norms used by the organization to accomplish tasks, celebrate success, and make decisions. Of these cultural markers, being adept in the decision making style of the organization is critical as high impact projects invariably make demands upon people and resources that may be unaligned.
  3. Public Opinion – Just as political research firms poll demographic voting blocks, the perceptions of stakeholders must be mined to identifying how core tenants of the project are perceived. Public opinion about the project can have a greater impact than the plans and budget designed to move it forward. Understanding the back story shapes what people believe. Knowing the triggers and hot buttons to public opinion help craft the narrative and messages that foster collaboration in broad circles around the project.
  4. Managing Complexity and Change – Political exposure grows relative to distance and time. Running a multi-divisional effort where all involved work out of the same building faces fewer logistical and communication obstacles than the project with stakeholders dispersed across several time zones. Negotiating this complexity demands the skill of knowing how to capture people’s attention, keep distinct stakeholders engaged, and appropriately vet decisions. Overlaying logistical complexities is the fact that nothing stands still. Business conditions change, jobs turnover and many things compete for people’s time.

Competency Ladder for Mastering the Political Dynamic

Conventional project management training neglects to focus on the skills necessary to align disparate or competing agendas. This can put project managers at a disadvantage because the use of political power increases as organizational boundaries are traversed; a normal condition of high risk, high profile projects (Pfeffer, 1992).

As shown in Exhibit 3, many project managers start-out naïve to the competing agendas being pursued. For such project managers, invisible forces are play and they may wreak havoc on the project’s ability to execute. Usually first awareness of organizational political comes as a surprise, being blindsided with an issue that was unexpected, leaving the project manager perplexed and handing the project a setback. Caught off guard, the project manager can feel victimized.

To avoid playing the victim, the project manager may take a passive posture and be a bystander to power dynamics influencing the project. The bystander’s position may at first appear risk free since it is politically uncommitted. But by opting-out of the fray she or he will be unable to cultivate the shared interest needed to guide a project facing a politically difficult terrain. Without intervention, progress will stagnate and teams fracture along parochial lines. What was first perceived as a low risk position actually introduces risk by failing to bridge silo-mentalities among people responsible for moving the project forward.

Often individual project managers are selected (or self-selected) to lead high profile project because they are strong advocates for one particular agenda influencing the project. Even self-described ‘neutral’ project managers can become strongly aligned with a special interest and neglect advancing other interests that increase the viability of success. A political advocacy that focuses solely one interest may be seen as taking a moral high ground but will disenfranchise people whose interests are left behind. While politically proactive, it increases the risk of fragmenting shared interest over time.

The Competency Ladder of Political Navigation

Exhibit 3 – The Competency Ladder of Political Navigation

Political acumen is exercised by the project manager when she or he focuses on identifying, cultivating and sustaining the shared or common interests of all those impacted by the scope of the effort. Here, the project leader is politically active but agnostic to the aims of any one agenda. The project leader takes a proactive role to learn the agendas that exist and seeks to understand the underlying forces motivating leadership, stakeholder groups and individuals comprising the project team.

Political Capital

A project may have derived political strength before it was initiated. It can stem from the mandate that charted the project into being or it may have been earned through sure footed execution. But for the project to navigate the difficult political terrain over time it must cultivate and champion the shared interests of the key influencers of the organization. The more the project fosters the reciprocal exchange of energy and effort that successfully advances various agendas in a common pursuit of project goals, the more political capital the project has at its disposal. Political leverage is earned by pairing action with interests.

Inversely, political capital is expended, sometimes by necessity, when the project achieves what it requires in a manner that hinders a given stakeholder’s agenda from advancing. Epicenters of power inside an organization will tolerate some ebb and flow, and may even be willing to “take a hit” for the greater good at some point in time. But the overall balance must be win/win for both the aims of the project and the aims of its key influencers if the high risk/high profile project is to sustain political viability.

In the project alpha example in Exhibit 2 (p. 3), project sponsors recognized the need to reframe the governance structure to foster increased end user ownership during the course of the project. Though the project took a ’schedule hit,’ the increased end user ownership fostered a heightened focus on change readiness, which better prepared the hospital’s staff and business processes for the new application.

Ensuring that a phone call gets returned, taking a contentious issue off-line from the ‘meeting spotlight,’ asking for expert advice from beyond the core project team are examples of daily project tactics that can grow or spend political capital. Did the action unfold in manner that alienated a team member or better align disparate forces towards meeting project goals? Projects that are high risk/high profile, deal in political capital whether they are aware of it or not.

Strategies to Build Team Political Capital

Assess the Landscape

A project leader rarely steps into a project on Day One of its incubation. Realizing organizational politics have played a large role in shaping the journey from ‘bright idea’ to project, the project leader has some work to do to understand the landscape – in particular the political drivers of the project and the overall health of the stakeholder community holding the project.

Like an effective lobbyist, the project leader baselines the power structure of the project, the decision making style, and the political balance sheet of the key sponsors and leadership team. These are then used to shape how future decisions will be made.

Strategy #1 - Learn the Patterns of Organizational Power

The project leader needs to quickly learn who makes decisions, who influences decisions, and how influencers play together to translate decisions into action (Irwin, 2008, p. 159). Power sits below any organizational model – like a neural network – nodes exchanging data to produce energy on a project. Given the complexity of this network, the project leader focuses on learning patterns of organizational power – how the nodes of the network interact on certain types of issues to generate energy (positive or negative, unified or fragmented).

In the project beta example in Exhibit 2, the project leadership team knew the individual stakeholder agendas at play, but could not see how these individual agendas could come together (i.e. patterns) to get things done. Over time, the patterns became apparent as the project reached a culminating crisis, but a lot of the risk could have been avoided by looking beyond the stakeholder positions for the patterns of power that could be used to bridge factions.

Learning the patterns of organizational power requires the project leader to:

  • Map how the internal and external stakeholders are connected
  • Understand stakeholders’ agendas, pet issues and influence
  • Internalize the project leader’s own political dynamics
  • Develop a working model of how these stakeholders interact to get things done within the network.

Through observation in meetings, interviews and relationship building, the project leader develops a predictable ‘playbook’ on how individual stakeholders come together or fracture along certain types of issues. The project leader can then use the playbook to navigate issues on the project’s horizon.

Strategy #2 – Design Decision Making Styles

Style counts for a lot in effective project governance. Often overlooked in governance design, decision making styles directly shape the patterns of organizational power described in Strategy 1. A decision making style represents the intersection between an organization’s cultural values and the decision making behaviour. This style is born out of what makes an organization ‘tick,’ the diversity of the key decision makers that drive an organization and through historical practice. For example, President Lincoln’s decision making style focused on consulting a diverse group of advisors before unilaterally making decisions. President Reagan’s governance style focused on setting tone and values, but leaving decision making in the hands of his advisors.

The project leader, as master lobbyist, can not only influence style, but can even design for it. The project leader rigorously pursues the root cause behind decisions and begins building the cultural non-negotiables that commonly link stakeholders. The project leader illuminates the decision making model that key sponsors will use (consensus, majority vote, unilateral, etc.), bringing clarity to the decision making ‘war room.’ The project leader holds up the cultural mirror that allows decision makers to consciously weigh decisions against these non-negotiables. The project leader shapes who is in the ‘war room’ on key decisions to foster diversity of opinions, connect the dots and balance behaviours.

Cultivate Shared Interest

The project leader cultivates shared interest – the basis of team political capital – out of a common vision that team members can rally around and the awareness of how project actions affect the interests supporting the project.

Strategy #3 - Breathing Life into the Vision

Shared interest starts with clarity of vision and purpose, as evidenced by the project beta example. The project leader translates the organization’s vision into comprehensible project objectives that reflect the shared interest of key stakeholders. This forms the boundaries of ’shared interest’ embodied in project charters. The project leader consistently broadcasts this charter to the ecosystem of the project.

As architect, the project leader breathes life into the vision by:

  • Questioning key stakeholder on what the vision means to their individual stock
  • Infusing healthy tension among the project stakeholders to prioritize their collective interests in the project
  • Constructing the project’s compass – representing the ’shared’ interests of stakeholders in a metaphor that team members and stakeholders can easily grasp
  • Consistently serving as a beacon to direct actions and decisions back to the ’shared interests’ of the project.

Strategy #4 - Elevating Interest-based Decision Making

In the political hotbed of high risk projects, project executives often feel the need for quick decisive decision making to keep ‘the train moving.’ In addition, organizational politics often get confused with inter-personal relationships, leading to reluctance to discuss the political ramifications of project actions (Irwin, 2008, p. 47). In spite of the need for speed and the reluctance to discuss politics, leaders recognize that great decisions often come from synthesizing competing interests into truly novel solutions (Martin, 2007, p. 22).

The project leader architects governance models that can deal with the greatest challenges that project may face. These governance models provide executives with a 360 degree view of what is causing a challenge and what actions the project may take. In this model, the project leader raises the impact of project actions on ’shared interest’ to an equal footing with the functional and technical impact. Like the lobbyist, the project leader can frame the interest groups that care about the challenge, their level of support for the project and how they will likely react to anticipated actions. This information can then shape the change management approach following the chosen course of action.

Mastering Political Capital

Strategy #5 - Managing the Political Balance Sheet of the Project

Stakeholder, constituent (customer), and team member perception constantly shape the overall political health of the project. The project leader has to periodically check in on the project’s political balance sheet to understand how much momentum the project has generated and the ‘negotiating room’ to respond to threats against the project.

As part of reviewing the overall health of project governance, the project leader asks four key political questions:

  • Who won and who lost on recent issues – why did they win or lose
  • What were the intended and unintended consequences on stakeholder support and on team performance
  • Has the balance of power among stakeholders shifted as a result of recent project issues and actions
  • How has the project’s track record in dealing with issues affected the project’s overall credibility, as well as the project leader’s influence within and outside the project

The project leader then has to relate these questions back to the overall health of the project. If stakeholder support is decreasing or the project is losing credibility, the project’s political balance sheet is trending negative. In this case, the political challenges will likely translate into delivery obstacles – like the examples in Exhibit 2. As part of the ‘vital signs of the overall project,’ the project leader can head of liabilities on the political balance sheet of the project before they manifest into delivery issues.

Final Words

Mastering political capital creates project nimbleness as the project leader positions and adapts project parameters to meet changing conditions. It builds ownership, generates momentum, and can spawn creativity to solve some of the most difficult business problems that organizations face in an increasingly complex, fast-paced world.

The project leader is at the epicentre of the political game. The project leader becomes the defender of ’shared interest,’ architecting decision making that fosters ’shared interest’ and negotiating settlements between stakeholders and teams in context of the ’shared interest’ underlying the project. The project leader continually keeps the fingers on the pulse of how parochial interests are affecting the overall internal and external support of the project – and finding creative ways to bring competing factions together to further the cause.


Bredemeyer Consulting (2002). Organizational Politics: Architect Competency Elaboration. Retrieved June 15, 2008 from

DeLuca, J. (1999). Political Savvy: Systematic Approaches to Leadership Behind the Scenes. Berwyn, PA: EBG Publications.

Irwin, B. (2008). Managing Politics and Conflicts in Project. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, Inc.

Martin, R (2007). The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Miller, N. (1983). F.D.R.: An Intimate History. New York: Doubleday & Co.

Pfeffer, J. (1992). Managing With Power. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Turner, B. (2007). Leadership Strategies for Tackling the High Risk/High Profile Project. 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

© 2008, Point B Solutions Group, Inc.
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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