It’s like the wind

maintaining project focus in times of political instability and organizational change


Working for a government agency in the 1990s is much like walking through a fun house, all twists and turns and big changes at every bend. Traditionally, government agencies have been known for administrative stability, with executive directors lasting several administrations and the professional staff being around for decades. Increasingly, government agencies are taking on the characteristics of private sector employers, with rotating senior staff and employees that move from position to position. While senior management changes at private companies are often tied to stock price and profits, changes at government agencies are linked to the electorate.

As elected officials come and go, so often do the senior management of government agencies. New senior managers often make seemingly drastic organizational changes that introduce instability into the workplace in order to further some political goal or show that they “mean business.” The challenge for the project manager is to be able to maintain momentum in a project when team members do not know where they will stand after the dust settles. Especially during transitional times, such as after a reshuffling has been announced but before the final organizational charts are made available, employees will have a tendency to lose direction and delay doing project work fearing that the project will no longer be “relevant.” Even after an employee is matched with a box on the organizational chart, there will be a lag time before implementation, as well as a period of time where last minute changes continue to take place. After all of the decisions are made, it can still be weeks before new reporting relationships are established and people are comfortable with where they work and who they need to go to for administrative approvals or problems.

How a project manager handles employee distraction will depend on the type of organization and the extent of the organizational change occurring. In organizations with a tradition of project managers with authority to cross organizational lines to acquire resources, the challenge will be very different than in organizations where project managers are supervisors and can only draw resources from the people they supervise. Both types of organizations will be discussed below.

How Change Happens at a Public Agency

Government agencies do reorganize and change on their own, but these changes are often the result of internal decisions by agency heads to do things differently. These internally initiated changes may be drastic, but are more easily accepted by the employees of the agency because the decision to change is internal. The agency is in control here, and that is key. When change results from a new administration that controls or oversees the agency, the agency is not in control and is being dictated to by the controlling body. In this second type of change, agency employees and leaders alike feel that they are losing control over their situation. Weber (1947) emphasized the critical role of legitimacy in the exercise of organizational power. The people in organizations that are changing as a result of external pressures tend to feel that the legitimacy of their positions are fading away as the organizational change proceeds. This is especially true of upper level managers that were brought in under the former regime.

After an election, a cascade of processes is put into place. Among the chores of the newly elected chief executive, whether it be president, governor or mayor, is to fill the many political slots that are now available. In Florida there are over 900 boards and commissions that are filled by appointments from the Governor (EOG, 2000). Not all of these will need to be filled once a new governor takes office, many of the positions are for terms that do not correspond with the term for a governor in Florida, but the volume is such that the Executive Office of the Governor maintains an Appointments Office to help manage the available appointments. The boards and commissions deal with subjects ranging from Water Management to Ethics to Domestic Violence, all with differing degrees of authority in their respective subjects. Once these appointments are made, the people who have been appointed now have to put the Governor's mark on the commission, and thus starts the cascade of organizational changes.

A key difference must be noted between an election where a party change occurs and an election where the political party stays the same. On the federal level, for example, all political appointees from the previous administration are dispatched if the resident of the White House goes from being a Republican to a Democrat, or vice versa (Brinkley, 2000). This includes political appointees ranging from cabinet members to speechwriters to communications officers. If the party in control of the White House does not change, then many of the lower-level political appointees remain, supporting the new president in the same way they supported the previous one.

In the case of the South Florida Water Management District, the new Governor appointed six members of the nine member governing board shortly after he took office. The new Governing Board held its first meeting March 10, 1999 and presented a motion to remove the Executive Director who serves “at will” of the Governing Board. The motion also named an “Interim Executive Director” to fill the top post while a search was conducted for a permanent replacement. And thus started a series of changes at the District that resulted in a major organizational restructuring and the departure of many members of upper management. In the 18 months following the Governing Boards action, the majority of senior management has changed.

In an environment such as the one described above, it is very easy for members of a project to lose focus, to be distracted by the organizational chaos that is surrounding them. What happens to the project at this point depends both on the actions of the project manager and the culture of the organization. The term organizational culture is used here as defined by Schein (1985):

“…the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic ‘taken-for-granted’ fashion an organization's view of itself and its environment.”

An organizational shift also adds an element of fear to an organization's culture. The more unstable an organization becomes, the more risk averse its people will become. This shift will affect any project, as people will defer making the “hard choices” so as not to risk coming to a conclusion that may not be viewed favorably by the new administration.

Project-Centered Organizations

A project-centered organization is an “organization which makes use of project teams to deal with the continuous flow of problems and projects associated with changes in corporate policy and the external environment” (Morgan, 1996). With this definition, it is easy to see how a dramatic shift in organizational structure and external pressures would do little to throw a project off track. Because project teams, as they are employed in these organizations, are outside the structure of the organization, they function like an overlay organizational layer. The teams will continue to function even as the organizational structure changes. The reason this works is that the organization of people's work is based not on what box they occupy in the organizational chart, but on the needs of the project.

After a project has been approved, the scope has been written and work is ready to start, a project manager in a project centered organization selects members for the project team by negotiating with the employees’ line manager(s). Once the project team has been put in place, the work begins with the project manager directing the employees with regard to all work relating to the project. As long as the project is still functioning and viable, upper management has not cancelled it, the employee reports to the project manager as if the project manager was the direct supervisor. Conversely, the project manager operates without regard to the current organizational structure, and supervises the employees assigned to the project as if they were directly under him. When upper managers depart and the line organization starts to change, the projects can continue to operate since they are virtually unaffected by what the line structure of the organization is. While a worker may not know whom to contact in order to get vacation time approved, the supervisor with regards to the project work is always clear.

A good example of an organization that continues to churn out projects while the organizational structure is in flux is the Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak). They established their Project Management Division in the early 1980s, and empowered their project managers to assemble their project teams and get their projects completed. During this same time Kodak has gone through turbulent times, with increased competition from Fuji in their films unit, lawsuits surrounding their forays into batteries and instant cameras, and several corporate restructurings. Throughout this, Kodak has been able to churn out new processing systems, new photographic products and even bring the 112-year-old company into the digital age with their PhotoCD product and an Internet venture with America On-line. While the company was reorganizing itself, and deciding the best way to physically put itself together, the projects were able to continue because the chain of direction was never broken. With regards to the project, team members always knew what was going on, or if not, whom to ask (Evans, 2000).

Implicit in the way that project managers operate in a project centered organization is continuous communication. There is constant communication between the project manager and the project team with regards to the project. In this way, the project team members are kept informed about the status of the project and the project manager gets constant feedback as to how things are going at the task level. Constant communication enables the project manager to keep the team focused and reassures them that the project is still viable. Additionally, the project manager must be in contact with the new members of upper management so as to keep the project on the agenda. Just because the project manager is empowered enough to get things done, does not mean that the goals are going to be the same after an organizational restructuring.

Non-Project-Centered Organizations

The situation is much different in organizations that do not have a project focus. Here, the project managers are not empowered to cross organizational lines in order to build and run their project teams. While there may be projects that require work from different organizational levels, the coordinating is sent up the “stovepipe” from the project manager and comes down to the organizational unit that has to do the work. The only managers are line managers, and they have supervisory power only over employees directly in their chain of command. This makes managing a cross-organizational group difficult because the project manager does not have direct access to the employee.

As organizational restructuring proceeds, employees experience feelings ranging from apathy to agitation. As change sweeps the organization, the employees wonder if their jobs will exist tomorrow and if the work they do is going to be valued by the new administration. These and other concerns will tend to distract the employees from the projects they are working on in favor of trying to guess what will be important in the new organizational paradigm. The challenge for the project manager in the non-project-centered organization is to find a way to keep the employee on track, even though the manager does not have any direct supervisory responsibility over the employee.

Communication will be crucial to keeping the project on track. The project manager has to develop a strategy to “market” his project within the organization. As the organization is changing, the project manager has to keep an eye out for the people who may be able to exert influence on their project, and make an effort to meet with them about the project. This includes the new supervisors of the members of the project team. These are the people that can forbid a member of a project team from doing the work the project manager has assigned. While new managers and existing managers that have been moved around in the organizational structure may not be willing to give time to every project manager that wants to meet with them, the attempt must be made. If a meeting cannot be arranged, the project manager should send a briefing package. If a briefing package is used, be brief. If the manager does not have time to meet, he or she does not have the time to wade through a ream of documents. Even in a meeting, mention only the “bottom line” about the project and what it will do for the organization. Determine if the project ties to any organizational priorities that are being identified by the new upper management. If it does, mention that; if not, state the importance of the project in terms that are simple enough for the manager to grasp quickly.

During times of organizational change, especially in non-project-centered organizations, the project manager's communication role extends to include not only information about the project and where it needs to go, but also information about the changes in the organization and how those changes are going to affect the project, the team and future of the organization. Communication with the project team as to how discussions with the new members of the upper management team are going is important to keeping a project team motivated. If a member of the project team does not hear from the project manager, and upper management is not talking about the project, they are liable to think it has fallen to the reorganization ax. Even if the project manager is getting mixed signals from upper management about the project, it is still important to emphasize to the project team that the project has not been cancelled, and that it is proceeding on the same schedule as before the organizational turmoil started. When there is a lack of information flowing, people are liable to think the worst, not strive for the best. The project team is more likely to remain on track if they are also kept informed of the changes happening in the organization. Changes at the District were communicated to the employees only in bits and pieces, leading to employees spending a lot of work time speculating as to what was “really” going on.

Communication is complex for a project manager in non-project-centered organizations even during stable times, so it becomes especially complex during times of organizational change. The project manager must be astute enough to navigate the shifting organizational landscape, and forward-thinking enough to see how the organizational changes are going to affect the project. The project manager must balance the communications needs of upper management and the project team. The project manager must be able to market the project to the appropriate people, even when it is unclear who the appropriate people are. If the project manager decides to “keep a low profile” until the organizational chaos subsides, he or she runs the risk of either putting energy into a project that is later cancelled by the new administration or having the project relegated to the scrap heap because no one in the new management team knew it was even going on. If the project is going to be cancelled, it is better to know sooner rather than later.


So, what is a project manager, in either type of organization, to do if his or her project is cancelled? Options range from working with the project team to wind things down to staging a sit-in in the canceling manager's office. In reality finding out that a project has been cancelled can be the best thing that can happen to a project manager. Yes, the project manager and the project team have invested a lot of time and energy into the project, not to mention the money the organization has spent on it, but if it does not fit into the new goals of the organization, why do it? Cancelled projects free up an organization's most valuable resource—its people, to do other things. Consequently, that project team member who had been toiling in obscurity on a now-cancelled project can be involved in the effort to streamline the procurement process. The project manager of the cancelled project may be tapped to move into upper management, helping to shape the new goals and direction of the organization. The lesson is that organizational restructuring can create opportunities for people to move into different areas, to do different things.

What is the best thing for a project team member to do during a reorganization? Is it to keep your head down like a grad school professor once advised a young professional (Nyhan, 1999) or is it to get yourself involved in the changes that are happening to see if you can affect the future of the organization? In my experience living the reorganization at the District I can tell you that hiding your head was the surest way to get a one-way ticket to obscurity. You can never guess what the agenda is going to be when a new administration takes over. Politics are going to drive the appointments to the governing board and are going to drive the decisions that are made as to who occupies the upper posts of management. Those same politics are going to drive who on the lower levels remains where they are, gets promoted, gets fired and which projects remain or get cancelled. You can never know what all of the behind-the-scenes reasoning is, you can only do the best work you can, market yourself and your project and be open to any new opportunities as they present themselves. Periods of organizational turmoil in government are going to be more and more common. Lifetime employment died during the 1980s in the private sector, and employees in today's government should know those same private sector rules apply. Leaders in government also have to realize that the “rules of engagement” have changed between employer and employee. As such, project managers have to understand the present environment. The project many be important now, but not tomorrow. Consequently, the project managers have to be able to maneuver the shifting political maze not just for the project's sake, but also for the sake of the team members and themselves.

Brinkley, John. (2000, January 29). Personal Communication.

Evans, M. (2000, March 1). Personal Communication.

Executive Office of the Governor, Florida (EOG). (2000, March 22) Personal Communication.

French, J. (1959). Bases of Social Power. Studies in Social Power; edited by D. Cartwright.

Morgan, G. (1996). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Nyhan, R. (1999, March 19). Personal Communication.

Schein, E. (1985). Defining Organizational Culture. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, F. (1915, March 3). The Principles of Scientific Management. Text of speech given before the Cleveland Advertising Club.

Weber, M. (1947). The theory of social and economic organization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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