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The Politics of Information Technology

I’m writing this on November 7, 2006. That’s election day in the United States. During the last few months we’ve been besieged with television and radio advertising for candidates, and even recorded messages sent to our telephones. Now it’s time for all of the campaigning to end as we go to the polls to vote.

It’s unfortunate that most of us will vote based on perception rather than reality. We don’t really know whether these candidates for office will do a good job; we only know what they’ve told us or what their opponents have told us. And even more unfortunately, these costly campaigns (television and radio ads aren’t cheap) have been financed by people and organizations who have a stake in the election, people who in many cases are more interested in their own personal agendas than in the choice of the best candidate.

The whole process is so vague that we’re really voting on the perception of a perception: our perception of advertising that’s been designed to create a certain perception of its own.

That’s what politics is all about: creating a perception of success that leads to career advancement. And like it or not, politics is a part of everyday business life just as much as it is a part of government. An Information Technology organization isn’t immune to politics, although many of the analytically oriented people who belong to IT organizations believe that to be the case. Wherever there are people there will be politics, and learning to cope with politics is a necessity for any manager.

Answering a Question on Politics
In government organizations we see politics in its purest form. I was the keynote speaker last year for the University System of Georgia’s annual computing conference, a gathering of IT people who support the colleges and universities in the state. After the keynote I did a question and answer session, and one of the questions got to the heart of the political situation. The question was, “How do we in IT achieve the longer-term objective of providing optimal information technology for our customers when the heads of our customer organizations change from election to election?” The questioner cited the tendency for elected officials to come to their new jobs with specific agenda items to be worked: agenda items that were at the heart of their election campaign. The result for IT is that there is a huge directional discontinuity from the term of one elected official to the term of the next elected official, and programs that are started under one administration are often abandoned under the next.

I answered the question two ways. First, I mentioned one of my standard rules for successful projects (see more in Chapter 6 of my book Boiling the IT Frog): projects should never have a duration longer than the remaining job tenure of the sponsoring executive. If the sponsoring executive is an elected official, then all projects should be scheduled to be completed before the next election. Most projects should be even shorter in duration, or should at least be broken up into sub-projects which provide customer benefits within the shorter timeframe of each sub-project.

Second, I dealt with an obvious objection to the first part of my answer: What about necessary IT projects like a major update in infrastructure that can’t be done in less time than the tenure of a sponsoring executive? Or what about projects which are obviously necessary from an IT viewpoint, but which aren’t directly tied to the agenda of the elected official? In these cases you have to use the same methodology employed by sailboats which need to sail against the wind. You have to tack back and forth, sailing alternately in directions other than your ultimate direction, but ultimately moving closer and closer to your objective. In Chapter 16 of my book Boiling the IT Frog I describe the process this way:

Rather than to go after these objectives directly, you might have to define some intermediate steps along the way, and tie the accomplishment of these intermediate steps to other more business-critical projects that they support. In effect, you are “tacking” the long-term project back and forth to take advantage of the winds: the current business projects that support your intermediate steps. And just as a sailing ship has to sail a longer distance to reach its destination because of the tacking, you’ll find that sometimes the achievement of a long-term IT objective will involve some steps that might seem a little bit off the route. But that’s the price to pay for achieving the best compromise between business objectives and technology objectives. And the ultimate measure is whether you can achieve both sets of objectives simultaneously.

Political People
So far I’ve talked about “real” politics: elected officials and their impact on IT. But the other use of the word politics applies to anyone who puts his own self-interest before the interests of a company or organization. This kind of person, often described as “very political,” is “all about me.” He or she is only interested in personal advancement and glory, and anything else is just a way to achieve that advancement and glory.

If you’re personally more focused on doing the best thing for the company, then it’s difficult to work for a political person like this. You have to be very careful in conversations and presentations to make sure that anything you want to do is presented in such a way as to maximize the personal benefit to the person without seeming too obvious. It’s almost as if everything has to be thought through on two levels: at the first level you justify a project or an action by showing how it’s the right thing to do for your company. On the second level you justify a project or action by showing – possibly in a veiled way – that it’s the right thing to do to advance the career of your boss.

This same course of action applies if the “very political” person is a customer or a user of your systems. Everything has to be approached at two levels, almost as if you’re keeping two sets of books.

Politics are a fact of life in a world of human beings. Politics in government cause you to take special steps to deal with a boss or customer who has a very specific timeframe in the job. Political people may not have quite the short-term focus of real politicians, but they have the same focus on self-advancement that politicians do. As a result, all communications between you and the political people have to be approached on two levels: one level for the company’s best interests and another subtextual level for the individuals’ best interests.

For people who claim to “avoid politics,” I just have one piece of advice: people are going to be political whether you acknowledge it or not. It’s best to develop an approach where you always try to present things in a way that appeals to both the company’s best interests and the personal best interests of the individuals. For the non-political people it won’t matter, but it will be critical for the politicians.

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