Why do we find ‘project politics’ so distasteful?

March 23, 2013

Management, Research, Theory

Partly I feel the lack of attention, indeed expressed distaste for, project politics is rooted in a deep paradigmatic ‘business culture’ disconnect. Underneath any organization is a bundle of philosophical assumptions about what an organization is. The dominant paradigm in firms established in Western industrialized lands often derive from Protestant individualism and involve myths of the omniscient, benevolent individual leader, linear moral and ethical perspectives, and positivistic, pseudo-mechanical view of organizations.

The notion that organizations are foremost socio-structural networks, and less an agglomeration of free-willed individuals, otherwise challenges this paradigm.  Although not consciously or explicitly recognized as being the source, the notion of the necessary omnipresence of ‘politics’ often causes a rootless distaste, as it implies that social networks and coalition building is more significant in business than the thoughts and behaviors of ‘heroic individuals’ (i.e. ‘how important “I” am!’).

If we were to make a simple proposition, it is possible to ‘flip’ one’s perspective quite quickly: organizations are rough and often flawed decision making mechanisms. The ‘organization as inefficient computer’ makes decisions via rough and frequently shifting coalitions and networks which communally sort and process information into decisions. Individuals are primarily role-based agents that interact within structured networks according to patterned behavioral mechanisms. Thus, incentives linked to assessment mechanisms, decision rights, and access to information guide the behavior of agents in terms of their cooperation and conflict with other agents. Agent interactions often cause coalitions and group competitions to emerge as vested interests align and coalesce around particular shared incentive interests.  This is a natural process, and indeed, if pursued consciously and somewhat transparently, is a source of healthy organizational operation*.

From such a perspective, politics is not a ‘dirty word’, but the very substrate upon which business information is processed and decisions made. My own belief is that ‘capitalistic individualism’ finds this perspective distasteful as it subtly implies the necessity of ‘socialistic mechanisms’ and the alignment of  ‘communities of interest’ in driving profit and performance. From here, we are forced to look at the long-term health of the Nordics and to recognize that shareholder capitalism and one-tier boards are leading some societies to the brink of decline.

To some degree we are getting better at understanding and studying ‘political’ mechanisms as tangible, information processing phenomenon, as opposed to ‘messy noise’ (which otherwise contributes to the notion that politics is a phenomenon of waste, rather than a necessary process).  Social network analysis (SNA), computational organization theory, and multi-agent simulation are three perspectives that offer frameworks for understanding complex socio-structural organizational phenomenon.  They depend upon a view of individuals as primarily being role-based agents interacting in a structured network (thus rejecting the experimental psychology stance that individuals are driven by free will and that dynamic individuals are the core frame for organizational inquiry).

The socio-structural perspective is potentially sensitive: it challenges the traditional Anglo-Saxon business model, which is focused on notions of individuality, personality, leadership, inter-personal competition, and myths of the omniscient leader. My own feeling is that the time is ripe for an assault on this complex of ‘the heroic business leader’ given the great and spectacular failures to which this paradigm has and is leading us towards (i.e. the global financial crisis, environmental degradation, military adventurism). While it is impossible to be ‘social’ outside of society, for some reason the notion that we are fully independent agents, not tied to social constraints and structures (read: the necessity of political mechanisms and processes), perplexingly dominates organizational thought and programs…

* This notion is represented by the Knowledge-Based View (KBV) of the Firm


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About SARK7

Scott Allen Mongeau (@SARK7), an INFORMS Certified Analytics Professional (CAP), is a researcher, lecturer, and consulting Data Scientist. Scott has over 30 years of project-focused experience in data analytics across a range of industries, including IT, biotech, pharma, materials, insurance, law enforcement, financial services, and start-ups. Scott is a part-time lecturer and PhD (abd) researcher at Nyenrode Business University on the topic of data science. He holds a Global Executive MBA (OneMBA) and Masters in Financial Management from Erasmus Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). He has a Certificate in Finance from University of California at Berkeley Extension, a MA in Communication from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Graduate Degree (GD) in Applied Information Systems Management from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He holds a BPhil from Miami University of Ohio. Having lived and worked in a number of countries, Scott is a dual American and Dutch citizen. He may be contacted at: webmaster@sark7.com LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/smongeau/ Twitter: @sark7 Blog: sctr7.com Web: www.sark7.com All posts are copyright © 2020 SARK7 All external materials utilized imply no ownership rights and are presented purely for educational purposes.

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