While wrapping up the semester's work one of the students challenged me and the group: "Sure, all of this stuff is good -- and powerful -- and might even contribute to the business, but when all's said and done politics determines what gets funded and what gets killed, what the company does and what it doesn't do. Good arguments are nice, but they usually fall on deaf ears ... I'd rather play golf with the boss than work my tail off writing the 'perfect' business case."
When I failed to respond immediately, several others chimed in, agreeing that it was mostly -- if not all -- "political" out there, and that if you weren't a political player you were doomed.
Are these student-practitioners right? Is it all about who you know, not what you know? Does politics explain what happens -- and what doesn't?
Here's what I told them. First, it's important to assess the political quotient of your company. Some companies are almost completely "political": A few people make decisions based only on what they think, who they like (and dislike), and based on what's good for them personally (which may or may not be good for the company). This is ground zero. It gets no worse than this. On the other extreme are companies that are obsessive-compulsive about data, evidence and analysis. Sometimes they're so compulsive they fail to make any decisions at all! In the middle are most of the companies out there, with some balance between analysis and politics. Where is your company on this continuum?
It's important to locate your company accurately. It's also important to locate your own preferences, your own culture. The gap between your personal culture and your corporate culture is what will keep you sane -- or drive you crazy.
The discussion with the students moved quickly toward a discussion of alternative corporate cultures and the personalities that each culture breeds. Technology decisions in analytical cultures tend to be driven by TCO and ROI calculations, but technology decisions in highly political cultures often have bad outcomes because technology decisions are frequently complicated and expensive.
Industry analysts have told us for years that somewhere around 75% of all big technology projects fail. I suspect that if we correlated this finding with corporate culture we'd find some interesting things.
We also talked about personal preferences. What kind of culture do you like? Some of us flourish in politically charged cultures, while others thrive in analytical cultures. The key is the gap between where you live and who you are.
I ended the class with a discussion about how holistic business technology decisions really are (not with a discussion about how to neutralize political decision-making or change corporate cultures). At the heart of the matter is the balance between analysis and politics or -- expressed more gently -- research and philosophy. For example, business technology decisions occur within a philosophical context often expressed in dictums "we don't believe in off-shore outsourcing," or "we never build applications; we always buy and integrate them."
These kinds of philosophical preferences drive the decision agenda. Decisions that make the list are then approached analytically or politically, depending on the culture. Maneuvering through decision-making mazes can be challenging -- or rewarding -- depending on the size of your personal/corporate culture gap.
If you're political but your culture is analytical -- or vice versa -- it may be time to move. But if you're aligned with your culture, you should prosper. The matrix looks something like Figure 1. As always, it's better to be green than red. Yellow is OK, but still not perfect. I think that highly political people in totally political cultures eventually lose their minds, but that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.
What worries me most are the people and cultures that are part political and part analytical. How do they make decisions without arguing with their companies and themselves? Enough. I think everyone gets the picture. Class dismissed.
Figure 1: Where Do You Live?