Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 38;   September 22, 2010: The Politics of the Critical Path: I

The Politics of the Critical Path: I

by

The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008

A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008. This parkway was constructed above Interstate 93, which passes under Boston in a network of tunnels that comprise part of a project that was known as the Big Dig. The contractor responsible for construction near the area pictured was Jay M. Cashman Inc., which depended on information supplied by the Big Dig's management company, a partnership of Bechtel Corp. of San Francisco, and Parsons Brinckerhoff of New York. It is now known that prior to Cashman submitting its bid, Bechtel had been remiss in delivering necessary site information to Cashman, omitting important items and delivering other items late. Cashman went ahead anyway, and submitted a winning bid of $218 million. Before and during construction, Bechtel delivered additional information that caused Cashman to have to revise its plans numerous times and resulted in overruns of more than 60%. For the full story see the investigative report by the Boston Globe. Photo courtesy The Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea.

When you're responsible for a task in the critical path of an effort, you can be subject to scrutiny and pressure that others are not. Preparing yourself for this environment helps in two ways. First, you'll perform better. More important though, political operators are more likely to leave you alone if they believe that you're prepared and able to deal with political tactics. So let's get prepared.

There are different ways to be in the critical path. Your task can be waiting, unable to begin or suspended, because it depends on other tasks not yet complete, or is waiting for something else not yet available. Or it can be already completed, having delivered something essential to another task that is in the critical path. These different states give rise to different politics.

In this issue, we examine what happens when a task is waiting for a resource, information, or a critical piece of infrastructure. In three weeks, we'll look at what can happen to completed tasks.

A task might be in a wait state for a variety of reasons. Some examples:

  • It depends on a deliverable from a previous task, and that task isn't yet complete
  • It needs the assistance of someone who isn't yet available
  • It needs some other unavailable resource
  • It needs information from a previous task, or a vendor, and that information isn't available.

Even if the task is unable to begin work, it's susceptible to pressure tactics.

Waiting for a deliverable or for information
If the task needs a deliverable from another task, or information not yet available, you might hear, "Assuming that they will give you result X, can't you start building from there? Then if they give you something different, you can always change it."
Cooperating is risky unless the item in question is absolutely predictable. Usually it's not predictable — it might be very different from what was expected. If that happens, "you can always change it" could become a very expensive and time-consuming strategy.
Waiting for people or access to resources
If lack of access Even if a task is
unable to begin work,
it's susceptible to
pressure tactics
to specific resources is the issue, political pressure usually takes the form of insistence on the equivalence of some alternate resource: "Use this/him/her instead." Rarely are the substitutes actually sufficient.
Accepting the substitute is usually unwise. If the substitute is a less experienced or less skilled person, the result can actually be negative progress.

To respond to these pressures effectively, demonstrate with plausible projections the real risks of using the suggested tactics. Then request appropriate contingency reserves to cover those risks. The size of those reserves might not persuade those exerting pressure to relent, but you will have achieved some level of political protection by making a solid case for a more prudent course.

In three weeks, we'll examine the fate of tasks that are already complete. Go to top Top  Next issue: Management Debt: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenTzzsXpZkbrbcnoxnner@ChacgvTwwOJVFDIkOnpdoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

The game of chess, a strategic metaphorNasty Questions: I
Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Humans aren't the only species that communicates by facial expressionsDismissive Gestures: II
In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
Male peponapis pruinosa — one of the "squash bees."What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: I
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
Two barnacles affixed to the shell of a green musselGetting Into the Conversation
In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation can be challenging for some.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sJust Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both.

See also Workplace Politics and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenPOOcwPkxdNwabQJDner@ChacUqzmddCkeTpaeNJCoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.