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Playing Politics: How to Navigate a Politically-Charged ERP Environment Print E-mail

Special to, by Charles Benson, Independent ERP Consultant

Jon Reed's introduction: full disclosure - Charles Benson is a consultant from the so-called evil empire, the Oracle side of the house. Though to be fair, he's a PeopleSoft consultant and had nothing to do with Oracle's PeopleSoft acquisition. I'm pleased to welcome him as our first content contributor. In this article, Charles outlines the political considerations that all independent ERP consultants need to be aware of, whether your affiliations are blue, red, or any other color combination.

There is a mythology that if you become an independent ERP consultant, you no longer have to deal with project politics, and that is not correct. ALL project participants have to facilitate their way around the water cooler and find a way to make a positive contribution.

When you talk about the political side of ERP implementations, that means being honest about the different parties on a project that may have different, and sometimes conflicting, agendas. Ideally, all parties on a project should be be on the same page, but in the real world, we all know that doesn't always happen. I applaud Charles for his honesty about the political realities on today's ERP projects.

There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that we all have conflicting agendas between the interests of the project and our own interests. Independent consultants are no different. My hope is that by raising these points, Charles will help us to be more aware of how to make a constructive contribution. And, hopefully, to avoid being the person caught in the wrong situation because we weren't hip to the issues around us.

For a lot of people, one big thing in the plus column for becoming an independent consultant is not having to deal with "silly office politics" anymore. And while it's true that you won't have to deal with an annual review process, "banding," and things like that, the fact is that competing loyalties and hidden agendas exist on implementation projects just as much as they do within the main company.

Being an external consultant doesn't mean you won't have to deal with those issues, and it certainly doesn't mean you'll never have to work in a politically tense environment. Fortunately, the well-defined shared objective of project work (i.e. the success of the implementation) does suggest a framework within which you can succeed under the most complicated of conditions.

In the first part of this article, I'll discuss some examples you can use to help spot "political landmines" before stepping on them. Managers will also benefit from being able to recognize these destructive patterns within their teams and take action to correct them early. In the concluding section, I'll detail some strategies for how you, as an external consultant, can avoid allowing these scenarios to disrupt your success on the project.

I. Reading the Signs

Disruptive Incentives. People respond to incentives, and project managers are people too. But seriously, companies frequently construct incentives differently for different resources on a project. For instance, engineers will often work longer hours to complete a task when they're offered time-and-a-half. For professional project managers, it's usually a bonus for hitting target dates or a penalty for missing them.

Sometimes, a well-meaning incentive can prove to be disruptive by encouraging actions that are not in the best interest of the success of the implementation. Arbitrarily moving timelines or adjusting a deployment strategy to incorporate a "phased rollout" at the last minute are two examples of this type of action. Both actions do have a legitimate place in the arsenal of the project manager, but the key factor is whether such actions are taken in the best interest of the implementation, or the best interest of the project manager's bonus. If they're overly disruptive or mask basic faults in the product, it's probably the latter.

Looking out for number one. On my very first engagement as an independent, a senior consultant offered to take me to lunch and share her wisdom on how to succeed with our client. I agreed, eager to learn anything I could. Her advice to me was: always hold something back, that way they'll keep you around forever. At this recently privatized, former government-owned entity, it was not uncommon to see people working as consultants for up to 7 years or more, and I had just been given a clue as to why, at least in some cases, that was happening.

With another client, amidst massive layoffs and a corporate buyout, I witnessed an employee refuse to take on a new assignment (one working with new technology, likely creating workable skills for the marketplace) because it would make him "more valuable to the company" and result in his being kept on staff longer, when all he wanted was to be made redundant as quickly as possible and collect his payoff. By not taking the new assignment, he forced the work onto other, already overburdened people.

There's nothing specifically wrong with looking out for your own best interest so that you're not taken advantage of, or in positioning yourself for the type of skills growth or career path you want. I hope it's clear to see the difference between those aims and the scenarios I described above.

External Agenda. When sub-contracting to integration companies like IBM, Accenture, Bearing Point, and the like, it's not uncommon to see agendas at work that have nothing to do with the implementation project itself. These are categorized by a consulting firm taking care of their own needs and the needs of their own employees outside the context of a particular client relationship.

In one case, I witnessed a Development Lead rolled off two months before the go-live date - the firm's yearly evaluation period was beginning, and since active development had finished, it would not be in this employee's best interest to spend the first two months of the evaluation year in a passive breakfix/test support role. It's arguable as to whether the best interest of the implementation was served by rolling off the person who knew the most about custom code, not to mention the manager of the team from a workforce perspective.

I have also observed a firm fight to decrease their staff's (and sub-contractors') utilization by the end-client, and in some cases force "vacations" on individuals, even during an active go-live period - even if a project is OK overall on their budget, many clients place particular emphasis on external spend (money the project pays to external firms for products and services), and there can be intense pressure to keep it down, even if that means not "fielding your best team" (assuming that using the best consultants available produces the best quality product for the end-client, and that those consultants have the highest bill rates).

Personal. Think Disclosure. Despite most companies expressly forbidding it, office romances do happen. It should be obvious that such relationships can easily result in discriminatory decisions - whether it's positive discrimination, such as when a romantic interest is given preference in decisions in disregard to facts, or negative discrimination, as when one party refuses to work with or undermines another's work after a relationship falters. Of course, romance doesn't have to be the instigator - personal conflicts or prejudices arise for any number of reasons.

II. Survival Tips

In the last section, we looked at examples of the types of competing loyalties and office politics that can be found within implementation projects. Now let's look at strategies for how you can avoid having these forces undermine the quality of your work and your success on the project.

A. Ask yourself whose side you're on. This is consultant 101 - who is your client? If you're independent, you don't have a company to fall back on, so your name is all you have. Integrity is a must, and the success of the implementation is in your best interest, so act in that interest, and convince others to do so, too. If you are sub-contracting, do not question the actions or decisions of your client (the Integrator) in front of the end-client, but do speak openly with your team behind closed doors. Respect your own opinions - after all, you're being paid to give them - but you have to be mindful of in front of whom you are speaking.

B. Solicit regular 360 degree feedback. Just because you're not an employee, doesn't mean you shouldn't get feedback from and give feedback to your direct report manager on a regular basis. The first time I did this, I sent an email and then followed up a week later by trying to schedule a meeting. After being put off several times, I eventually just asked my boss to join me for dinner one night, and brought it up then. Ask if you're fulfilling your client's expectations for you, and if there's anything they would prefer to see you doing differently. Also be prepared to give honest, thoughtful feedback yourself. You might be surprised how positive an experience this can be.

C. People are not agendas, they're people. Remember that everyone is facing competing loyalties and pressures, and try to be understanding of what those might be. Your boss who's making erratic decisions is more than likely facing pressure from a source you haven't seen. Try to be sympathetic to what that is, and help them address any underlying concerns in a mutually productive way. Avoid being overly critical, and avoid negative gossip.

D. Sometimes despite everything you do, you find yourself in the middle of a bad situation, whatever that may be. In an emergency like this, I recommend three things: keep a work diary, keep your agency informed, and ask for help starting with your direct report manager. By doing these things you:

1) establish a written record of what is happening in the workplace;
2) ensure that a third party also knows what is going on, especially if it is affecting your work, and;
3) establish that you are not trying to cause problems yourself, but are rather attempting to solve them within the appropriate reporting structure.

Another big thing also in the plus column for becoming an independent consultant is the ability to do "good work" without unnecessary hindrance. Hopefully knowing how to spot, and work effectively despite, the types of political pitfalls discussed in this article will help you accomplish your good work.

About Charles Benson:
After a little over two years with Andersen Consulting, Charles Benson noticed an emerging trend in Europe characterized by a need for PeopleSoft architecture skills. He left AC to become an independent consultant following this trend, with his first contract coming from Belgium. The next four years saw Charles moving between both countries and products across Europe and into Africa. He returned to the US in 2006, and is now bringing his expertise in PeopleSoft Technical Architecture and management to clients on this continent.




Charles has worked in Belgium, the UK, Denmark, Switzerland, Nigeria, and the USA, with clients like Belgacom and TDC in Telecomms; Safeway and Morrisons in Retail; Elf Petroleum in Resources; and Aon, CNA, and Credit Suisse in Financial Services. His technical experience spans all major PeopleSoft products, PeopleTools releases, and the Unix/Oracle and Mainframe/DB2 platforms.


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