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How to Map the Politics around Your Work

At some stage, if you want to be successful in any large organisation, you will have to become very adept at reading the politics. Yesterday, when writing an article about making an impact at the top table, the imperative of building political intelligence came into focus. Only when you have a firm grasp of what is “really” going on, can you start to navigate safely through the corridors of power.

The usual way of building this insight is through many informal conversations over a period of several months, if not years. I am not talking necessarily about gossip, but rather the sharing of information, knowledge and insight which is one of the key benefits of effective networking. You can speed this up dramatically if you engage in a constructive process.

Below is a simplified version of one of the exercises we often do on our workshops. At its best, it involves a group of peers at middle to senior level who come from a wide range of different functions/divisions, and who have built a reasonable level of trust between them. Independent facilitation is a bonus. You can do it solo, but it’s much more fun, interesting and useful to get others involved – the process of sharing can dramatically improve a team’s effectiveness in the political realm.

  1. Sit around a table with a stack of blank index cards or Post-it notes and marker pens.
  2. Instil the culture of exploration, sharing and curiosity – “let’s learn together”.
  3. One reasonably well-informed person then spends 5-10 minutes using the cards to describe their “political theory” of the organisation. They start by writing the name of the most powerful person in the organisation (in their view) on a card and placing the card in the middle of the table.
  4. Then they write the name of the next most powerful person on another card and place it on the table relative to the power of the first person. Building a mind map of the web of power is a good guide to how this exercise should unfold.
  5. They continue in this way, placing names on the table either near or further away from the centre of power. As they do this, they should briefly describe their rationale. The rest of the group should try to keep quiet for at least 5 minutes – although this is nigh on impossible!
  6. When it feels natural, other people can enter the conversation, adding names, moving people, and generally sharing their views. If you can, pass the cards to another person, who can then pick up the story and modify the map.
  7. If you have a group of six to eight experienced people, expect this to take well over an hour.
  8. As the facilitator, you can add lots of provocative questions along the way to stimulate the debate. What impact does project X have? What changes would you predict in six months? What would happen if you take Ms Z out of the picture?
  9. End the process with each person explaining what changes they are going to make to improve their results.

When you try this with a good group, you will be amazed how the time disappears. The conversations are gripping as the picture emerges. I’ve been using this approach for over eight years now with a wide variety of different groups, and most people end the exercise with a completely different stakeholder map to go and influence! Remember, this is a way of building your political intelligence so that you can get the results expected of your role without getting stuck in the politics.

On one occasion, I was doing this exercise with a group of Financial Controllers. As an external facilitator, I was free to ask the naïve and stupid questions, such as “What if Mr M is trying to get the CEO position?” Their startled faces quickly turned to incredulous mirth and we moved on. Twenty minutes later, their two absent colleagues returned from an emergency conference call to announce that Mr M had just been appointed CEO. As all eyes turned on me, my protestations of ignorance were dismissed and they now believed I had the inside track – which I didn’t. In all honesty, it was just a good piece of intelligent facilitation, aided by my fledgling process of political calibration which I had been applying as I got to know them (but more on that another day).

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