Whenever we’re faced with a challenge or an opportunity, we tend to respond with thoughts about what should we do and how should we do it. We seldom think to ask the who questions. Who is likely to be an ally, an obstacle or an unknown? In my decades of studying strategic relationships for return on impact, it’s rare to find executives investing time in truly understanding the flow of influence in their own or target organizations they seek to work with.
The result of overlooking this strategic step can be costly. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago, I flew to Chicago for a meeting with a group of executives. We had done our preparation, in light of the importance of this multiyear, multimillion-dollar project. Reviewing the attendee list, I saw one name I didn’t recognize-who was this individual? When the meeting began, everybody introduced themselves with a briefing on their goals. One person chose not to sit at the conference table, but in one of the chairs against the wall. While everybody else talked, he quietly, very diligently, took notes. I became more and more curious. At the end of the meeting, the obligatory exchange of business cards took place. Everyone else had titles on their cards, VP and EVP and so forth. This one person’s business card was the only one without a title. By that time, I just about couldn’t contain my curiosity. I asked around and learned he was the “special adviser to the chairman of the board.”
Apparently, the project we were working on was not only a priority for the executives at the table, but of interest to the board, as well. The chairman had sent this fellow to the meeting to report back directly to him. Three months later, a number of the people who had been around that conference table were no longer with the firm.
Mr. Special Adviser could be found nowhere on that organization’s org chart, but his political clout is self-evident. The moral of this little story is that you ignore influence in an organization at your peril.
If I’m putting a $10 million project in front of a decision-maker, the last thing I want is someone I don’t know, someone I haven’t even known existed, influencing that project. I’ve learned from experience that, as bizarre as it sounds, too often the greatest political power or influence in an enterprise has nothing to do with the titles on its org chart.
Map the political influence structure
I’ve developed tools to help me avoid surprises from unacknowledged flows of influence, and I suggest you do, too. Create for yourself, for each organization or initiative in which you invest your relationship capital, a political road map.
Here is the shocker! It’s not an app, it won’t run on your smartphone or tablet, and it doesn’t use a satellite orbiting the planet. In our hyperconnected digital world, we’re losing sight of the fundamentals. Think of this recommendation as learning how to write cursive when everyone else is working with Siri! (By the way, I’ve also researched a dozen or so called “enterprise relationship management” technologies – most are myopic at best, moronic at minimum. They’re so busy trying to give you fancy graphics that their assumptions are flawed, for instance about the quality of a relationship.
Here is what you will need for this exercise: three colored markers, a straightedge, a whiteboard, some index cards and tape. Start by drawing sources of information flow. (For each individual, draw a rectangle the size of your index cards: You will add information here in the next step, using cards to keep your roadmap flexible.) Do not map the explicit power structure, but what you’ve observed about the influence structure so far.
Next, use your colored markers to color-code each relationship on your chart:
- Green: This person is an ally who has been visibly supportive in the past and “gets” what you are trying to do;
- Yellow: This person is neutral to your initiatives or is an unknown. Is he on the fence? Could she be swayed? Try to capture some aspect of his or her position from observable behavior;
- Red: For whatever reason, this person opposes what you are trying to accomplish. I’m also curious here whether he can be neutralized or eliminated to minimize my risk profile with the specific initiative or project.
Use your index cards to write comments and impressions about the individuals you have just color-coded. Note your questions as well as your observations. If something they’ve said gave you these impressions, write their words as accurately as you can recall them.
When done with this step, tape the cards to the whiteboard next to individuals’ names.
At this point, your influence chart should begin to generate insights. Step back and listen to what it is telling you. Who do you need on your side? Who can you ignore? Who is already an advocate who puts wind in your sails? Add index cards with your observations.
This is the time to apply a process I referred to as strategic relationship triangulation in my book, Relationship Economics. For any piece of information critical to your political success with these relationships, you must find three independent sources to verify, validate or void the critical assumptions you are making about each person or piece of information. It’s homework time. Use your relationship network and other “biz-intel” sources to triangulate the assumptions on your influence road map. Rework the position of individuals in relation to each other as new insights emerge or old ones are voided.
Relationship triangulation can help you understand the most influential sources within a team, a department, an organization or an entire industry. Who are the real decision-makers, and who works most closely with them? Knowing this enables you to much more effectively customize how you develop relationships and add value for each individual.
Does this process take a lot of effort? Yes. Is it necessary? It would be naive to think you don’t need to build a political road map based on solid research. Could your time and effort be better spent focusing on outcomes? Only once you have a solid understanding of the relationships you need to help you achieve those outcomes. Don’t treat this task as a “one and done.” The chart need will frequent updates as the situation evolves.
This political roadmap allows you to quickly visualize your relationships and, specifically, your relationship assets and liabilities. Further, it helps you see whether you have enough support to accomplish your goals, or where you need to invest time and effort to build that support. When you can see who is an ally and who is an enemy, you can plan your next steps. “What can I negotiate? What can I exchange? Do I have something of value that they want?” It’s called “politics” for a reason—this kind of “horse-trading” is what our elected officials do.
Any kind of organizational sea change—a merger or acquisition, a large-scale restructure, any new line of business, any succession planning any geographic expansion requires a political road map at this level of detail. These are all highly disruptive events to most businesses.
Frankly, I see too many people blindsided by disruption because they simply failed to maintain an accurate road map of the political terrain they are trying to navigate.
By the way, if you’re looking for the science behind these ideas, Google “social network analysis.” You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter or YouTube!
- Because influence doesn’t show up on org charts, you need to invest the time and effort to visualize that information for yourself.
- You are welcome to use my system of color-coding and notes, or develop a system that works for you that shows the flow of influence we call “office politics.”
- Rigorous triangulation allows you to trust your insights-which are invaluable when dealing with disruption.