Process, Politics and Agency: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

The following is the second in a series of posts further exploring questions and concepts that emerged during the book launch for Exercising Agency.

Process, politics and agency were central to the ideas contained within the book Exercising Agency. They were, in fact, the central components of how effective project initiation decisions are made. Surprisingly few organizations actually have effective and valued processes that guide initiation choices. A far greater number of organizations rely upon politics to a greater or lesser degree. In a select few, effective project decisions are most directly influenced by the agency—the freedom and willingness to act—of the person in the project shaper role.

A question that was raised in the book launch was whether or not these ideas were mutually exclusive. The specific query was, “Don’t most organizations use all three methods? I can see my organization doing all three, each with specific projects and departments.” It’s an interesting challenge, and one that is worth taking time to explore.

Certainly, in any given organization we are going to have some combination of process, politics and agency. In evaluating the effectiveness of how project initiation decisions are made, however, we have to look in turn at the effectiveness each of these influences.

Many organizations indicated that some degree of process governed how project initiation decisions were made. The challenge is that, for most, this process wasn’t terribly effective. In fact, only a very few research participants described an initiation process that genuinely worked well. In these instances, the process was not just formal and consistent, but it was also valued. This had an interesting impact on politics and agency, though. In these organizations, politics was perceived as counterproductive to the effective functioning of the process. What’s more, individual respondents indicated that better results were obtained by working through the process, rather than around it. In other words, in the face of good process, politics and agency were both suppressed or constrained.

The influence of politics was far greater in a much larger number of organizations. Some research participants described a cooperative and collaborative environment, where project initiation decisions were a product of consultation and consensus amongst managers and executives. By contrast, other participants described the political environment of their organizations as toxic or dysfunctional. As can be expected, a lack of constructive politics resulted in extremely ineffective project initiation decisions. At the same time, even functional political environments had only a moderate impact on decision making effectiveness. Political compromise can conspire to sub-optimize good decisions in favour of consensus and group acceptance.

Agency had the most significant influence on decision making effectiveness. The willingness, ability and freedom of those in the project shaper role to act in support of their project could, on its own, result in effective decisions. More importantly, the agency of those in the project shaper role was also able to compensate for political environments that were only moderately effective, helping these organizations to still make effective decisions. Even in dysfunctional environments, agency could make some difference, although care and caution was required in determining when and how agency was exercised.

In endeavouring to create an environment that produces consistently effective project initiation decisions, the influences of process, politics and agency are not mutually exclusive. There is an interaction between each of these dimensions that helps determine how well decisions do in fact get made:

  • Where process works, the very consistency and rigour that makes process effective also constrains the relevance of agency. Actors who theoretically should have a great deal of organizational influence and autonomy willingly give up their freedom where process is seen to produce better results.
  • Politics can be partly effective on its own, but is most consistently successful in supporting project initiation decisions when augmented by the influence of agency by the project shaper. Agency is able to compensate for political challenges and overcome inadequacies and organizational dysfunctions in securing better decisions.
  • Agency can have influence on its own, but requires a strong and capable project shaper who is willing to act alone in order to further the interests of the organization, particularly where neither politics nor process are seen to be effective.

Effective project initiation decisions are influenced by process, politics and agency. While these forces can act in isolation, they more typically interact with each other. The influence of one force can augment, compromise or constrain the actions of the others. What is important in all of this is the insight that this research has provided in helping those who support the initiation process to help make better decisions. This requires an accurate assessment of the organizational environment, a sense of our own individual capabilities, and a willingness and determination to act at all times in the best interests of the project and the organization.

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