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Sidestep the land mines of BPM projects

At the 2013 Gartner Conference, the keynote offered tips on avoiding politics in a BPM program.

The way Tina Nunno sees it, business politics is no ordinary sport.

After all, other sports have clear rules and participant rosters, the Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst said Monday in her opening keynote for the annual Gartner Business Process Management Summit. By contrast, in organizational politics, you may get tackled by someone you didn’t even know was playing the game.

The best BPM project is useless if we can’t move it forward.
Tina Nunnovice president and distinguished analyst, Gartner Inc.

Unlike politics, most sports have officials, such as referees and umpires, who can call fouls and even eject people from the game. "Wouldn't you love to see that happen at work?" Nunno asked, drawing laughter from the audience. Her well-attended presentation kicked off the three-day conference, which attracted nearly 600 business and IT professionals to the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Nunno also described a key difference between business and politics: In business, people can argue convincingly that a decision "isn't personal; it's just business," Nunno said. "But in politics, it's always personal."

Organizational politics, of course, play a major role in business process management (BPM), where initiatives may stall or fail completely as they hit internal challenges, hurdles and opposition. "The best BPM project is, frankly, useless if we can't move it forward," she said.

While the word "politics" often has negative connotations, Nunno emphasized that her definition focuses on the positive: "Politics is the dynamic process by which groups of people make decisions and resolve conflicts," she said. But she acknowledged that decision making remains a difficult and complex undertaking even under the best circumstances -- especially because it involves change.

"The very nature of change triggers a political minefield," she said, citing four common land mines in BPM projects: resources, control, status and belief.

Maneuvering through the minefield

Nunno offered advice for avoiding or defusing those four land mines:

Resources: This land mine typically pops up in response to scarcity of resources, significant changes in project scope or a major shift in business priorities. Nunno's recommended tactics included:

  • Having a transparent BPM governance process.
  • Delaying BPM projects to avoid battles now.
  • Delivering at least part of a BPM project: "Some is better than none," Nunno said.
  • Using data to inspire fairness: "Don’t be afraid to show where the disparities are," Nunno advised.

Control: This land mine reflects human nature, she said. "Consider how big the things are that you may be taking away from people" in process-improvement efforts, she said. "We're hard-wired to be resistant to this," she said. Potential triggers might include systems that need business-process changes, the reorganization of reporting lines or the introduction of a new technology standard or architecture.

Among other tactics, Nunno suggested:

  • Impose a mandate, if you have the power to do so;
  • Manage the pace of change so that it's "a controlled burn rather than a raging fire";
  • Build alliances; and
  • Offer several options, not a single "right" choice.

Status: This land mine requires dealing with key players who are especially sensitive to their status in initiatives and in the overall organization. Potential triggers include group discussions of BPM successes and failures and cross-boundary BPM initiatives that involve business peers with different priorities.

She offered this advice for sidestepping status-related land mines:

  • Understand the history of decisions that led to the current situation.
  • Fight status-related battles privately rather than publicly.
  • Review your plans with status-oriented people and, where appropriate, ask their permission before publicly taking a stance. "Avoid surprising them," Nunno said.

Belief: The final land mine involves addressing attitudes that Nunno summed up as "don’t confuse us with the facts." It's often triggered by implementing a system that involves moving, creating, integrating or analyzing data differently, or recommending process changes that are based on new data analysis or simulations.

Following are some of Nunno’s tactics for avoiding land mines built around belief:

  • Thoroughly understand the enterprise's belief system before you attempt to alter it.
  • Create strong alliances with information stakeholders before implementing changes.
  • Work together to find "common irrefutable goals -- the things that bring people together no matter what."
  • Be ready to back down decisively.

Bottom line, in Nunno's view: BPM pros from both the business and IT camps should steer clear of the four political land mines whenever possible. When they can't, they should use smart political tactics to defuse them. "Continuously test for political integrity in yourself and your team," she added. Also, "remember that politics is a dynamic process; what is decided today can be different tomorrow."

Finally, strive for equilibrium: "Always balance IT performance and political savvy," she concluded. "The objective is political success."

What kind of political land mines have you encountered in your BPM programs and initiatives? How did you resolve them? Let us know:

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