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This is a series of posts on Contractor Life. The others are:
1. Life as a Contractor
2. Show Me The Money!
3. Office Politics
4. Admin Overhead
5. Time is Money


You know the situation far too well. As a project manager, you have a clear idea of what needs to be done to help the project succeed. But there's someone in the business who is stopping it happening - and it looks to you that the only reason is because they want to hold on to power.

In any business, office politics is a fact of life. And when you are a project manager, you're probably working across the business, coming into contact with every department, and that means you get exposed to the office politics of every group!

This means you end up having to be very careful - some of your colleagues will be trying to use you as a pawn in their own games, some may be trying to take credit for your successes, and some will be trying to blame you for their own mistakes! Because we all have had to deal with this kind of thing, we start to get used to spending large parts of our time at work figuring out the politically best move to make!

But it doesn't have to be like this. Sure, you can't escape office politics completely, but being a contractor allows you to, essentially, step outside of the game.

Why is this? Well, part of the reason we all play office politics is that it is important to our careers. The truth is, to rise up any organisation, you need to have at least some skill in maneuvering through these waters. So when we are a permanent employee, how well we do office politics can have a direct effect on our career.

But when you become a contractor, you are judged solely on your value for money - whether you deliver what you say you will at a good price. Suddenly, your career depends on performance, not politics. And that's pretty liberating.

Don't get me wrong, as a contractor, office politics will still be important. Part of being a project manager, especially a contractor coming into an organisation where no-one knows them, is making connections, building relationships, and making sure you know the right people to get things done for the benefit of the project.

But what you do get away from is trying to make yourself look good in the eyes of various senior managers around the business. Instead, you have a much clearer client/supplier relationship with whoever hired you - at the end of the day, the opinion of the person who pays you is the only important one!

In essence, you move from trying to deal with many different views of your competence and ability, to only needing to worry what one person thinks. Perform as well as you can, and make the person who hired you look good - that way, you are far more likely to get repeat work!

So if you hate office politics, you may like being a contractor - but don't try and skip it completely. After all, building relationships is a vital part in achieving project success.

Trevor Roberts blogs at Project Management Guide (www.projectmanagementguide.org) about all aspects of project management. You can also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/trev_roberts.

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Tags: client, contractor, employee, permanent, politics, supplier

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Comment by Iain Robertson on March 6, 2009 at 5:21am
Some years ago, I spent some time with one of the "Big 5" accounting based consultancies. On one ocassion, between assignments, a colleague an I were assigned to "find out why clients hire us". A bit like looking for the Holy Grail, and with about the same chance of ultimate success.

After some work, we came to the conclusion that there were two main reasons for using consultants, resource driven and politically driven.

Resource driven assignments were where a client had a short term need for a specific skill-set which it did not need permanently, or simply warm bodies to assist with a specific task.

The more interesting reasons, and the more common related to internal politics within the client.

The "Lightning Rod". The client sponsor took the credit for a sucessful project and blamed the contractor/consultant for failure.
The "Prophet in the Wilderness". A member of the client staff had been trying unsucessfully to interest the organisation in a pet project. The consultant/contractor prepares a report recommending
that the client initiate the pet project and delivers it to the MD.
The "Deflector". The client had some bad news to communicate to staff around lay-offs and used the consultant/contractor to deliver it.

A final category was the "Woods and Trees". The client knew something was wrong but was too close to the problem to see it, or didn't want to see it. So have a consultant identify the problem and provide recommendations.
Comment by John Pryor on February 24, 2009 at 3:27pm
As someone who has recently shifted to contracting from being an in-house employee, I too found that office politics are reduced, which can be very pleasant. However, there are some other aspects the author didn't cover. While it is true you are outside the office politics, you are also "not on the team." By that, I mean that no one in the customer organization much cares if you come or go, live or die. You are not invited into meeting or strategizing sessions unless they bear directly on your assignment, and not always even then. If you are someone with high social needs and you're accustomed to filling them through work, that's a problem. Contracting can be a very lonely business. Also, because you may be dealing with the organization for the first time, it can be very challenging to know how to get resources (you really don't know who has what skill set), what the best way is to escalate issues within the local culture, and, quite simply, who to trust and who not to trust to deliver on commitments. There are ways of dealing with all these situations, but they were things I had not been aware of ahead of time.

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