Why is it that when faced with a sensitive or difficult project we
behave irrationally? Rather than turn to our friends for help, our first
instinct is to seek out opponents and attack them.
It is a human reaction to defend when attacked and consequently chief
executives demand that their PR departments set up one-to-one debates,
write letters of rebuttal to newspapers and threaten reporters. This is
the magpie syndrome, named after that stupid bird that gathers bright,
shiny useless objects rather than sensibly looking for food for its
This abnormal focus on opponents is rife in sensitive projects where
there is a strong ’people’ or emotional element, like the Newbury bypass
or with internal intiatives such as an organisational restructuring. But
it is not just big projects that incite such a reaction- from the
introduction of new computer software to the minor alteration of a bus
route change is likely to be resisted and fought, even when it is
But meanwhile those who stand to benefit and might wish to support a
project are generally sidelined or ignored, the focus is firmly on the
project’s opponents. At Newbury, for example, the focus was limited to
Swampy and co. This was in spite of the fact that the new bypass offered
major benefits to the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, the voices of
these factions were never heard.
Friends and allies are everywhere, but unlike the opponents, they are
not noisy. Too often allies are misclassified as enemies. People are too
quick to jump to the ’either you are with us or against us’
But life is not that simple. The union official who damns the company’s
pay rises may also be a highly effective lobbyist with a Labour
So does this make him an opponent or an ally?
And independent allies have a second strength - people believe them.
Too often organisations struggle with the Mandy Rice-Davies syndrome of:
’They would say that, wouldn’t they?’.
But people will have demands in return for their support. So
organisations must be prepared to be flexible without totally abandoning
Allies must be involved so that they help mould the project. Often,
there is actually little that divides the sides, yet entrenched
positions are quickly found and taken. Small details become major issues
and it soon slips into an ’us’ or ’them’ scenario.
But a successful project is one that combines ’us’ with ’them’. For the
project promoter or manager it means flexibility, an ability to listen
and change and to understand that you cannot do everything on your
Three main points should be borne in mind. The first is that people are
too quickly labelled as friends or foes which means that
misunderstandings can quickly arise. Try and remember that words do not
have the same meaning for everyone.
Secondly, managers should take care not to lock themselves into a
sterotyped model of the world dominated by struggles with opponents.
There is often a circle of people who will support a project if only
they could be mobilised and if they were approached in the right
Thirdly, managers should not take on too much or try to make themselves
personally indispensable. Experience shows that it is never a single
action from the head of the project which leads to the overall success
of the project, however good or courageous that action might be.
As a final note, try and bear in mind that you may have more friends
than you think.