Generally, a hidden agenda is a secret plan (or thought) serving an individual (or a group of individuals) own interests, regardless of the (usually negative) outcome that might affect others. A hidden agenda usually dictate one’s decisions and actions.
Hidden agendas in Project Management are common among stakeholders, and they have negative effects including:
- Hindering the progress of the project: Hidden agendas are not there to serve the project, they are there to serve narrow and selfish interests. Many times hidden agendas conflict with parts or the whole project, ensuing delays, cost overruns, etc…
- Lowering team morale: Project Managers usually get frustrated by unjustified decisions made by stakeholders with hidden agendas, this frustration is passed to the team, whose morale diminishes. The team will be demotivated, confused, and its productivity will decrease.
Why do we have hidden agendas?
The main reason why stakeholders adopt hidden agendas in Project Management is selfish interests. A stakeholder might go as far as secretly working towards the failure of a project to serve his own interests (A failed project, for example, would result in the allocation of future funds to one of that stakeholder’s own projects). Stakeholders more likely to have hidden agendas are those who hold executive positions in multiple companies and/or those who are corrupt (e.g. taking bribes from external organizations to either force or block a decision). Projects more likely to suffer from hidden agendas are public projects because of the sheer amount of government and company politics involved. Projects with lots of stakeholders (where each stakeholder is serving on multiple projects) are exposed to this problem as well.
Examples of hidden agendas
- A stakeholder refusing to go on board for a release of funds for an urgent project. Hidden Agenda: Maybe the stakeholder is aware of the limited cash flow in the organization and does not want to affect his own “pet” project?
- A stakeholder pushing very hard to finish a public project (even with a reduced scope and quality) before the elections. Hidden Agenda: Maybe the stakeholder is supporting a politician who’s taking credit for this project?
- A stakeholder fiercely vouching for a specific vendor although prices from other vendors are much cheaper. The stakeholder cites “reliability” as a basis for his decision while the quality is almost the same. Hidden Agenda: Maybe the stakeholder has an under-the-table deal with the vendor?)
How Can a Project Manager Detect a Hidden Agenda?
There are a couple of clear signs of hidden agendas:
- “Because I think it’s best for the company not to do it” (or vice versa): A stakeholder opposing (or supporting) a project or a project functionality cannot clearly and objectively justify his decision.
- Never-ending delaying of feedback/decision: A stakeholder does not get back to the Project Manager on a key issue that requires a decision or feedback, even after being approached several times by the Project Manager.
How to deal with hidden agendas?
As stated in the previous section, hidden agendas are not that hard to uncover, on the other hand, they are very hard to address. The problem is that the people with hidden agendas causing a lot of harm to the project are usually key stakeholders from upper management. The Project Manager does not have any authority over them nor can he simply accuse them of having “hidden agendas” without suffering very negative consequences at the career level. The best thing a Project Manager can do is to accept hidden agendas as part of his project, and hoping he doesn’t end up being the scapegoat of a failed project. The worst thing a Project Manager can do is “joining the dance”, e.g. adopting a stakeholder’s hidden agenda himself, this will never work as the Project Manager will soon find himself facing major conflicts with other stakeholders, not to mention that any hidden agenda can change at any time, leaving the Project Manager vulnerable after adopting an agenda that nobody is supporting anymore.
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