Project Management Institute

Lessons learned

By Suresh Gopalakrishnan, PMP

AFTER A FEW DECADES OF IT-related project management across a broad set of industries, I recently returned to school for an executive master of business administration degree (EMBA). The 18-month program was rigorous, challenging and exciting. Here are my three big takeaways from the experience:

Traits are innate, but skills can be taught. Often in the recruiting process, too much emphasis is placed on skills and not enough on traits. Organizations—and project managers—would be better served in the long run by focusing more on these traits, known as the five factor model:

  1. Conscientiousness (dependable, efficient, achievement-oriented)
  2. Emotional stability (calmness, steady, self-confident, secure)
  3. Extraversion (sociable, ambitious, active)
  4. Agreeableness (courteous, optimistic, friendly)
  5. Openness to experience (intellectual, imaginative, analytical)

Individuals with the above traits can overcome certain deficiencies in their skill set, while the reverse isn't always possible. Focusing on the five factor model, more than technical know-how, will help you form a project team that can work well together.

Years back, I interviewed for a project management position at a reputable firm. The interview process was so focused on the specific technical details of the company's system that traits and experience were not explored. I did not get an offer. A year later, I found out that the person who accepted the position—who had a very strong technical background—was let go for not possessing leadership traits.

2. Negotiate Better

Throughout a negotiation, it's critical to know three factors: the most desired outcome, the least acceptable agreement (the minimum agreement that stakeholders will accept) and the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA (a plan in case an agreement can't be reached). You may start a negotiation with weak BATNA, but the dynamic nature of business events can change that.

A few years back, I was tasked with salvaging a troubled project. Going in, my BATNA position was very weak, and I had no choice but to absorb an unfair share of costs as a demonstration of good faith. A few months into the project, due to some of my corrective actions, project performance improved significantly. However, I failed to recognize the change in my leverage, which I could have used in my favor and helped save a few thousand dollars.

Another negotiation lesson I learned is to separate interest from position. The classic example is of two chefs fighting over an orange, only to realize that one wants only the juice and the other only the skin. It is impossible to satisfy them both based on their position—they each want the orange. But their interests—why they want it—are different, and a smart negotiator uncovers these and realizes both parties can get what they want. When dealing with conflicting priorities, project practitioners should explore the interests behind stakeholders’ positions.

Similarly, remember that negotiations can be win-win, which some call “expanding the pie.” One of my professors liked to point out that in many situations we tend to take an “or” approach and lose sight of two additional options. When we say A or B, we forget that there's always the possibility of A and B or neither A nor B.


3. Influence Without Authority

In consulting, one of the biggest challenges is getting clients’ acceptance and willingness to share their business processes. Often we encounter people who believe their business is so complex that no one else can understand it. This can lead to many difficulties during the initial stages of a project, such as getting entrance and exit criteria, a complete business scenario listing and detailed requirements.

I once faced a similar challenge on a project: Despite our best efforts, we were not able to get a complete list of business scenarios against which we could test the system we were building. Every time my team requested the listing, we were told, “Our business is so complex that we could only write 15 scenarios. Please keep in mind that there are a million other combinations that we cannot define.” Basically we were asked to read the client's mind and build a system that would meet all the requirements. Despite multiple escalations to client leadership, the situation did not improve.

My “Science of Persuasion” course had an interesting equation:

Knowledge + Trust = Authority. Analyzing my challenge in retrospect, it's clear that the project team lacked authority and assumed that escalation would force the client to comply with project needs. Our business analysts did not have a thorough knowledge of the organization's processes, which put us in a very weak position to influence the business. To prevent this situation, project practitioners should spend some serious time understanding business processes so they have an authoritative position from which to navigate a project. PM

When dealing with conflicting priorities, project practitioners should explore the interests behind stakeholders’ positions.


Suresh Gopalakrishnan, PMP, is a program manager at Fujitsu America Inc., San Diego, California, USA.

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