Project Management Institute

Perfect harmony



As competing egos, workplace sensitivities and subjective priorities enter the workflow, project managers are using a grab-bag full of tactics to handle project work disagreements. These approaches are designed to identify and resolve problems early before tensions escalate. Moreover, the range of solutions they provide goes well beyond what costly, time-consuming court proceedings likely would bring. Courts base their decisions on whatever the applicable laws happen to be. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) solutions are limited only by the creativity of their participants—who are sometimes aided by outside facilitators.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) used an ADR technique called partnering at the Salina, Kan., USA airport—and the approach shaved more than $6 million from the project's $14 million budget. In the late 1990s, the CoE was charged with removing dozens of aging 50,000-gallon underground fuel tanks from the former Air Force base. Long before breaking ground, CoE project planners brought together all concerned parties—from the private construction firms and their workers to engineers, airport officials and regulators. The ad hoc group's goal sounded simple: Brainstorm objectives then implement those that everyone could buy into. The partnering approach (see sidebar “Five Easy Steps”) was a far cry from traditional dispute resolution techniques where everyone argues on behalf of their own agendas before finally compromising.


Projects are still kicked off without sufficient planning and communication.


Route for Dispute

Despite the benefits, sources say that ADR isn't used nearly enough. “Projects are still kicked off without sufficient planning and communication,” says Gerry Dodd, spokesperson for the U.K. project management firm PMProfessional. “Which is sadly why so many projects still fail to meet their business objectives and timeframes.”

Worse, even as many project managers fail to give dispute management its due, the potential causes of disputes continue to rise. Bill Bartholomew, chairman of the Project Management Institute's Dispute Management Specific Interest Group and head of the Dallas, Texas, USA-based mediation firm, cites a laundry list of issues capable of slowing or derailing projects. Some issues such as “not managing expectations properly and poor communication between stakeholders” have been around for as long as there have been projects to manage.

Other issues are new. Bartholomew, who specializes in helping information technology (IT) companies manage disputes, points to the armies of technical staff who often are brought together to work on time-critical projects. Pressed to their limits, forced out of the information loop by managers, any one of these groups could spark a conflict. “These are the new blue-collar workers,” Bartholomew asserts. And while unionized blue-collar employees are well-versed in working through gripes—usually through arbitration—this new and still largely nonunion group of workers lacks formal channels for their grievances.

The all-too-frequent result: Problems fester, and productivity declines. One way to avoid this scenario, Bartholomew says, is to analyze a project plan while it's still on the drawing board, identify potential problems—between two work teams with conflicting goals, for example—then look for solutions. Perhaps a facilitator can jockey between teams, listening to gripes and then propose ways to streamline everyone's work.

Culture Clash

Bartholomew believes that in the future more and more conflicts likely will arise from teams located in different nations. Just like manufacturers long have done, IT firms now routinely outsource programming tasks to cheap labor centers in India and Russia. If they are to remain competitive, companies must find ways to bring together such workers who are widely dispersed, both geographically and culturally. Yet, in far too many projects, “there's no recognition of the different expectations when team members come from different countries with different cultures,” says Dodd.

It doesn't have to be that way. “There is no reason for cultural issues to cause disputes provided those issues are recognized and managed,” says Patrick Weaver, director of the Melbourne, Australia-based project management firm Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd. The way to manage conflicts—cultural or otherwise—is to build dispute-resolution tactics into a project's overall plan, he says. Weaver, who frequently works in defense-related projects, says that such projects in Australia outline dispute resolution routes before work commences (see sidebar “Escalating Tactics”). When disputes first arise, for example, outside experts might appraise the situation and make recommendations. Then, if need be, mediators enter the picture to work out a voluntary compromise. Failing that, arbitration—where solutions are imposed—is the next required step, followed by litigation as a last resort.

Timing is critical with each step, says Weaver. Introduce a mediator too soon into the process, for instance, and “the parties may still feel disenfranchised and uncommitted to resolution.” Conversely, if a mediator comes aboard too late, growing hard feelings may prevent stakeholders from compromising voluntarily.

Mapping a route for disputes isn't limited to defense projects, of course. Building roads in sparsely populated Western Australia, for example, project managers employed by the public works department wanted to move from an “inspection” culture toward a “teamwork” approach. So when a contracting firm was chosen, it sent representatives to partnering workshops where participants hammered out work methods and ways to manage disputes. Frequent site visits by public works officials reinforced the ties that developed at these meetings.

Similarly, when the U.S. Air Force worked with private contractors to build housing on its Lackland base near San Antonio, Texas, USA, it used partnering together with facilitators. The latter met with construction firms every two to three months.



Anticipate and identify issues before they fester.


A Question of Trust

Sometimes, says Bartholomew, facilitators act preemptively, playing the role of fly on the wall by watching how work groups interact and interviewing both workers and managers to see if conflicts might be brewing. The results of such detective work may find their way into a formal report, which might in turn lead to team-building sessions “to improve communication and divert a larger catastrophe from occurring.”

ADR needn't end when the project is done, Bartholomew says. He suggests holding victory celebrations that help permanent and temporary workers achieve some closure. At the same time, project managers should document which processes worked and which didn't. The things that succeeded “should become best practices so we do not have to reinvent the wheel every time,” he says.


Not everyone is entirely sold on ADR tactics, of course. Citing a lack of empirical research, a World Bank brief ( says, “Many questions remain regarding their actual success in increasing efficiency.” The report focuses largely on ADR tactics applied to developing nations and notes that their main drawback was lack of enforceability. “One theory holds that potential litigants who may well know they are in the wrong have no interest in a speedy resolution,” the brief states.

Hopefully such cases are the exception. In the future, fast, efficient dispute management tactics—ADR or otherwise—will become more crucial than ever to project success. One of the newest techniques being considered is online ADR, according to the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review (March 2000). Using messaging or videoconferencing, online arbitration works best when distances and costs bar participants from meeting directly for lengthy periods. Other good uses include quick follow-up meetings. Online ADR also can filter out bad feelings during hostile disputes.


There is no reason for cultural issues to cause disputes provided those issues are recognized and managed.


In the end, online ADR shares the goal of all other dispute management techniques: building team trust by communicating and by demonstrating responsiveness to others' concerns. “Trust is earned by being honest,” says Weaver. “I can be in disagreement with others and still trust them and not trust someone I am in complete agreement with.” PM

Mark Ingebretsen is a Des Moines, Iowa, USA-based freelance writer. A regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum and other magazines, he is currently at work on a book exploring why companies fail. His most recent book, Nasdaq: A History of the Market that Changed the World, was published in April.

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