Fork in the Road
Not All Disagreements are Created Equal; Project Managers Must Learn When to Push Ahead and When to Push Back
BY KATE ROCKWOOD
PORTRAITS BY JONATHAN TIMMES
Sophia Hyder, Papilia, Washington, D.C., USA
Scuffle, settle or surrender? That's the choice Farhan Shamim, PMP, faced last year while he oversaw a program to rebuild 26 schools affected by severe flooding in Pakistan. The program was going just fine—until the sponsor made a new request: modify the plans so each school could accommodate wheelchairs and students with other disabilities.
The scope change was rooted in the best intentions, but Mr. Shamim, program manager, Comprehensive Health and Education Forum International, Islamabad, Pakistan, knew it was time to fight back.
“As a project manager, it was impossible for me to accommodate the requirements and the additional scope in the initially agreed-upon timeline and budget,” he says.
So he pressed pause and entered into a dispute that took six months to settle. Relevant stakeholders, the project sponsor and Mr. Shamim met six times to examine what the changes would mean for the budget and schedule. In the end, the charter was revised to reflect a larger budget and longer schedule. But the lesson for Mr. Shamim—and all project professionals—was simple: Knowing how to immediately confront a project disagreement can reduce the risk of failure down the road.
The project landscape can be fraught with battles, whether demands call for a shift in scope, or a debate rages about product specs or a schedule extension. But when disagreements surface, project managers are on the spot to keep the project moving and avoid disasters such as blown budgets, wrecked schedules, fractured teams or angry stakeholders.
“You can't carry on and ignore disagreement, because it will never just work itself out,” says Joyce Nilsson Orsini, a project manager and associate professor of management systems, Fordham University, New York, New York, USA. “In my 30 years of project management, every drawn-out conflict I've heard about from my project peers has ended badly.”
There's no universal script for navigating project disagreements. Each scenario requires careful analysis to determine the best course of reaction. The aim is to know whether to fight, work together toward a compromise or surrender for the well-being of the project—and its team members.
“It was impossible for me to accommodate the requirements and the additional scope in the initially agreed-upon timeline and budget.”
—Farhan Shamim, PMP, Comprehensive Health and Education Forum International, Islamabad, Pakistan
It's a no-brainer that anything illegal or unethical merits strong objections. But other demands can imperil the project, requiring the project manager to push back, says Mr. Shamim. Those scenarios can include:
■ Major scope changes, such as a request from a senior executive to shave a few weeks off a project schedule
■ A mandate to eliminate or limit overtime
■ A decision to redistribute team members to other projects or share them with other initiatives
To change the hearts and minds of project sponsors and stakeholders, project managers should focus less on the art of persuasion and more on data and other clear evidence, Mr. Shamim says. For instance, if there's a request to limit overtime, leverage lessons learned from similar projects that had comparable resource constraints. What size budget were they allotted? How did the scopes compare? Tap subject matter experts to weigh in with their own analytics.
“You want to present in an objective way, and then be patient,” says Peter Contreras, PMP, project manager consultant, PMI Global Executive Council member Accenture, Houston, Texas, USA.
A forceful yet respectful battle requires precision and endurance, he says. While smaller companies with lean management teams might be able to approve a decision swiftly, larger organizations tend to have a slower metabolism. “The bigger the company, the more meetings it might take to resolve the disagreements,” Mr. Contreras says.
The word “compromise” can call to mind drawn-out negotiations. But finding middle ground is often faster than going head-to-head over proposed changes, says Shyam Krishna Iyer, project manager and founder of SKI Charities, a microfinance organization in Mutare, Zimbabwe. For instance, when one stakeholder suggests doing daily phone updates, and another can barely find the time for monthly updates, proposing a weekly meeting is a quick, efficient way to satisfy all parties—and get back to the task at hand.
“Compromise may also make the most sense if the disagreement arises because someone feels their experience or perspective isn't being heard,” Mr. Iyer says. Rather than having both sides brainstorm independently and then duke it out to emerge victorious, he encourages team members to collaborate on potential solutions, which typically yields a compromise that all sides can accept.
Unity is the name of the game when finding a compromise, says Sophia Hyder, founder and CEO, Papilia, Washington, D.C., USA. “Remind everyone that you're on the same team and working toward the same goal for the project or program,” she says. Going back over the project charter or business case and walking through exactly what defines project success helps ground negotiations around a common goal.
“Reviewing the business case will make the tense topic feel less personal. It tends to refocus the conversation on what needs to get done to accomplish the deliverables,” she says.
Project managers can lay the groundwork for a productive conversation by alerting team members or relevant stakeholders ahead of time, says Mr. Iyer. Some team members might feel ambushed by an impromptu conversation or disagreement. Circulating an agenda in advance of the meeting helps seed buy-in early—and makes team members more amenable to compromise—so they feel fully prepared for the discussion.
“You can't carry on and ignore disagreement, because it will never just work itself out.”
—Joyce Nilsson Orsini, Fordham University, New York, New York, USA
Not every project disagreement needs to cue resistance. Sometimes, project managers must simply use every tool at their disposal to accept the change—and still deliver project success, Ms. Hyder says. That's especially true when the sponsor asks to tweak a product feature or requests more frequent stakeholder updates. The same response also applies when team members get reassigned to other projects, none of which directly impact the budget, schedule or scope.
“Disagreements don't always mean someone did something wrong—unforeseen developments often lead to different recommendations on how issues should be handled,” Ms. Orsini says.
Knowing when to surrender can sometimes come down to domain of expertise: If the issue is project management-related, Ms. Orsini might be willing to put up a fight—and expect her expertise to be held in high regard. But if the issue involves the business case, for instance, deferring to the project client or sponsor makes sense.
“The bigger the company, the more meetings it might take to resolve the disagreements.”
—Peter Contreras, PMP, Accenture, Houston, Texas, USA
When it's time to give in, always include a conversation or email with the project sponsor that outlines the opposing viewpoint. Depending on the scale of the disagreement, those conversations also might mean meeting with the project management office or portfolio manager. Noting the project manager's recommendation and the sponsor's decision to move in another direction helps establish accountability if something goes wrong further along the project path.
“Sometimes moving on makes sense, but it's still worth voicing your disagreement,” says Ms. Hyder.
“Reviewing the business case will make the tense topic feel less personal. It tends to refocus the conversation on what needs to get done.”
Arguing about the budget, schedule or scope can get heated, but layer on team dynamics and personality clashes, and project disagreements can sometimes be explosive. Adriana Lerman-Launay, project leader and CEO at implementation firm 24-365 Online Consulting, Paris, France, offers these tips to keep disagreements strictly business.
Encourage Face Time
Nothing beats face-to-face engagement. Relying on email can create ambiguities that lead to an impasse or argument. So book a conference room and grab some face time—whether it's talking through a proposed change with the project sponsor or chatting about project team changes.
Set Speaking Terms
Every team member might view conflict and express opinions differently—particularly on global teams. A communications free-for-all can breed more disagreements, so get team members on the same page with an explicit communication plan that provides guidelines for raising project issues or bringing new ideas to the table.
Project managers who turn a blind eye when a team member seems disengaged or unhappy could set the project up for more disagreements down the road. Even when busy agendas, time differences or distance creates barriers, finding ways to create regular one-on-one check-ins with team members can help gauge engagement and address any issues that might be dragging down morale. PM