Project Management Institute

From Conflict to Confluence

Resolve Project Flashpoints with an Open Mind and Detached Analysis

By Soumya Maitra, PMP

Of all the challenges project managers face, conflict might be the most difficult. Whether it's a difference of opinion among stakeholders, interdepartmental distrust or an executive's uncompromising ego, conflicts can derail even the most well-conceived and meticulously planned projects.

So what can a project manager do? Many are taught to tailor conflict resolution techniques to the situation: avoid, accommodate, compromise or confront. However, I have found a blended approach works best. Here are the three steps to resolve a project conflict.

By not taking sides, you'll gain the confidence of the parties—and eventually progress toward a dialogue on a solution.

The project manager obviously has to listen to both sides to understand the heart of the conflict. But engaging the conflicting parties rather than passively accepting both sides at face value will help get to the root of the conflict. By not taking sides, you'll gain the confidence of the parties—and eventually progress toward a dialogue on a solution.

A few years ago, I was managing a project driven by the finance department of a large insurance company. The company wanted to implement an IT process to streamline internal money and account transfers when clients moved from one line of business to another. The sponsor was the organization's CFO, and she was frustrated by two previous failed attempts. When I asked why the previous projects had failed, she said the operations department employees were not able to carry out the process. But the operations directors told me a different story: They were more than willing to accept the change, but finance was not willing to collaborate.

So I probed beyond the finger-pointing. I learned that for operations to successfully execute the CFO's new accounting process, its IT system had to be enhanced with features that were not captured in the requirements document.

2. Research and Plan

Once you discover the root of the conflict, it's time to figure out how to resolve it. Methods for this include brainstorming with the project team, consulting the project management office (if one exists) and assessing the organizational politics and styles of leadership in play.

In my project, the conflict between the CFO and the operations department stemmed from a history of a lack of interdepartmental trust. The director to which the CFO had delegated much of her project-related authority didn't understand the importance of empowering the IT department to approve necessary project requirements. He felt operations was trying to sneak unrelated improvements into its IT system at the cost of the finance project, and consequently refused to approve any related requirements. To make matters worse, the sponsor was not kept in the loop about these project decisions and perceived the operations team as incompetent in carrying out the strategy.

The path to resolution was now clear to me. I had to get the sponsor involved (even though her trusted delegate was not in favor of it), along with the right operations employees.

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3. Detach and Engage

Project managers must be more than facilitators of dialogue. They must be change-makers, leveraging their influential and tactical skills to align parties in conflict. The early stages of listening and researching will pay dividends if the project manager can steer the dialogue with facts and figures, rather than feelings. The project manager can emphasize the cost of not resolving the conflict, or stress the long-term gains the organization will reap if the project is successful.

The approach my team took to overcome the conflict was to present the current state of business and provide a gap assessment that needed to be bridged to successfully transition into the future state that the CFO envisioned. We held workshops that demonstrated to the sponsor how financial and accounting processes were carried out and what they lacked. I was essentially asking finance to expand its project scope to include requirements from operations, so the project could deliver on its objectives. In the end, an impersonal and unambiguous representation of what needed to be done won over the CFO. Everyone's egos remained intact, and the project was successfully completed.

By carefully probing into the real reason behind a conflict and dispassionately investigating a solution, project managers can position themselves and their project for success. PM

img Soumya Maitra, PMP, is a project manager at Manulife Financial (Syntel Canada), Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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