Negotiation and Problem-Resolution Techniques - Project Management

One of the things I can promise that you'll encounter on your next project is problems or conflicts, that is, unless you're working on the project all by yourself. But even then, you have the customer to consider, and where there's a customer there's a person. Where there are people, there'll be differences of opinion, differences in communication skills, and differences in needs, goals, and desires.

Conflict happens when one person's needs, goals, or desires differ from another's. (This can happen at the corporate level also, not just the individual level.) Sometimes, conflicts are easily resolved by simply meeting with the person or people who have an issue and discussing the situation and possible alternatives until a reasonable resolution is reached. Other times it's not that easy.

The most likely areas that will require problem-solving skills or negotiation are the project schedule, resource assignments, issues regarding contract elements or price, issues regarding your or another's authority and responsibility, and problems surrounding the use of business or technical processes. An example of this last one might be the project management methodology you'll use for the project. Someone may challenge the process you're using or the way you're implementing the processes of the chosen methodology that will require negotiation to resolve.

Every good project manager will have to use problem-solving and negotiation techniques; it's guaranteed. Good communication skills and good problem-solving skills go hand in hand, so you'll want to fine-tune these skills and include them in your project management tool bag. There are several techniques you can use to negotiate and resolve project issues, and we'll touch on a few of those here. If you're interested in digging into this area further, there are books devoted to the topics of problem solving and negotiating.

Start at the Beginning

The time to start solving problems is when they first begin to arise. Tackling your problems early on will many times be enough to keep them from escalating into out-of-control octopuses. Problems, like octopuses, can have many arms, and just when you think you've taken care of one of those arms, another one will grab you from behind when you're not looking!

When it's evident that you have a problem or an issue on your hands that's going to require negotiation, you should first document the problem. Define the issue, in writing, detailing as much as you can. Break it down into smaller parts, and try to focus on the problem, not the symptoms of the problem. Defining the problem, and asking the other party to do the same, may bring to light a miscommunication or misunderstanding that's easily cleared after everyone understands what the real issue is.

In addition to documenting the problem, document the assumptions about the problem. This is another potential problem area. If you assume that I need a certain employee from your department for six months starting June 1, and I assume that I need that employee starting next week, we might discover that there isn't a problem after all. We both understand, or assume in this case, something different, and the issue is easily resolved.

Next, document your proposed solutions. These can be ideas at this point and not full-fledged plans for detailing all the aspects of the solution. The point is to start thinking about how the problem can be resolved. Offering solutions to the other party shows that you're willing to work together toward a resolution and aren't going to camp on the "it's your problem" approach.

Early in my career I had a manager who would not allow me to approach him with a problem unless I had at least one suggestion for a resolution to the problem. I remember wondering at the time what the company paid him to do, but this technique of thinking through problems and coming up with possible alternatives before confronting someone has helped me come to quick resolution many times.

Note:Documenting the problem, your assumptions about the problem, and possible alternatives will help prepare you for the face-to-face meeting and will keep you focused on the issues at hand during the discussions.

After documenting the problem, assumptions, and possible solutions, arrange to meet with the people you're having the conflict with to discuss the problem face to face. I recommend doing this on neutral territory; in other words, meet with them in a conference room or even an offsite location, not in your office. If there is a potential for this meeting to get a little heated, consider using a mediator.

Amediator should be someone who is not involved in the conflict and has nothing to gain from the outcome. The mediator will keep the meeting on track, make sure everyone understands the issues at hand, and ensure that everyone has the chance to state their side of the problem and any proposed solutions. Day-to-day project issues you'll encounter won't usually require the use of a mediator, but it is an option if you're having difficulty reaching a resolution that's agreeable to all the parties involved.


Acts as a third party to negotiate settlements between two or more parties involved in a dispute. The mediator should be a disinterested party with nothing to gain from the outcome of the decision.

Allow each party to discuss the problem from their perspective and to offer alternative solutions. Make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity to state their case. After each person has had the chance to describe the problem from their own perspective, switch roles and let the first person describe, in their own words, what they believe the problem is from the second person's point of view. This is a lot like the listening technique I described in Chapter , "Developing Project Management Skills," where you paraphrase what you heard the speaker say so that you're sure you understand what was said. Restating the problem from the other person's perspective might also lead to quick resolution.

Problem solving and negotiation takes practice. Don't worry that you'll lack opportunity, however. The project management arena will give you lots of chances to perfect your problem-solving skills. I believe the most important factor in problem solving is accurately and thoroughly defining the problem. Don't jump to conclusions too quickly though; allow alternative solutions to surface so that all the possibilities can be explored.

Before we leave this topic, we'll look at the five different methods of conflict resolution.

The Five Approaches to Problem Resolution

PMI recognizes five approaches to problem resolution, and I think you'll agree that these cover the range of possible behaviors from all the participants. If you can spot people using these techniques during your next confrontation, you can help steer them toward a successful resolution by keeping everyone in the problem solving technique (the last one described in this section) as much as possible.

Forcing: Forcing is when one person, the King or Queen, says, "This is the way it's going to be," and all the subjects agree. The subjects may go away mumbling under their breath that this was the dumbest idea they've heard in a long time, but they publicly agree for fear of losing their head. Forcing happens whenever one person forces their decision on others. Usually the person doing the forcing is someone in power, but not always. Lead technicians and highly skilled employees whom management is in fear of losing can sometimes wield this power. Decisions made using the forcing technique aren't necessarily the best decisions, but they are usually permanent ones because, after all, the boss is the boss and what she says goes.

Forcing typically creates an atmosphere of strife and an "us versus them" mentality. I recommend that you use this technique only when it's absolutely necessary. That means that resolution cannot be reached any other way, so you, or your executive manager, are forced to make the decision and impose it on the group.

Smoothing: This technique involves some sleight of hand. You've probably heard the opening line for this technique in meetings you've attended. It goes something like this: "I don't understand what everyone is so upset about. This isn't a big deal. You have all blown this way out of proportion…." After the person who started this is finished with their very convincing speech, everyone in the room looks at one another and wonders why this was such a big deal. As a result, everyone quickly comes to a resolution, only to go back to their desks later in the day and begin thinking about what happened. They'll realize that the real issue was pushed under the carpet and the problem still exists. At the next meeting, the issue will surface again, and the problem-solving merry-go-round will start again unless someone recognizes what's happening and shifts the group to the problem solving technique.

Compromise: Compromise is where both parties agree to give up something to reach a solution. On the surface, this may sound like a good technique, but if neither party is enthusiastic about the decision that was reached, they may drag their feet or even change their mind later in the project. Neither side wins or loses in this situation. However, if both parties are committed to the compromise and the solution, it can be a workable technique.

Withdrawal: This technique never results in resolution because one of the parties picks up their toys and goes home. They may physically get up and leave the meeting, or they may check out emotionally, but either way they're not participating in finding a resolution. This is probably the worst of all techniques because no lasting resolution can be reached when one party refuses to cooperate.

Keep in mind that this isn't the same thing as leaving a meeting when one party becomes hot-headed and out of control. I know a project manager who got into a tangle with a key stakeholder in a public meeting and walked out. The key stakeholder decided that he was going to take out all his problems on the unsuspecting project manager and proceeded to vent all kinds of nasty things, using some colorful language. The project manager looked the stakeholder squarely in the eye and said, "This meeting is over. When you're ready to act like a professional, call me," and then left the meeting. I wish I could tell you that this never happens, but it does. It isn't an everyday occurrence, but sometime during the course of your career you'll find yourself across from someone like this. Never subject yourself or your team members to the irate ranting of stakeholders. This is a case where it is okay to ask them to knock it off or leave the meeting.

Problem solving: This technique is the best technique for reaching a resolution. It's also known as confrontation. The idea behind this technique is that one correct solution exists for the problem, and it's the team's responsibility to dig out all the facts and find that solution. Many times, the act of finding all the facts will reveal the solution. This is the process I described in the opening of this section. Document the problem, let the facts reveal what's really going on, and then work together to come up with a resolution everyone can live with. This is the technique you should use most often.

Note:The problem solving technique is the most-often-used technique by project managers for conflict resolution.

When you're in the midst of problem solving or decision making, you should keep the number of lines of communication in mind. (We talked about that in Chapter 2.) Ideal group sizes are between five and eleven people—anything more than that and you run the risk of not being able to make a decision or of making inaccurate decisions.

Remember that conflict resolution involves communication and listening skills as well. You'll find that your work as a project manager encompasses these areas more than anything else you'll do. Good communication skills and excellent project planning techniques are the keys to successful projects. Now let's examine what project managers need to know about effective team development.

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