Negotiation is defined as “a discussion aimed at reaching an agreement” (Oxford). An elegant and simple definition encompassing yet a powerful and sometimes hard to master skill, especially for project managers (PMs). Here’s why:

Projects involve change. Many parties interact during a project lifecycle including stakeholders, users and delivery team. Sponsors empower PMs to deliver, however, it should be no surprise to PMs that conflicts arise in projects due to many sources including matrix organisations, conflicting priorities, expectations gap and scope creep. Without an effective way to solve conflicts in a timely manner, projects can quickly come to a standstill and may even fail.

The good news is that by mastering and applying these negotiation skills in day-to-day activities, PMs can ensure progress through even the most difficult of conflicts. Read on to take a look at how to apply negotiation skills effectively from a PM’s perspective.

What is negotiation for PMs?

Negotiation in projects is about finding timely solutions to conflicts that arise between people linked to the project and/or impact it in some way. Negotiation is a highly effective interpersonal skill that PMs must master to move projects progressively. Finding an ‘agreed’ solution that either:

  • Benefits all parties – means everyone got, or at least feels they got, what they were after from negotiations. A solution acceptable to all is usually the one that builds great teams and enjoys best support afterwards
  • Benefits some of the parties or one only – means someone had to compromise (take one for the team) probably for the greater good of the project
  • Just escalates the conflict to next level in project governance since the negotiations could not reach any agreement

An agreed solution that benefits all parties is also often called a ‘win-win’ scenario and is the most desirable outcome PMs want from their project negotiations.

Why do PMs negotiate

Temporary endeavors to achieve something unique, projects typically require some form of ‘agreement’ from time to time between those delivering change and those who will use or benefit from it in future (like users, stakeholders and outside world). To name a few:

  • Requirements, scope and resources agreed during Planning & Initiation
  • Deliverables and milestones accepted during Delivery & Implementation
  • Changes to scope controlled and agreed during Monitoring & Control
  • Sign-offs and project handover at Closing

Who do PMs negotiate with

For PMs, formal and/or informal negotiations happens everyday. With project’s success as focus all the time – PMs are always negotiating solutions. Engage these groups throughout the lifecycle of the project and negotiate timely solutions to any conflicts that risk your project:

  • Users (requirements management) – negotiate project requirements with users (or their representatives) to finalise scope. Being the end beneficiary of what your project will deliver, effective negotiations with users help set right expectations from start and will make acceptance, handover and closing smooth.

  • Suppliers and vendors (contract management) – formal negotiations to select best supplier/vendor for delivery and after a contract is awarded, negotiations continue in matters of contractual compliance, performance and any changes needed. It is best for PMs to seek specialist support from Legal and Procurement during these negotiations.
  • Team members (and their managers) – your project team is the centre of it all, moving the team together as one unit requires regular internal sync ups, prioritisation calls and agreements on the implementation strategies. Negotiations here are very informal but lead to highly effective collaborative work. As PM, you should also expect to negotiate with line managers of the project team in a matrix environment.
  • Stakeholders (stakeholder management) – negotiate project scope, time, cost and quality with stakeholders as well as seek their buy-in on scope changes, risk mitigations, contingency funds (if needed) and commitments on organisational resources for the project. Honest and open communications here are necessary to manage stakeholder expectations.

How to negotiate
Now we get into the mechanics of how should PMs negotiate in a typical project setting. Project negotiations could be segregated into following distinct phases:

 


Let’s see what happens within each:

  • Plan: Plan for negotiations ahead – do your homework. Gather background information on the topic, set targets, know your tolerances around the targets.
  • Discuss: That’s where the actual negotiations start. PMs lead the discussion – keep them from digressing off topic. Open negotiations by setting the scene – introduce key issues to discuss. Remember to listen, paraphrase key points to ensure common understanding and keep driving the discussions forward.
  • Propose: Brainstorm, propose solutions and listen to solutions being proposed. Focus on reaching agreements. Communicate clearly and openly.
  • Bargain: Be prepared to trade-offs and give & take. Show flexibility to reach a plausible agreement. Your homework of knowing your tolerances will pay off here.
  • Agree: Reaching an agreeable solution is the real goal. Be mindful of the fact that the agreement could be one of many types explained above. In all cases, ensure you get it in-writing/signed-off from participants. Summarise conclusions for all and later distribute minutes appropriately.
  • Review: Following up on the resolution of agreement is essential. Ensure all parties are kept informed of next steps taken. Update any impacted project documents.

By now you should have a good sense of how important negotiation skills are for the successful delivery of projects. Effective negotiations could literally turn people in opposition of the change your project delivers to its biggest supporters. They could be the missing link to get those stumbling blocks out of your project’s way to success. Take time to prepare well for your negotiations, be reasonable and respectful, listen to others’ views and remain focused and calm all the time. A proven ability and a track record to reach ‘win-win’ solutions – of which there are sometimes many in difficult situations – is a hard sought after skill in Project Managers. I hope these thoughts will help you master this skill.

I leave you with a question: Have you faced a situation where it was difficult to make everyone happy, but yet, you were able to carve out a ‘win-win’ scenario? Reiterating points of common benefit could sometimes help people let go a little to reach an agreement – please share your thoughts. Cheers.

Some information here is sourced from articles in Association of Project Management.

Rana Ali Saeed – Rana is a Project Manager and Technology Solutions professional, having served clients in IT, telecommunications and academia sectors for past thirteen years. These years have probably experienced the fastest wave of technological change. The explosion of digital data touched almost every industry and the demand of data speeds grew exponentially. Telcos evolved from 2G to 5G and smartphones became a commodity from once a luxury. Having ridden this wave of change, Rana has a passion for taking on new challenges. He is enthusiastic about Data Science (analytics, visualisation, presentation) and currently spends his leisure time as a student of Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Inferential Statistics.