When a project is coming apart, it's important to establish a shared vision and persuade all of the concerned parties to make any necessary concessions.
By Marc J. Schiller
This project is a doozy. It involves your new manufacturing and shop floor system—one of those systems with complicated real-time controls—and everything's coming apart at the seams.
The budget is running way over. Your team is missing deadlines. Your stakeholders are disappointed with the quality and functionality that is supposedly complete. And nobody can agree on the functionality for the remaining modules.
Your business peers aren't providing the right resources, and your IT people can't pick up the slack. They're stretched thin by additional requests coming from the commerce system (yes, those requests you were supposed to get six months ago but came in yesterday.)
Net, net: The project is a nightmare. Everybody is at each other's throats and your formerly well-run IT group has turned into a communal you-know-what match.
Now for the real problem: Your vendor just happens to be a Big Four consulting firm that’s threatening to walk unless it's paid in full now. And you don't have the leverage to call them on it.
But you can't just eat the extra cost. Your finance people won't listen; they are under pressure from corporate to hold the line on spending in order to make year-end earnings targets.
How in the world do you negotiate with a vendor and manage the expectations of your stakeholders in this situation?
The antidote: Don't think negotiation, think shared vision.
Sometimes when the going gets tough and you don't see a way to solve your problem, it’s easier to think process instead of fixating on specific outcomes from the get-go.
Put another way, you know you will have to concede something to the vendor. You also know you must get your stakeholders and finance people to make concessions. So, to get started, your goal is to get the various parties (yourself included) ready, willing and able to make reasonable concessions.
Here's a five-step formula that can help:
Step 1: Fight
Step 2: Connect
Step 3: Remind
Step 4: Listen
Step 5: Close the Gap
Step 1: Fight. Sometimes fighting is the only way to shake things up. Even though you know you will be making concessions, you don’t start out that way. You can't begin by giving ground. You have to come out swinging, making it clear that you have a perspective and you need to be taken seriously.
The basic idea is to stick to your position, without being a jerk, on nearly every point to start with. It doesn't mean you are argumentative; it just means that you forcefully make your points to the vendor regarding its obligations and faults in the situation. At the same time you take almost the exact opposite view with your stakeholders and show them all the places where they failed and how their behavior is the root cause of the problem.
When you stick to your position, two things happen:
1. You demonstrate you're not a pushover. You're the CIO. You're not the head IT geek. When your stakeholders see that they can't steamroll you, perceptions shift.
2. You're able to let your stakeholder selectively win you over. You aren't fighting every point to win every point. Some points are there just for "gimme" purposes so it's easy for you to give them. When you let them wrestle you over to their side here and there, your stakeholders will see you as a tough, honest person who is nonetheless open to reason.
Fighting won't make you any friends. In fact, many of your stakeholders will become even more frustrated with you after step 1. But it will establish you as a player in this drama. And once you do that, you'll be ready to swoop in with step 2.
Step 2: Connect. Do an off-site team building activity. It doesn't matter what it is. And before you get into working on the nitty-gritty details of the project, go out for dinner, grab a drink or two, or enjoy a round of golf at a fine resort. There's only one rule to this outing: No one talks business! If one of your colleagues tries to bring up a business conversation, politely inform them, "We'll talk about that in the morning. Let's just be colleagues and people tonight."
What are you accomplishing here? You are creating a space where you can talk to each other on a personal level. You are reminding everyone that you're just a couple of human beings trying to get through this drama together.