Managing project conflicts is a regular and ever-present part of a project manager’s life. For a project
manager to have a consistently successful track record on his or her projects, they need to be able to resolve project conflicts.
Some conflicts are project threatening. Those are the conflicts that involve disputes between executives and your project stakeholders over the very scope of the project and the acceptance criteria for deliverables. That level of conflict can yield significant damage to the project scope and budget. The project manager also has to resolve conflicts between team members where the impact of the conflict is less severe. However, conflict between team members can have an adverse effect on the productivity of the team. And it certainly impacts the level of collaboration between team members. On larger projects, the project manager is often dealing with a couple of project conflicts on each of those levels.
Project managers can resolve many conflicts using one of the five intervention techniques we’ll discuss below. The conflicts that are most easily resolved are situations where the project manager can work directly with the team members or stakeholders having the conflict. He or she can then use one of the techniques we will discuss to fix it (or at least reduce the impact on the project). Project Management Skills Main Page
Managing Project Conflicts Video
Watch this video showing two versions of conflict resolution: the wrong way and the right way for a project manager to handle a conflict. The first version has the project manager walking into a meeting with his team in the middle of a roaring conflict. The project manager does a reasonably good job of taking control but then makes a major mistake regarding what he focuses on. The project manager’s conflict resolution should be aimed at minimizing damage to the project, not making friends among everyone on the project team. As a result of his error in the first version, the project manager makes the situation worse. In the second version, the conflict is the same but the project manager uses a much more focused approach to handling the conflict. It is more effective and decreases the damage to the project.
Project Team Conflict
Other conflicts can’t be resolved that directly because they have deeper roots in the organization’s politics. This second group of conflicts can have a much more damaging impact on the project. That’s because they involve the organization’s executives rather than being confined to project team members and stakeholders. In this type of conflict the people involved often represent other, usually higher ranking, stakeholders. Too often PMs see these entrenched conflicts as impossible to resolve and simply accept the damage they will have on the project. But rather than give up, project managers should use techniques to manage those difficult conflicts to minimize the damage to the project’s results. The project manager must engage on a political level in the organization.
People who manage projects, either full-time as a project manager or part-time as a department manager, know that the critical path is the longest path of tasks in a project. It determines the duration of the entire project. They also know which of the tasks in the project are Critical Path Tasks. But knowing the definition and actually using it to finish your projects earlier are two entirely different things.
How to Manage Critical Path Tasks
When you actively manage critical path tasks you can do these important things:
find ways to shorten the duration of the project without increasing costs or risks
quickly identify variances you don’t have to do anything about
spot places where you can decrease the assigned resources and make better use of them elsewhere.
To actively manage the critical path tasks, you need to identify which tasks in your project are on the critical path. You also need to know how much slack (float) the no-critical tasks have. The slack number tells you how many days the task can slip before it becomes a critical path task and increases the project’s duration. You can shift resources off tasks with significant slack and move them onto critical path tasks. That should shorten the duration of the project without adding costs or risks. This fine tuning or optimizing of the project plan takes minutes and can yield important decreases in the project duration.
Identifying the plan variances you have to do something about is as valuable as identifying variances where you don’t have to do anything. Obviously a variance or slippage on a critical path task is going to ripple all the way through the project and affect your finish date. However, if you have a variance of 3 days on a task that has 13 days of slack , you don’t need to be terribly concerned. You want to make sure that the 3 day variance is not symptomatic of a larger problem. But if, for example, it is a minor error in the estimate then you don’t need to take time to solve the problem because you still have 10 days of slack left on that task. This allows you to use under-estimating as a teaching tool with the team member when it occurs on a non-critical path task.
Additionally, you can look at tasks with slack as a pool of available resources. Let’s look at a simple example. If we have a task with 21 days of slack and three team members assigned to it, you might be able to reduce the staffing by one or two team members. If their skill sets are compatible, you can add those people to a critical path task during the weeks when they were scheduled to work on the task with all the slack. Obviously, this kind of fine-tuning depends on staff compatibility. You’re not going to transfer two engineers to a task that requires a graphic artist. But moving available resources gives you the ability to shorten the duration without increasing the project’s risks or costs.
Critical Path Tasks – A Real Example
As an IT project manager in the planning phase of a system upgrade project, I had been trying to write a perfect plan for managing the critical path activities. There was a task in the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and users could not work during that task execution. Project Schedule & Software Main Page
I spoke to the upgrading implementer who said during those two days we would enable the backup system on the backup server and have it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users must redo their work transactions on the live production system once it is ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the backlog. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task. I contacted the HR manager, explained the issue and asked for a solution. The HR manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said overtime was a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget. The PM methodology does not recommend it. But I suggested talking with implementers and asking them to work an additional two days, then letting them add two days to a future weekend so that they could go for long weekend vacation. We would count the business hours they work during the weekend. The HR manger thought it was a good idea. I got approval & commitment from their direct manager, the HR Manager, and the functional Department Manager. I documented all these commitments.
Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was uploaded as a project lesson learned.
Learn how to use the critical path tool to quickly identify problems, efficiently use resources and cut the project duration in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.
Your Status Meetings quickly earn a reputation, and it’s usually bad. First we’ll discuss three types of bad status meetings. Then we’ll explore ways to make your status meetings short and effective.
Status Meeting Types
Some status meetings are info-free, meaning no one knows much about anything. The project manager doesn’t know where the project should be and is blissfully ignorant about any variances between where it should be and where it is. So the project manager provides no information to anybody about this. The team members are left to self-report, sometimes at great length about where their task is and what problems they are encountering.
In other info-free status meetings the project manager utilizes a three color system. Greenlight status is good, yellow light status is a warning and red light status is deeply in trouble. Greenlight is used 99.99% of the time because people know that anything else gets them in trouble. Yellow light is used to signal minor problems like the moon has crashed into the surface of the earth. Red light status is not used until the due date for the task was more than a month ago.
These status meetings waste a lot of time because there is little or no information. The project would be better off not having any status meetings. Unfortunately, these are predominant types of status meetings.
The macho status meeting doesn’t use any cutesy status reporting tools like the red light/green light system. Instead, the people plan what they are going to do during the next week. Why do they do that in the status meeting? Because it wasn’t done before they started work. They try to figure out what to do next and when they do, it is accompanied by rock-solid commitments to be finished by next week’s status meeting. No one thinks much beyond that. If one of the team members feels a little uncertain about what their going to deliver by next week’s meeting, they are criticized by everyone for letting the team down. With this macho insistence on committing to due dates that aren’t tied to factual information, the people on these teams work a lot of overtime. And many of those costly hours are wasted.
The third popular type of status meeting focuses on micro-detail of tasks and deliverables. These projects are usually headed up by a project manager who is (or thinks he/she is) a technical guru. This expert is uncomfortable with other people making decisions. They believe everyone should come to the guru to receive direction and assignments from “on high.” Status meetings revolve around the guru’s detailed investigation into exactly what was done and what was created. This grilling is mixed with angry lessons about mistakes that were the result of a team member “going rogue” by making their own decisions. As a result, the team members’ feelings of dependency on the guru grow with each status meeting. Soon the team is afraid to make any of their own decisions or solve any of their problems. They go to the guru instead. Unfortunately this type of project manager is incapable of managing teams larger than two or three people. How to Write a Weekly Status Report
Status Meeting Organization
You can fix the problem with whatever type of status meeting you have by learning how to organize your status meetings. We all have heard these statements: What is the purpose of meeting every week? Don’t we have enough meetings? We project managers have asked ourselves this question: How can we organize a status meeting that gets results and doesn’t bore people to death? Lately I’ve tried something that takes a little more work on my end but boosts the productivity of my status meetings. It also cuts down the time that status meetings take. Let me tell you what worked for me… How to Write a Weekly Status Report
First, I prepare the agenda for the project status meeting ahead of time. Let me explain. What is the purpose of the status meeting? It is to provide your team with the overall status of the project and to learn the status of their activities. It is also to identify potential problems. The emphasis is on identification, not on solution. So I prepare a standard project status report meeting form. That sounds bureaucratic, but it isn’t. The first section just lists the people who are expected to show up and those who are not. Those who are not expected to show up, will receive the meeting minutes. Next, I add a graph about the project status. For this status I graph the information from my Earned Value Analysis. It shows a comparison between the percentage of work actually completed vs. the percentage of work planned to be completed. Next, I add sections for activities that are overdue, that are due this month, and that are active throughout this month. For each activity, I list only the following information:
The owner of the task
The original due date
The current estimated completion date
The current % complete
Three lines for status text
Every week, I update the status for each of the tasks according to the status reports I received throughout the week.
Second, I organize the meeting using MS Outlook’s meeting organizer. I know it sounds trivial, but I need to make sure people know there is a recurring status meeting.
The actual meeting follows a simple routine. We discuss what’s new on the project. Next there is a general status report of the project, followed by a status update of each of the tasks listed. Going through the task list is rather simple. I state the task and ask the task owner where they are on the task. I do not go into details during the status meeting. I don’t want to start lengthy discussions. If I sense a problem, I will schedule a private meeting with the task owner. Going through the task list usually takes no more than 20 minutes. Once this is done, I ask the team if there is anything else we should add to the protocol. Once again, my goal is not to solve all these issues. It is to bring topics to the table and organize additional meetings for the problem solving process.
Lastly, I make sure that the updated meeting protocol is available for everyone to view no later than 48 hrs. after the meeting.
Using this method, the time spent in status meetings went down to about 30 minutes, just enough to keep everyone focused.
If your team has problems with the status meeting, try structuring the meeting in a similar way. By doing so, you provide a protocol and agenda that you can enforce. And you actually boil down the meeting’s purpose to what it is: Getting a status, not solving all problems and issues.
Learn how to lead effective project status meetings in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager and practice running meetings in live online conferences, just the 2 of you. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.
There are many project sponsor types. Some are focused only on delivering business value to their organization and have excellent strategic vision. They know how to support the project manager and the team so they can be highly effective. Unfortunately, not all project sponsor types operate like this. There are a number of project sponsor types whose behavior is destructive. Project Sponsor Main Page
In this video we’ll examine an interesting project sponsor type. We’ll look at this political operator whose primary interest is in playing one upmanship with other executives and ensuring that he has someone else to blame if things go wrong. The person who usually gets the blame is the project manager. Watch the video and see a number of tactics that project sponsors who are political operators use with project managers. After each little scenario, I’ll suggest the best way to respond to this type of project sponsor to protect your project and yourself.
Project Politics: Dealing with a "Political" Sponsors
You may be saying, “I don’t have to deal with this crap.” But the strategy of putting your head in the sand and ignoring the sponsor’s games is very unlikely to succeed. Why? Because every project and project manager is dependent on the project sponsor. When you think about the amount of time you’ll spend working with the project sponsor, you’ll realize how critically important it is to handle that individual effectively.
The project sponsor and project manager spend the majority of time together during the initiation and planning phases. Then the sponsor is actively engaged in securing organizational approval for the project, and defining the overall scope and major deliverables that they want. Sponsors are also involved in identifying the project stakeholders and assessing the overall risk of the project. Once the charter for the project is approved by the organization and the project manager begins detailed planning, the sponsor’s role changes to approving each element of the project manager’s work. After the sponsor gives approval to the project plan and the project management plan, the sponsor’s role changes again. Following that approval process, the sponsor’s role becomes one of approving changes to those plans. The sponsor also is involved in reviewing and approving all change requests which can increase the cost and duration of the project. As well, the sponsor approves changes to the scope, the risks and the quality of the deliverables that are to be produced.
You can learn these skills for working successfully with project sponsors in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.
Project Management Skills For a Successful Project Manager
What project management skills do consistently successful project managers have in common? There are personality traits, interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate, and knowledge of the right techniques to use in various project situations. Let’s start by examining the project management skills commonly used to define the consistently successful project manager. We’ll also examine a few of the myths about these skills. Then we’ll go on to examine how an organization’s project management processes and the scope of their projects affect the requirements for the successful project manager.
Project Management Skills and How They Evolved
Project Management Skills: Technical expertise – Expertise is the most ancient of the project manager ingredients. In the old days, many organizations a successful project manager required only strong technical expertise. After all, without outstanding technical expertise how could a project manager command the respect of the team? How could they plan a technically strong solution or solve problems that arose? Without superior technical knowledge, how could a PM enforce high performance standards? How could they avoid having the “wool pulled over their eyes” by team members?
Project Management Skills: Ability to Work with the User/Client – As project management evolved, it became apparent that project managers also required the ability to “sell” and persuade users and clients. Then a basic communication requirement evolved into the need for project managers to “see” the project from the user’s or client’s perspective. They couldn’t just concern themselves with the technical skills. Project managers had to learn to plan projects based on the impact on the users’/clients’ business. They had to be able to drive the effort to deliver business relevant results. Presentation Skills Video
Project Management Skills: Project Management Tools & Techniques – It also became apparent there were specialized tools and techniques that a project manager needed to be successful. For tier #1 projects (small efforts within a department), this tool set consisted of a planning template and software for creating Gantt charts. For tier #2 projects (multi-department or cross-functional projects), the project management skills and tools included higher level communications skills and software tools for modeling options and tracking performance. For tier #3 projects (strategic-level projects),the project management skills and tools grew to include strategic planning skills and interpersonal skills for multiple stakeholder situations. People realized that the best project managers had a big tool kit and the knowledge to pick the right tools for each project.
Project Management Skills: Ability to Motivate Project Team Members – Along with recognition of special project management skills and tools came recognition that the “expert power” of the technical guru was not enough to build highly motivated project teams. PMs, particularly those borrowing people across functional departments, needed the ability to determine the right way to deal with each team member. They needed the interpersonal skills to develop effective project team cultures. The management skills to define the “right” assignment for each team member and the skill to build commitment to estimates and deadlines were essential. Project Manager Communication Skills
Project Management Skills: Ability to Solve Problems – Organizations have always wanted project managers who are good problem solvers, good fire fighters. That fit nicely with the historic requirement that project managers be the technical guru and pull off heroic technical rescues. But executives learned to value PMs who could perform risk management and avoid having any fires to put out.
These skills are a basic list of the project management skills required for success. But there is no such thing as “one PM skill set fits all.” You need to think about the processes an organization needs to develop its own successful project managers.
Moving Up From Tier #1 Projects to Tier #2 and #3
It would be nice if the project management skills and techniques that make PMs successful on small projects were an automatic springboard to success on larger projects. But the reverse is often true. The techniques and styles that work well on a tier #1 project (limited scope within a functional unit) are usually a disaster when you apply them to tier #2 (cross functional) and tier #3 (strategic) projects. Unfortunately, the ingredients for project success change as:
The size of the project team grows
The project’s scope spans functional or organizational boundaries
The project “reaches” for benefits that are less tactical and more strategic.
A PM’s strong technical knowledge can successfully manage small technical projects with 2-4 people. Their technical knowledge and individual problem-solving ability lets them catch and fix all the problems. But that micromanaging style can’t expand to cover a team of 6, 12 or more people. As the scale of their project increases, PMs need to elevate their techniques. They must get rid of that delicious temptation to make all the decisions.
Running a project for the boss within a functional unit is straightforward. The whole team usually has a common boss so authority, priority and resource allocation issues are easily resolved. The boss also controls the scope whenever an issue arises. But when the team is drawn from across functional or organizational boundaries and the stakeholders multiply, superior PM techniques need to fill the gap.
The necessary project management skills also change based on the business outcome the project has to deliver. If it’s enhancing an existing functionality or process, the PM doesn’t need much “strategic vision.” But as projects aim for improvements in operational performance or strategic-level results, the PM must be able to see beyond the technology and drive the project toward those measured business outcomes.
The PM Alone Does Not Determine Project Results
Even the most superbly equipped PMs fail when the organization’s growth or density of projects increases. These factors can make the organization’s project environment a mess of over-allocated resources and priorities that change from moment to moment. When organizations increase the frequency and volume of projects without establishing organizational processes, the project failure rate climbs. And everyone usually points to the capabilities of the project managers as the source of the problem. Good PMs can cope with changing scope, priorities and resource availability. But they cannot overcome issues like the following that plague organizations:
Uncontrolled project initiation
No prioritization of projects
Absence of PM authority to manage borrowed team members.
First, the organization must bring order to project initiation with portfolio management processes. Projects should be treated like investments by the portfolio managers. They must evaluate their “yield” when determining priorities and allocating resources. Management can no longer pretend that 98% of the projects can be priority #1 or that projects can require 350% of the available resources.
Second, they must become a matrix organization for projects. They must give PMs some authority to directly assign work and reward outstanding performance of the people they borrow across functional lines.
Project Management Skills Summary
The ideas in this article may be useful in considering the skills project managers need to succeed with different types of projects. It also helps define a PM’s career progression. But there is a point where the organization itself must evolve to achieve consistent success. This requires implementing consistent project management processes and executive controls. For more information on these ideas, take a look at our Basic and Advanced Project Management courses. These courses are online with private, personal instruction. You’ll have as many live video conferences as you need.
We can also design a customized program for your organization and deliver it at your site or in online webinars.
Let’s look at a typical day in the life of a Superstar Project Manager and the specific project manager skills and techniques they use. The Superstar Project Manager arrives at work a few moments after dawn (being a superstar is not easy). He has already gone over the weekly status data from the project team. He’s looking at the estimates-to-complete and comparing how that total plus the actual hours worked compare to the task baseline. There are four tasks whose estimates-to-complete will take them beyond the baseline estimates. There is a status meeting today but the Superstar Project Manager is not going to take the entire team’s time to discuss these problems. Instead, the Superstar contacts the four team members and discusses the problem causing the potential overruns. The Superstar and three of the team members design corrective action that will bring the tasks back in line with the original estimates. But it’s obvious that the initial estimate for the fourth task was flat wrong and overly optimistic. It will be 5 days late. The Superstar makes a note for the lessons learned documentation. It includes the task’s actual data and the reason why the estimate was too low. Project Management Skills Main Page
Next, the Superstar looks at the project schedule. The odds of correcting the fourth task’s 5 day variance this week are very low. So the Superstar looks for a “downstream” solution. That is a task scheduled several weeks from now where there’s an opportunity to add resources and recover those 5 days of slippage. Then the Superstar drafts a concise change request. He takes responsibility for the inaccurate estimate and provides the sponsor with an outline of the corrective action. The Superstar also explains that the project’s forecasted finish date will be three weeks late until they can recover the time on the downstream task. The Superstar emails the change request to the project sponsor.
Looking at his personal calendar, the Superstar sees that he is scheduled to “take the temperature” of four stakeholders today. He needs to ensure that they don’t have additional requirements and that there are no problems coming to a boil.
Project Manager Skills – Stakeholders and Change Orders
The Superstar Project Manager wanders into the cafeteria, gets a cup of coffee and stops at four different tables to gather news from people “in the know” about high-level dealings in the organization. Unfortunately there is problem that is bubbling to the surface. A senior director who is providing three members of the project team is facing an audit by an external agency based on a whistleblowers complaint. The Superstar pulls up the project schedule on his smart phone and takes a look at the tasks being worked on by the three members provided by that senior director. He is anticipating that these team members will be pulled off for critical duties to deal with the problem. Two of the team members have no critical path assignments and both have in excess of 10 days of slack on their tasks. The Superstar Project Manager figures that allows sufficient time for them to help their department respond to the audit. Unfortunately, the third team member is working on a critical path task. That individual is a subject matter expert who will be difficult to replace. The Superstar drafts an email to the senior director. He explains that he can work around the loss of two of the director’s loaned team members. But the subject matter expert’s task is critical and losing her would affect the project completion date. The Superstar manager suggests that the workload of the subject matter expert can be reduced to 25% of the original plan if they put a new MBA the company hired on that task. They can work under the direction of the subject matter expert and reduce the expert’s time requirement. The Superstar Project Manager asks the senior director for their approval.
Project Manager Skills – Work “Out in Front”
You’ll note that everything the Superstar Project Manager has done so far involves managing in front of his project team. That is, the Superstar is not consumed with last week’s problems. Instead he is focusing on avoiding problems in the next month or two. This managing “out in front” is a key trait of Superstar Project Managers. Problems rarely catch them by surprise. They are always one or several steps The other trait we see in Superstar Project Managers is that they take the risk of trusting their team members. Superstar project managers do not micromanage Instead, they encourage independent decision-making by their team members (to the extent the team member’s experience warrants it). This allows a Superstar to give the team members a great deal of responsibility and independence. People want to work on the Superstar Project Manager’s projects because of the trust and independence they receive. That always motivates good performers to do their best work. And the Superstar continues to be a successful project manager.
You learn all of these skills in our project management basics courses. Begin whenever you wish and work individually with your instructor at your pace and schedule.Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.