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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Negotiating Oranges & Project Stakes

     Oranges used to be really big in the negotiation industry.
     One practice case opened with the story of a dozen oranges – unlike any others in the world – that possessed powerful medicinal properties.
     A group of scientists needed the oranges to save an entire village from certain death. A competing group had to have those oranges if it was to create a vaccine that would save future generations from great suffering. Both groups insisted they needed all the fruit.
     A simpler case involved a brother and sister disputing possession of a single orange. The essential nature of the situation was the same as that of the scientists. However, in the siblings’ case, the Dad stepped in to deal with the problem (not satisfactorily).
     I use a similar approach in negotiation training for project managers. No fruit, but I mix in a marriage, employment security, a failing project and the survival of an entire company. Positions that are apparently irreconcilable must be brought into agreement in a role-play exercise to which we commit about half an hour.
     This process is always an adventure, even though it is preceded by an extensive review and discussion of how negotiation is supposed to work
     Some people reading this already know how the oranges stories come out; for others, I don’t want to ruin the fun you’ll have when you engage them some day. So I’ll leave that part out – but anyone is welcome to offer comment in the online conversation.

     When groups engage such a problem as a training tool, it takes real effort on the part of both negotiating parties. Before doing something like this, we don’t realize how many assumptions we carry into the relationships and conversations of our daily lives.
     Among such assumptions is one, resulting from a superficial grasp of circumstances, that produces a speedy decision that something is impossible. When role-play instructions require us to probe patiently (and constructively) for possibilities, we discover numerous crevices and potential openings in what had looked like a solid wall.
     Among assumptions we examine, perhaps for the first time, are those about the real price of certain of our convictions, as well as the unexpected net gain available from kinds of concessions that we had considered off-limits.
     It requires a change of mind to shine the light of conversation into those corners, particularly when we do so in concert with someone we had cast in the role of adversary. This isn’t very easy, but the payoff can be substantial.
     The successful outcome of the oranges exercise is very specific; not so the one with the project.
     When the project protagonists work things out, their agreement is always quite original. As often as not, though, they don’t work things out. The situation remains unresolved after the half-hour.

     The debrief is eye-opening in either case. There is plenty to talk about, even when the negotiation didn’t succeed.
     Things never turn out to be the way they seemed at the start, and we all now see that possibilities were lurking around every corner. All we had to do was look. And people had to talk to the other side. Pre-eminently, everyone had to listen carefully, thoughtfully and creatively.  
     The ideal solution often is far from anything envisioned by anyone at the beginning. It was creatively designed by jointly working with what turned out to be the real issues.
     Applying the training lessons to projects is instructive. It broadens the consideration from simply failure rates according to financial, scheduling or functional requirements. Now you’re looking at what went on continuously during the project processes.
     This is about how people work together, and how project managers can best lead them in doing so. It’s not just about the project team narrowly defined, but about everyone, especially those who make decisions on behalf of organization executives, sponsors, resource providers, end users, etc.
      Real projects include not only the risk and uncertainty of true innovation, but also the hopes and expectations of various stakeholders who have varied reasons for being involved. Some of their attitudes appear directly opposed to those of other stakeholders. Some aren’t visible until they erupt to damage the project at a key juncture.
     Well-led negotiations, at the beginning and selectively along the way, identify and disarm many such threats.

     The task-driven project manager seeks to cobble together a reasonable assemblage of project processes and ram it through. He/she may well be sidestepping a tangle of demands and the systemic failure of communication and common purpose.
     In that conception, project managers see the job as running an inexact process as best they can among contentious (or unresponsive or unreliable) parties. If projects were crates of oranges, there would be a lot of bruised fruit.
     In process-only project management the price is too high to pay. This is one major contributor to the project shortfall/failure statistics. It also severely damages the sponsoring organization’s ability to mount projects properly in the future.
     Defining projects as more negotiation than work process leads to more efficient and effective operations, more predictable and satisfactory outcomes – and more productive relationships among the stakeholders after it’s all over.
     Of course, there is a price to pay here, too, and it’s not insignificant. Making negotiation so important a component of project management reconstitutes in a basic way the idea of what a project manager does.
     You still lead the integration of resource investments, personnel assignments, communication, risk management and all the rest. But that work is preceded and managed by agreements fully worked out and understood by all the key parties.
     Besides effective plans, strong projects demand fully coordinated agreement among the initial and ongoing decisions and actions of the stakeholders. The actual planning and execution are based on thoroughgoing consensus.
     Sure, this approach takes a lot of time away from installing and managing processes. It also, though, eliminates all the time previously spent reworking what shouldn’t have gone wrong, as well as dealing with the decision-making of key people who started out at cross-purposes.
     Perhaps most seriously, it requires the project manager to perfect and practice high-level communication competencies. Compared to oldline task-and-process skills? Like apples and oranges.


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