Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
– Ambrose Bierce
Encountering some form of conflict in the course of executing your project is inevitable. Depending on your approach, conflict can be destructive, constructive, or at least expected and manageable.
How often have you completed a project, either within your organization or for an external customer, and finished it with absolutely no occurrences of conflict? I have participated in and led the completion of very many projects throughout my career in the construction industry. It is safe to say that it is absolutely the exception when a project gets done, and there has not been some conflict to work through. People working on different teams and even those on your team will often have different opinions on what approach and what outcomes are most desirable. There may be conflicting organizational motivations or incentives in place. For third party contracts, these conflicting motivations are obvious. Each party is accountable for looking after the interests of their organization.
Conflict will be harmful and confrontational if that is how you view it.
Conflict can also be constructive if that is how you view it and approach it. Two different perspectives on how to solve a specific issue can provide an opportunity for improvement. Two opposing views on entitlement to payment for a particular product or service should be informed and resolved by the guidelines established in the project agreement or contract. Once entitlement is established, your agreement should also provide the methodology for determining the value of your product or service.
These steps seem very straightforward, but in the white water of project execution, it is often not. Too many project managers lean on implicit consent and trust in goodwill to protect their position on their projects. Don’t get me wrong; establishing mutual trust is a foundational step in setting up your project for success.
A key to a good relationship is mutual consent to be challenged respectfully.
Many people are often reluctant to “rock the boat” in an amenable relationship for fear of eroding goodwill. However, both parties need to exercise their due diligence to protect their interests and those of the project. Both parties need to feel comfortable in expressing their point of view.
The best time to have difficult conversations is before things get difficult.
At the outset of your project, meet with the key stakeholders, and talk openly about the risks. How will you behave if, and when, they arise? Talk about what might go wrong in the course of the project.
We like to use the framework of purpose, priorities, and approach to get organizations and teams aligned in working towards a common goal. Never underestimate how effective clearly stated purpose, priorities, and approach are in enabling collaborative performance and the ability to overcome obstacles, innovate new approaches to old problems, and find common ground when conflict arises.
Start with the project’s purpose. Shared purpose creates clarity of the importance and relevance of the work and connects stakeholders. Define why the project is being undertaken and describe the required outcomes. It will also be beneficial to talk about the implications for all parties if the project does not succeed.
High-level priorities aligned with the successful project outcome criteria will help define the road map to the accomplishment of purpose. They will inform and clarify the action planning process and the wins to be celebrated.
It seems evident that teams understand that they need to get a job done, but what’s often not well defined is “how” they intend to accomplish their work. The absence of “how” leaves interactions open to any individual’s choice. Unfortunately, sometimes these choices are anything but productive with stakeholders falling into patterns of conflict and frustration.
Creating a shared approach provides people with an understanding of the requirements to function collaboratively and effectively.
The approach articulates the norms, values, and guidelines for working collaboratively. Many people have participated in project kick-off processes where everyone gets to know one another and commits to “do the right things” to accomplish a successful project outcome. How often have you been in one of these sessions when the honest questions get asked?
From your perspective, what will happen if you fall short on resources and the schedule slips? What if you encounter substandard quality issues? What if you go over budget?
From your customer’s perspective, what if they are late in providing their deliverables? What if they are not able to provide payment on time?
How will you approach resolution when you don’t agree on entitlement or value for a change in scope? Too many times, I have heard, “this project will not have any change.” I honestly can’t recall a time when this has happened.
Start with an acknowledgment that there will be situations where conflicts will arise.
Acknowledge that each of you must look after your respective organizations then take out the contract and work your way through it together. It is your set of ground rules. Get a mutual understanding of your respective deliverables, the obligations for notice, and of the process for conflict resolution. Acknowledge that you will likely encounter one of these scenarios and that when each person is fulfilling their contractual obligation, it is not a personal affront. Talk about who needs to be kept in the communication loop for various situations.
When the going gets tough, you will have established an agreed approach on how to navigate the situation. And remember, when you do get there, listen first. Resist the temptation to defend, deflect, or go on the offensive. Give your counterpart the respect to fully explain and confirm that you clearly understand their position. Understanding does not imply agreement.
I am confident that you will have great success with having difficult conversations at the outset of a project before things get difficult. Please give it a try. There is nothing to lose. If the discussion is not well received, you will know what you are dealing with right from the start.
Paul brings over thirty years of experience and a proven track record of profitable growth results in the construction industry to our team. His experience includes executive leadership, corporate strategy development, board governance, business development, contracts development and negotiation, and project management.
Paul holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Alberta, is a CCA – Gold Seal Certified Project Manager, a Certified Executive Coach, and a CSIA level 2 ski instructor. He has served on numerous community and industry boards of directors, associations, and technical committees, including leadership roles.