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How to successfully negotiate in any project

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Project management is usually taught in a linear fashion and tends to follows this process: firstly, consider the personalities and skill set required to successfully complete the project, next, decide who the stakeholders are and develop a communication plan in order to be able to address them, after this, try to agree on the scope of the project and decide the deadline, following this, draw up a Gantt chart showing the timetable of your project and agree a budget to cover all the above, finally, once the project has ended, complete a review. 

In reality, each of these activities is running simultaneously and by the end of one project, you’ve already started another one and usually any review has to be completed in some spare time. 

I’ve been a project manager for over 35 years in sectors such as public healthcare, private IT services and education, where I have taught Business Studies, Computing and Project Management. During my time teaching project management, I’ve had a number of students stating that whilst managing projects, although they would deliver in a fairly structured way, they were thrown when something came from left field that didn’t match the project plan. Some challenging things included staffing, funding, timelines, documentation, meeting attendance, decision making and scope concerns. Sometimes they came up against these issues quite a way into the project and therefore, weren’t in a position to turn round or start the project again and they realised they would have to navigate an alternative route through the project plan. 

Another concern I received from students was that they knew they had to re-negotiate some of the agreed areas but they didn’t know how, or where to start. An easy way to help support students with this dilemma is to do some safe environment role play, or games, or exercises. Students would also mention that the need for negotiation would be at unexpected times during a project. The expectation is that negotiation is always done at the beginning of a project, but in reality negotiation can, and does, take place at anytime during a project. As a point of interest, the hardest negotiation is mostly during the handover at the end of a project. It’s hard because the negotiators don’t have too many places to explore — the project is, essentially, completed. The best way to avoid this form of negotiation is to pre-empt the likelihood of it happening. At each of the review points, make sure that all the milestones are hit and during the project, make sure that any difficulties are addressed and encourage them to be voiced if necessary and all alternatives are clear and highlighted.  

One of the advantages for a project manager needing to negotiate with the key stakeholders during a project is that a relationship would have been established. You’ll have an understanding of their principles, their priorities and any extra funding that’s available. Obviously, they in turn will know the same things about you and your organisation. Therefore, you’ll know if what’s being asked for is ‘a nice to have’, or ‘something they missed’ from the initial scope. If it’s the latter, you’re in the stronger position — if you’re able to provide whatever it is that’s being requested. If you can’t, then a follow-up project would need to be secured and agreed.

As the project manager, you’ll have to manage the fallout of this conversation — the stakeholder’s temperament is likely to be a bit fragile at this point and to continue towards a successful project conclusion will require some careful maneuvering. If the stakeholder is trying to secure ‘a nice to have’, the negotiation can take a different tone depending on whether it’s something that can easily be accommodated.  

A project manager's role is to manage the project, manage and appease the stakeholder and attempt to secure further work — for themselves and their employer. Therefore, it’s important to try and deliver what’s being asked of you. If the request doesn’t alter the timeline, the number of resources or affect the quality of other work and is an easy add-on, the benefits to you as a project manager and to the organisation can be financially lucrative or reputationally excellent. However, always bear in mind the opposite can occur if you aren’t helpful or obliging when asked for extras. Consider the importance of the relationship and the additional business you could gain. 

In my book, Navigating Project Negotiations, I write about active listening and the different types of business personalities that can be involved in a negotiation. It’s worth reviewing this before starting the conversation, not only will this then allow you to maintain the relationship, but it will also be able to help you identify what’s important to the stakeholder. If you’re able to communicate clearly and identify what makes everyone feel part of the project and each person can contribute to a successful conclusion, you’ll be close to keeping your working relationships relaxed while the project moves forward.  

Winning isn’t always about getting what you want, sometimes it’s about allowing the person you’re negotiating with to believe they have got what they wanted but on your terms. It’s about getting back to a structured project plan where all parties feel secure in the knowledge that they know what they are working towards and are able to deliver the expectations. 


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