From the Eye of the Storm

Mediating Decisions, Facilitating Solutions, Sustaining Prosperity

Mediating Project Conflict

It was July and my assignment was a project in Germany. The project was a data center implementation for an application service provider, involving approximately 300 people from 9 different countries. On one particular day, I was standing outside of the data center in Hamburg wondering why my security access card was not working. I called Ron, the Project Director with 39 years of experience, and was informed that the project had been temporarily shut down at the request of the client. “No one is allowed in the data center at this time. The client is not happy with the current project status or team. The client is assessing all options. I would have told you earlier, but I just found out myself. Come back to Frankfurt until further notice.” As Ron’s ‘eyes and ears’ on this project, I could feel his pain and frustration.

Four months earlier, Ron had convinced me to move to Frankfurt to assist him with this project. “This project requires many diverse skilled resources to be involved. I understand you are excellent with people and I need a good ‘people’s person’ on this project team acting as my ‘eyes and ears on the ground’.” I told Ron that I appreciated the opportunity and that I was humbled by his confidence. Three weeks after the phone conversation, I was in Frankfurt meeting all key personnel involved with this project. My participation began by me introducing myself to the project leaders and asking how I might be of assistance. I asked open-ended questions and listened. It was in this manner that I was able to identify obstacles to project success.  It was in this manner that I was able to flush out personal conflict.

I determined that there was a major conflict between the Chief Architect for the network and the Design Director responsible for the data center implementation. The Chief Architect felt that she was not getting the respect she deserved from the Design Director and his team. She also didn’t trust the data center design. The Design Director felt that his technical competence and reputation warranted more confidence in his team’s abilities from the Chief Architect. He also believed that no one had the right to question his technical savvy. From the Design Directors’ point of view, he didn’t have anything to prove, especially to a ‘pestering, overly excited network person’. At the work level, this conflict was hindering the exchange of information, leading to delays in the project schedule.

I shared my insight with Ron and strongly suggested that we mediate this conflict. I explained to Ron on multiple occasions that I needed his assistance as ‘Project Director’ in getting both to agree to a meeting. While Ron took my suggestion seriously, his other priorities caused a delay in arranging the meeting. As a matter of fact, the meeting was never scheduled. This brings me back to the day I was standing outside of the data center with a security access card that no longer worked.

Upon my return to Frankfurt, I was informed that the client company had hired the Chief Architect, making her a minority owner in the company. With a few strokes of a pen, the Chief Architect of the project was now also the key decision maker on behalf of the client. Her first action in her new role was to close the data center. She had several reasons. Her first was to send a strong message to the project team that there was a new boss in charge. It was her way of commanding respect. Secondly, she wanted to personally approve all members of the project team going forward. She planned to remove anyone whom she considered to be a poor team player. Thirdly, she wanted to personally tell the data center Design Director that he and his team would no longer be needed. More specifically, she fired them. In essence, after a 6-month investment, she now considered the design team expendable. To my surprise, Ron was also asked to leave the project. It appears that a mediated meeting should have been executed. As a result of not sponsoring the meeting, the new boss no longer believed Ron to be the right person to direct the project. She interpreted his lack of action as support for the Design Director. While I was sad to see Ron go, I was happy that his ‘eyes and ears on the ground’ had given him a chance to avoid this particular outcome. I had warned him of the seriousness of this conflict several weeks earlier.

Conflict

Let’s imagine that Ron HAD set up the meeting.  Through mediation, the Design Director and Chief Architect would have first agreed to a purpose, protocol and process for the meeting.  They would have identified the circumstance to be resolved from each telling their story. The mediator would have put a title on their combined story.  They would have talked to each other directly in a way that would allow each to really hear the other side and identify each one’s criteria for moving forward.  They would have brainstormed options that met each other’s criteria and chosen the ones that were feasible and within their authority.  Lastly, with the mediator acting as scribe, they would have generated a plan of action that resolved the circumstance and met their criteria so that working together in the future would have been more satisfactory and sustainable for both.

Conflict, many times, has a negative context and most of us would rather avoid it all together. And contrary to how we feel, conflict is not bad. Conflict rarely feels good, but it is neither good nor bad. Conflict just is. It’s a natural consequence of being human and occurs in relationships of every kind. Conflict can stimulate creativity and build cohesiveness among team members if properly handled. Project managers looking to experience project success should identify conflicts within their projects. Once identified, they must proactively take measures to achieve resolution as required. If anything is bad, it is an unresolved conflict. Unresolved conflicts can undermine good project plans, ultimately leading to project failure. The ones that don’t completely fail, suffer from escalated costs generated from wasted time, poor decision making, loss of skilled resources, reorganization, sabotage/theft, low moral, and poor health.

What will you do the next time a conflict between two project team members develops?

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