CXO

How to mediate disputes during an IT project

Nobody wants to play referee, but diplomacy can be done with grace, and it can save your project. Here are a few tips.

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Image: iStock/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

No project manager wants to have to step in and mediate a dispute but the fact is, there are sometimes rifts in opinions between individuals on the project team that exacerbate to the point where mediation becomes necessary.

Early in my IT career, the manager of a project I worked on kept reporting to the IT director that our project was meeting schedule, and that our tasks were being completed. The reality was, code was being written but the end users were unhappy with the applications. From an end user acceptance standpoint, the project was nowhere near being as complete as the project manager was depicting.

I don't believe that the project manager was trying to mislead our IT director about how complete the project was, but I do think that he was failing to acknowledge that there were serious disagreements between what IT was producing and what end users wanted. This was a time for the project manager to become a project mediator so these issues could be resolved, but he failed to assume that role.

Ultimately, the end users rejected a project that IT had committed 20 full-time people to over an 18-month period. Both the IT director and the project manager lost their jobs.

It's hard to know what would have happened if the project manager had pursued early mediation with IT and end users—but if he had done so, at least the issues and frayed feelings between end users and IT could have been identified before too much time had passed.

IT project mediation is not taught in undergraduate or graduate IT programs. It is not even listed as an item in performance reviews. Nevertheless, the ability to mediate disputes and differences in opinion is an indispensable skill for an IT project manager because most IT projects that fail, do so because of people and not technical issues.

So if you are the manager of an IT project, when does it become necessary for you to become a project mediator? Here are three telltale signs:

  • There is a total communication breakdown between key stakeholders in the project because they either see project goals differently or they disagree on the project approach.
  • Individuals who need to assume an active role in the project don't.
  • You begin to sense pockets of resistance to the project forming.

Once you've established that you do need to step in, here are some key IT project mediation skills and tactics:

  • If you see disagreements and opinion rifts arising between key project stakeholders, call time on the project to iron these out—and let your your organizational superiors know what you are doing and why. You might perceive this as a risk to your reputation as a manager and a leader, but it is far better to call time out and get the project on track than to pretend that everything is okay when it isn't.
  • Listen. Most disagreements don't arise out of thin air. Often, each of the disputing parties has some valid points. The goal of the project mediator is to ensure that everyone is respected and listened to so that everyone can come together on a final solution.
  • Compromise. A solution that takes into account everyone's concerns and suggestions usually ends up being a stronger approach for the project overall.
  • Continue to follow up with project members after your meetings. If individuals haven't been participating on a project the way they were expected to, a "managing by walking around" approach where you are regularly touching base with them can help. If there were project members who disagreed with an approach, continuously working with them after mediation can assure that they are engaged with the new project direction.

In summary, IT project managers often find that project mediation is a fine art, with the need for mediation being triggered by a project manager's "sixth sense" that something is not right with a project. What effective mediation does is unearth these hidden project issues that the project manager senses, so that issues can be addressed openly and directly, with the project being put back on track.

Also see:
User stories effectively bridge communication gaps between product and engineering
Trouble hiring a project manager? Five possible reasons why
Project communications: What works, and what doesn't
5 ways a negative corporate culture can kill your IT project

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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