Project Management

How to resolve project sponsors' conflicting goals

Conflict between project co-sponsors is more common than you might think. Here's what to do if you're a project manager stuck in this unenviable position.

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When project sponsors have conflicting goals, it can impede progress, obstruct decision making, and jeopardize the overall project. As unfair as this may seem, it's up to the project manager (PM) to utilize their leadership, facilitation, communication, and conflict resolution skills to help sponsors come to a satisfactory agreement.

Here are some of the conflicts that you may encounter when sponsors have different goals, and tips on how to carefully tackle these thorny situations.

Focusing on department goals instead of corporate strategy

Although many sponsors might instinctively understand the need for projects to have strategic value, this can be forgotten when focusing on departmental goals. When the needs of only one sponsor are met within a multi-sponsor environment, it risks the project's success, and the entire company suffers in ways that may not be measurable until well into the future.

What a PM should do

It may be necessary to regularly meet with all project sponsors to ensure strategic alignment takes precedence over departmental goals. You can gain their trust by guiding the sponsors to understand and work through their expectations and adjust perspectives, and help them see why compromise is necessary.

This can be a very delicate territory to navigate; you should use tact, influence, sound judgment, and leadership skills, while remaining fair and candid. Project sponsors may not always be pleased, but they are likely to at least respect your intent to resolve conflict and find the best long-term solutions.

SEE: Project Management Resource Kit (Tech Pro Research)

Conflicting ideas about the prioritization of goals

Sometimes multiple sponsors may be in sync with overall companywide project objectives, yet have differing opinions on how to prioritize specific goals. Even if project sponsors have a clear understanding of the objectives, timelines, financial commitment, and client and quality aspects, they may not see what needs to be executed to fully and successfully reach the desired outcome. What may seem like a priority to one sponsor can be completely different to other sponsors.

What a PM should do

Sponsors will rely on you to guide the project from initiation to close while staying within scope (or as close to it as possible), so don't expect project sponsors to know all the details around prioritizing. It's your responsibility to educate sponsors about why certain tasks rank as higher priority than others; this is particularly critical when it comes to task priorities rather than individual department priorities. This may not be simple to explain, but it is necessary. By explaining things like task dependencies, it makes it clear to project sponsors why one task was ranked as a higher priority than another one.

Battling over resources

There will be times when project co-sponsors clash due to resource constraints. This seems more innocent at first blush when compared to a lack of strategic focus and prioritization conflicts, but it has the potential to develop into a contentious situation very quickly.

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Sponsors and stakeholders can easily become locked in a battle over resources of any nature, making it extremely stressful for you to smoothly execute on a project plan. Once timelines become more compressed, the need for resources also becomes more constricted. You can get caught in the middle in short order.

What a PM should do

Communicate with sponsors about task dependencies, project priorities, and scope changes as early as possible in the process, so you can try to avoid the scramble for resources. Also, be sure to stay on top of monitoring, scheduling, and allocating resources.

You should keep sponsors in the loop about resource allocation during every stage—this allows sponsors to collaborate more frequently and should lead to improved decision making.

Dealing with personal conflicts or agendas

No matter how well a project is planned for or executed, let's face it—there will be times when sponsors have personal conflicts due to individual biases or agendas. This is possibly the most difficult scenario for any PM to deal with because the issues have nothing to do with the project, causing fact-based reasoning to fall short. To make things worse, if tempers become flared, sponsors may be less motivated and less interested in listening or compromising.

What a PM should do

A background in organizational psychology might come in handy, but in the absence of that, you should tactfully yet firmly work with the sponsors to refocus their attention back to companywide goals and project objectives. You need to remain neutral about the personal conflict and focus on the project.

This situation might even call for assistance from another executive who could help break stalemates and reduce biases that are impeding progress.

The bottom line

You'll face difficult project management situations, to varying degrees, at various levels. This is why it's essential to recognize yourself as a leader, a mentor, a project facilitator, and a conflict resolution expert.

The goal here is to reduce conflict and refocus efforts in the right direction, regardless of where the conflict arises. The only way to accomplish this is through candid, respectful, and project-focused conversations with sponsors.

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About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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