Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations, and then offers a solution using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Mary is making progress on her project to develop a system to allocate IT costs back to the business units. But she has started to detect an undercurrent of resistance from the business customers that she is not sure how to address.

“When I first talked about this project with the IT and business managers, I didn’t detect much enthusiasm.” Mary said. “But everyone said that they would support us. But now I’m finding that some of the managers seem to be working against me.”

“What are they doing or saying that makes you think that?” I asked.

“Well, first of all, I am having difficulty getting them to follow through on the commitments to allocate people to this project.” Mary said. “There are also little things. For example, they don’t return my calls or e-mails in a timely manner. They also talk negatively about the project and its objectives.”

“That definitely sounds like a problem.” I said. “In fact, my own boss made a critical comment last week, although I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Why do you think some of the managers are against the project?”

“There are some genuine differences of opinion about what value this project will bring to the organization.” Mary said. “On the other hand, I think part of the problem is that some people just don’t want to change how they do their job.”

“That’s a key difference.” I noted. “Before you escalate this issue to your sponsor, I think you need to determine if the resistance is based on logic or emotion. Each type of resistance needs to be responded to in different ways.”

Mentor advice
It’s normal for projects to encounter organizational resistance. Sometimes this shows up as active opposition. More often the resistance is subtle: You may hear sarcastic comments, have difficulty obtaining resources, or discover people are ignoring new processes.

If you want to overcome the resistance, you first need to determine its root. Until you know the motivations, you cannot create a plan to overcome it.

In Mary’s project, part of the resistance may be based on an honest disagreement over the project’s value or the way that the project is being executed. To overcome this type of resistance, you need to make a logical argument that addresses the value proposition of the project and why it is being executed the way it is.

Sometimes, resistance is a result of not including all the stakeholders in the initial planning and analysis phase. If people are impacted by a project, they usually want to have some input. Mary and the sponsor should also be open to any good ideas about how the solution or the project can be improved.

On the other hand, part of the resistance may be because it will change how people do their job. Emotional resistance is usually based on a resistance to or fear of change.

For example, some people fear that the IT allocation process will point out that too much money is being spent on their services. Or they may fear that resource allocation may be used to rationalize a downsizing process. Emotional resistance can be overcome as well.

Soothing words from the sponsor on how the information will be used can help. Perhaps a series of casual meetings with the sponsor can be held where concerns are openly expressed and discussed. Positive incentives can also be put into place, including making the success of the project one of the performance objectives of the management stakeholders.

In either case, Mary should talk to the key stakeholders to determine what the resistance is based on, and discuss the situation with the sponsor. Then a plan can be developed to ensure that resistance is overcome and the project can be completed successfully.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Hardheaded or hard-hearted?

What are some of the things you do to overcome resistance to your projects? How do you cope when you can’t “make the sale” to your colleagues? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.