How do I get two dueling executives to agree on goals and stop delaying my project?

Two high-level people in my company do not agree on the goals of my project and are causing delays. What techniques can I use to bring them to a common ground and get the project back on track?
Resolving this situation requires clarifying and getting agreement on what's truly most important for meeting the business goals of the project. Since these executives are not seeing eye-to-eye on those goals, their perspectives must be understood and reconciled. Understanding where they're coming from is the first step in a process that will actually help you build your own influence with these executives, so you are able to help them come to a decision they can both support (and stick with). Here is a simple set of steps to try:
  • Clarify the project impact or risk to get really clear about the critical need: "I need these two executives to: 1) agree on these aspects of the project [fill in specifics of the goals they're disagreeing over], 2) by this date [date], 3) in order to avoid the following project impacts or failure [bad project impact you're trying to avoid] e.g. "In order to allow work on [part of project] to proceed and not miss critical milestone for.... that could delay release to our customers."
  • Determine who must be engaged and influenced to achieve your goal. Is it really just these two executives, or are there other people in the mix who are actually influencing the executives' disagreement on the project goals?
  • Consider how best to engage and influence all these people to reach a resolution. What is each person's context: What factors affect their outlook, what is each person's main "driver"?
    • Identify what they care about in this situation and why:
      • Business goals: They have specific business reasons for supporting their desired course of action (and thus until that is addressed, they will not budge).
      • Project goals: They care most about certain goals of this project and not necessarily others. They might put more weight on schedule vs. features, or more importance on one feature over another, for example.
      • Their time horizon: Their position is driven by a short-term horizon, e.g. getting something out to specific customers as soon as possible, without regard to the impact on other customers. Or they are taking into account longer-term implications than others.
      • Organizational factors: There is some organizational issue driving their position: e.g. resource shortages and higher priority projects; political issues affecting their stand.
      • Personal risk profile: They perceive unacceptable risks in any course of action outside their own; or they are more risk tolerant than the other people involved and are advocating for a riskier approach.
    • Use relationships to gain access and trust. You may not have direct access to each person that is influencing your project's goal conflicts, including those two executives. Sometimes influence requires a twisty path. Consider who works closely with the people you need to influence and whose opinion carries weight and is trusted. Can you get more directly to those people in order to enlist their support and gain better access to the executives or others? Be sure to use the above questions to understand those surrounding people's context as well.
  • What to say and convey. What then do you say in order to bring these executives and any surrounding influencers together? The key is to phrase the need for a decision in a way that gets across the value to them, in their context, and then show them a concrete realistic path to get there. These conversational steps need to happen with each person, followed by one or more joint discussions to cover the solution and actions together.
    • Express a compelling value proposition for them, taking into account their context. Now that you understand their world, be able to express specifically why they should want to help you get past this goals disagreement. Why is it important to resolve this issue from their perspective – what will the value be to them? How will reaching agreement help make sure that the things they care most about are achieved?
    • Show them options and recommend a solution. Then how can we get there? Don't just bring the issue; investigate and put forward some options, and also a recommended solution. Be able to show them how that solution will specifically address their concerns and meet their most important needs. For example, do you see a compromise that meets one executive's most important feature goals and the other one's most critical customer deadline?
    • Use objective information to avoid vague and possibly emotion-driven objections. You have good reasons for needing this goal decision made. It's likely halting critical work, demoralizing the team, and threatening a deadline that matters to obtaining the overall project financial results. Surely that should be obvious to them! But often it's not. Showing them "impact data" such as potential project lateness and the hit to customer commitments or revenue goals can short circuit arguments and focus the conversation on viable compromise solutions. (See our Project Alternatives Tradeoff Table for one tool for expressing options.)
    • Suggest specific next actions. Show them the first steps to help make the path realistic and decision itself more concrete.
    • Recap the above points and ask for a decision. In the first round this is likely asking each executive individually to support a particular path forward. Note, though, that the first step forward might be to simply agree to meet and objectively discuss potential alternatives with the other executive!
    • NOTE: If the reasons behind this project goal disagreement are complex, it could take multiple iterations of this process to get to resolution. But that effort will be worth it. The resulting agreement will have the best chance of sticking because it was built on a solid foundation.

The importance of credibility and relevance: Influence is achieved by having credibility with those you are trying to influence, and you and your position on the issue having relevance to their world. Credibility is defined as "Capable of being believed; worthy of confidence, trustworthy." Relevance is defined as "bearing upon or connected with the matter at hand." The process above by definition helps build credibility and relevance, because you are asking questions, showing concern for their issues, and addressing them in their own context. Be sure to keep asking yourself if you have any "personal shortfalls" in credibility or relevance with each person. Do you adequately understand the details behind their issues? Do you need backup from a particular subject matter expert? Are you truly listening before you try to convince?

Think of yourself as being in a "consultative" role. People are most receptive to those who understand and sincerely try to help solve their problems. The executives are in the way because of one or more issues that are very important to them with respect to your project's goals. The process above should help you understand what's really going on, and work with them in a way that is perceived as valuable and ultimately gets the team to a workable solution.

Related Items on ProjectConnections
For a detailed tutorial on this approach to building influence, see our on-demand webinar recording It's so NOT About Authority – Critical Influence Skills to get Project Managers a Powerful Seat at the Table

For an example of this type of approach employed to convince different executives of the value of project management itself, see our presentation When Management Isn't Buying: 6 Internal Selling Tools that Work.

For a tool to help you analyze various project stakeholders and influencers who you in turn need to understand and influence our template Project Stakeholder/ Influencer Assessment and Communication Plan

For a tool to help you make sure case effectively on tough issues, see our guideline Speaking Up – How to Make Your Case

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