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How to Handle Curve Balls

What to do about clients who demand the impossible when you least expect it.

It’s Wednesday morning. Your current project is running slightly behind schedule but you feel you’re just about on top of it. Then out of the ether you receive an email from your client or project sponsor, asking for a full update on the different strands of the program.

She says that she wants to be up to speed when she attends a management meeting on Friday.  Pulling together a report was not how you had planned to spend your day, or your evening. This is going to be time-consuming, not just for you but also for many of the other members of the project team.

This is just one example of the different types of ‘curve ball’ that many project managers must field, where clients make additional demands on your time, oblivious to the pressures of delivering the project. If this is familiar, you know how disruptive it can be. So what might you do to avoid these kinds of scenarios? The answer lies in thinking carefully at the start of the project about how you are going to manage your relationship with your client.

The secret is to learn the art of influence. In the context of the project environment, influence is primarily about having one-to-one conversations, which adjust the mindset of the other party so that they decide for themselves to see a problem from your perspective. Influence is distinct from persuasion, which is a coercive process that tends to rely on the force of your personality. Persuasion may achieve a short-term shift in position but once your energy is diverted, the other party is likely to revert to their previous position.  Influence is a slower more subtle process, and maybe counter-intuitive to the traditional project management model. It requires first understanding another persons perspective and then secondly, communicating a message in terms that are more likely to be understood.

CurveballTo illustrate the point, let us look at the situation outlined above and think about how it might be avoided. A critical opportunity to shape your relationship occurs very early in the project timeline. Almost as soon as the project has the green light to proceed, you need to press your client to meet face-to-face to spend a couple of hours discussing how to set up a project for success. This may be already be a part of your standard practice, but most project managers waste this golden opportunity by focusing on technical problems rather than establishing the boundaries and expectations of your working relationship. Task focused issues can be picked up any later time, but this first meeting should be used to ask questions.

What are the sponsors hopes and desires for the project?

What are her objectives and priorities?

What are her personal preferences and motivations?

What are the immediate pressures that she must manage?

The type of information that comes from asking these questions will be different for every individual, but it is invaluable in helping you understand how to connect with them.  The simple exercise of asking good questions and then really listening to her answers will help build a deeper level of trust between you. Towards the end of the meeting you can then start to set out your own parameters as to how you would like to see the relationship work.

For example, you might ask the question ‘how often are you likely to need progress reports?’ Irrespective of the answer you can then say something along the lines of ‘one of the big problems that I have had in the past is when a client asks for a detailed status report at short notice. It is difficult to produce any meaningful data in the time available, and puts the team under a lot of stress’. You have now put down a marker as to your expectations, and because the project has yet to start you cannot be accused of making excuses or being obstructive. If, later in the project, the client still throws you this curveball, you’re able to reference to your earlier conversation and push her to clarify just what she really needs.

If the opportunity for this type of early conversation has been missed, it does not mean that you have lost the ability to be influential. When asked to do something that was not part of your plan, you must first check your impulse to simply say ‘yes’, or to become irritated and terse. Once again it is necessary to get more information. Why is the report necessary, and what might be the alternatives?  An assertive response is then to say something along the lines of ‘okay I could possibly do that  for you but you need to be aware that the consequences will be …………….’.

Conclusion

Influence is both an art and science. The above example is just an illustration, but the principle is fairly simple. An understanding of some of the basics of human psychology is undoubtedly helpful, but practicing the use of an influential approach is basic common sense. It does however take a degree of forethought and planning. Project managers who are used to instinctively giving direction, it can be quite difficult to learn to slow down and focus on asking questions. For those that succeed in developing their influencing skills set, the rewards will be significant. Not only will you find that you get more done, but the relationships that you build with your sponsor will be stronger and more resilient. This will make your current project go more smoothly, and will increase the chances that you are retained on the next one.

Author Bio

Tony Llewellyn is a partner in the Fairlight Project, and specialises in behavioural change in project teams. His book Performance Coaching for Complex Projects  is published by Gower.

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