Have you ever been stuck on one of those projects where the same topic comes up, and both sides dig in and defend their positions? When the topic first came up, it was a minor problem. However, as time has passed, this minor item became a critical path item. Then both sides are stuck in deadlock, and alarms start going off, and everyone starts sweating bullets.

Why does this happen? And maybe a better question, why does this continue to happen. So let's pick up this project in the meeting where this critical item is now a dumpster fire. Look around the room. Are the people with authority in the room? No. Are the decisions clearly outlined? Have the problems been defined? Have the decision-makers been identified? Again, no, no, and no. So back to the meeting, everyone's blood pressure rises, frustrations boil over, statements like "you said you could do this" or "This is a deal-breaker" start flying around.

When these statements come out, you know you have run into unclear limits and timing. So if you want to stay clear of meetings that raise your blood pressure, you first identify the limits, then dig into the time required, and once those are in place, you can identify the decision and then find the decision-maker.

Finding Limits

Finding limits is the fun part of a new implementation or project, and in most cases, both sides have to make concessions. However, I would venture to say that there has never been a large project that didn't require flexibility on both sides. So how do you determine the limits of a project? It requires asking three simple questions and listenning to the answers

  1. How is it done now?
  2. How would this fit or not fit into the new project or process?
  3. Where is there flexibility, and where are the dependencies in the process?

Asking the question is the easy part what is difficult is listenning for the critical information. Make sure you listen for any timing statements. When someone mentions time, they have provided a nugget of information. Times expose dependencies, requirements from external teams, and deadlines. These might all be more flexible than you might expect if you can find the right decision-maker.

When merging the process, it is vital to find the areas that are potential solutions for both sides. Finding this common ground is a foundation to be built on. The last question focuses on what the people in the room have control over. Back to our meeting, what changes can with the people in the room? Most of the time, discussing who has the authority to make the final decision isn't asked. To eliminate any confusion, ask the simple question, "Who has the authority to make this decision." When you find limits, you find decisions, and most of the time, your blood pressure is rising in meetings because those people are not in the room. Before we find the decision-makers let's leverage timing.

Timing

Timing is fickle, and most of the time, it is semi-fluid. I know you are thinking, "We can't just always move a deadline out." Correct, so that isn't how you are going to use timing. So how can you take advantage of timing during a project? A month ago, I posted how to escalate an issue. We will use some of the same techniques.

How to Escalate an Issue in Project Management
You have probably been there. I know I have been. You are stuck on a project, and you have a blocker that can’t be removed. What to do, what to do. For the most part, knowing if you need to escalate something is easy. What is more challenging is know knowing how.

The key to leveraging time is identifying limits quickly and setting a deadline for clarifying the problem and identifying the decision-maker. Setting a deadline sounds like this, "Looks like we need to define the paths we can take. Is it reasonable to have those identified by this Thursday? By then, we will have our decision clarified and identify the people with the appropriate authority within our organization. So please have your decisions clarified and your decision-makers identified as well."

Taking the lead and leveraging deadlines will eliminate some heartburn from stressful meetings.

Decisions

Once you have found the limits and have set a deadline, it is time to define the decisions. Natural paths will emerge, and the first to consider is what happens if you don't make any changes. The second is what if they don't make any changes. These two considerations are the benchmark. It is crucial to communicate the baseline for both sides when coming up with the two paths. It sounds something like this. If we don't make any changes, it will take this long, and we won't have ABC.

On the other hand, if they don't make any changes, it will take this long, and we won't have XYZ. Once you have established a baseline, both sides can share the possible solutions, the associated risks, and the required tradeoffs. Keep in mind that there are always tradeoffs and risks.

Finding the Decisions Maker

Have you ever wondered who prices the Big Mac and McDonald's? Maybe it is just me, but someone can change the price higher or lower. If I wanted to bad enough, had the time, the influence, and knew whom to talk to, I could get the price to change. I know this is a silly example, but ultimately if you climb high enough up the corporate ladder at work, someone has the authority to be the decision-maker on the decision determined above. We get wrapped around the axle when we have meetings where we ruminate on a decision but don't have the authority to call the ball. It is much better to keep it professional, run it up the corporate ladder on both sides, and get those people in the room. If you are running the project or implementation, your goal should be to identify the limits and get the correct information in front of the right people.

We run into trouble when we get myopic about our project and our implementation and forget that others need to be involved. The first goal should always be to find limits and blockers as early as possible, identify a decision-maker, and find a solution. Your blood pressure with thank you.