Author: Michiko Diby

How to Separate People from Problems; A Case Study

The Situation

Slamming her hand on the table, the SME glared at my project sponsor and the rest of the VPs and SVPs from across the table. “See!” she said seething with anger. “That is why I will NEVER be a VP here. Because you all refuse to do what’s right!” This meeting was supposed to produce a final sign-off to begin development. After months of vetting a prototype, at least a dozen walkthroughs and pages and pages of requirements documentation, it had come to this. Individually, Mary (the SME), loved the project and expressed her appreciation for the work my team was doing. Individually, I was Sajith’s, (the project sponsor) saving grace, the woman who was leading the charge to make us compliant with industry regulations and streamline efficiencies in a big way. However, bringing them together in a room to approve the project emphasized everything that was wrong in the relationship between them. She was about ethics and he was about expediency.

I’ll start with the end of this story first, because it’s a happy ending. That is, the application was built, and is still meeting its vision, with hundreds of satisfied users. And the SME in the story did eventually make VP.

Project Failure and Conflict Resolution

Before I backtrack on my steps, I should point out that IT project failure rates fluctuate between 60-70% each year; meaning, failure is common. While the pool of project management professionals grows, and as more companies adopt IT governance, it’s hoped that the failure trend will reverse. In addition to process and governance, I think that IT professionals should be trained in the softer skills like communication, team building and conflict resolution to shore up the embankments of process. In fact, it was my training in conflict resolution that saved the project in this story.

Roger Fisher and William Ury are leaders in the conflict resolution community and their groundbreaking book Getting to Yes; Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In is standard reading in almost every conflict resolution 101 class. You may have heard of the phrase ‘Separating the People from the Problem’ (SPP) at some point in your career. That catch phrase is sourced from their Getting to Yes method.

Fisher and Ury’s Method

At the highest level there are four steps to negotiating through conflict.

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Using Objective C