Conflict is any disagreement about anything ranging from minor disagreements to major ongoing warfare. It is a natural and useful part of any project or relationship. People will disagree with one another about any number of things from how long it takes to do a task to whether the project should be continued or canceled. Conflict enables the discovery of optimal solutions and becomes an opportunity to promote and sustain healthy relationships.
Related Article: Make Confident Estimates in 5 Steps
When Can We Estimate?
Let's take an example. Imagine a situation in which a project manager (PM) and a functional manager (FM) contributing to the PM's project are at odds about when to estimate the cost and duration of an activity to be performed by the FM's team. The PM is responsible to the sponsor for putting together a plan and estimate that would enable the sponsor, operational line managers, sales and marketing, training and other business functions to understand better how and when project results will affect the organization and their departments. Finance and sponsors want a sense of the cost. The senior stakeholders want the project estimate before they authorize expenditures on the project. The PM needs an estimate now.
The FM knows that they don’t know enough to come up with a definitive estimate. They have been burned in the past by making an estimate that was too optimistic and has been forced to lower estimates that were perceived as too pessimistic. The FM wants to wait until there are clear requirements and committed resources before giving the estimate.
Best Practices Eliminate Conflict
If the organization follows best project management practices, there is no conflict. Best practices say that estimates can be given based on a high-level understanding of scope but that they must be given in ranges that clearly communicate the level of uncertainty to be expected along with assumptions and risks. Best practices include iteratively refining the estimate as more is known.
The further away from performance, the greater the uncertainty. If the functional group has never done this kind of thing before, the greater the uncertainty. The more volatile the environment, the greater the uncertainty. With this understanding, the FM can feel safe in providing an estimate early on. She puts it in writing along with the assumptions and conditions the estimate is based on. She relies on the PM to represent the project to the sponsor and other stakeholders in the same way. She relies on the opportunity to revise the estimate as more information is available and as actual results unfold.
Conflict Management Under Less Ideal Conditions
There will be conflict under less ideal conditions, for example, if the organization does not have a healthy project management process and has a long history of blaming when it comes to missed deadlines and blown budgets. Best practices are often known but not yet followed as part of the organization's standard operating procedures - they have not been institutionalized.
The PM wants an early estimate and wants the FM to have some skin in the game. The FM wants to hold off from estimating until there is more information - maybe three months down the road. As is often the case each may stick to their position without regard to the other parties position. A win-lose conflict is the result.
Conditions, Positions, Wants, and Needs - The Evaporating Cloud
Healthy conflict management relies on knowing the conditions surrounding the issue and the difference between wants, needs positions and solutions. The wants and needs lead to positions. Solutions emerge from communication and decision making in the context of goals and conditions. Positions are often based on erroneous assumptions.
An approach called the Evaporating Cloud is used in Theory of constraints. The idea is to dissolve the conflict, like an evaporating cloud, by finding the underlying needs, goals, interests, and assumptions that cause the parties to think they are in conflict.
"A position is a point of view or mental attitude, neutral, for or against something. It is an opinion held in opposition to another. It represents a “want.”" Wants are driven by perceived needs, assumptions, and interests. Every conflict is based on the difference between the positions held by the parties. Conflicts can often be resolved by understanding the wants, interests, needs and beliefs that underlie the positions. With this understanding, it is more likely that common ground can be found. Common ground makes it easier for the parties to change their positions and still have their needs or interests met.
In the case of the estimates, the FM's position is that there will be no estimates until definitive requirements and resource availability are known. The PM's position is that he must have estimates now. If instead of arguing about positions that seem to be irreconcilable, the PM and FM sit together to explore their wants, goals, needs, and assumptions, they can find a way to proceed that satisfies them both. Even if only one of them took the time and effort to separate the positions from what they really needed, he or she might be able to shift positions to enable an effective compromise.
A Needs Fulfilling Proposal
Here is one way that may play out:
The PM explains the need for an early estimate, and the FM expresses their fear that they and the team will be held to the estimate even if the assumptions they identify turn out to be incorrect because scope and other conditions change. The PM acknowledges that the FM's fears are quite rational, given past performance. The PM tells the FM that they have the same issue about giving the project estimate. The two agree that they share the common goal of satisfying the sponsor and client - the senior stakeholders. The two turn to face the conflict rather than each other.
The PM agrees to put their overall estimates in a form that clearly states the probability of a significant variance between the high-level estimates and the more definitive estimates that will be made when requirements are firmed up. They further agree to copy the FM on these estimates as they are submitted to the sponsor and client and to include the FM's estimate, assumptions and statement that the estimate can be off as much as 50 - 75% in either direction.
This proposal not only satisfies the FM's need to be protected from fallout resulting from changes to the estimate but also enables the PM to properly manage the expectations of his key stakeholders. The proposal is so reasonable that it would be difficult for the FM to stick to her position. The transparency resulting from the sharing of the overall project estimate creates a trust relationship between the two parties. The need for safety and the need for an early estimate are both satisfied.
When It Doesn't Work
This resolution relies on the rationality of the senior stakeholders and their commitment to live with a degree of uncertainty regarding the real cost of the project. If there are estimate changes as the project progresses and the senior stakeholders blame the PM, the PM may resort to blaming the FM and others for the variance. This will make getting early estimates for future projects more difficult, if not impossible.
The courageous PM will take the heat. They will remind the seniors of the assumptions and risks identified in the early estimate. There will be preplanned revision points at which estimates will be revised, and the reasons for any variance clearly stated.
If there are irrational expectations at the senior level, the conflict is now between the PM and senior stakeholders, not between the PM and FM. In this case, the same approach can be used - what are the stakeholders' goals, assumptions, needs and wants and how can they be reconciled with the needs and wants of the PM? With a hierarchy in place (PMs are usually well below the client and sponsor in the pecking order) the Evaporating Cloud approach is more difficult. The seniors may not care about the needs of the PM. In that case, the PM must find a way to convince the seniors that it is in their best interest to have rational expectations and to not perpetuate a cycle of missed targets and blaming.
 George Pitagorsky, Managing Conflict in Projects: Applying Mindfulness and Analysis for Optimal Results, 2012, PMI publishing.