On the Politics of Multiple Customers

I was recently invited to participate in a "Project Management" panel discussion at a conference in Boston. A member of the audience - a young project manager - related a situation he was living through at the moment:

The young man was a software development project manager for a major company with three large (and different) retail department store chains under its control. A new CEO decided that all three chains should use the same information systems (they didn't) and mandated that this should occur within three years.

The project manager was given responsibility for developing one of the new retail information systems to be used by the three chains (all were using their own custom systems when the project began). Problem was, the IS executives from each of the three chains were at each other's throats. Each demanded that his/her requirements were most important and none would compromise to establish a set of requirements that would serve all three chains.

The young manager saw disaster looming and asked the conference panel what to do, noting that his problem wasn't technical - it was very political. He also noted that he was a lowly project manager and had absolutely no authority over the IS executives who were warring with one another.

Some panel members suggested that he bail out, that the political intrigue doomed the project to failure. I thought this was disingenuous. Bailing out is easy to say. It's not so easy to do. Others, justifiably, I think, argued that the problem wasn't his and that he shouldn't try to solve it. After all, they said, the problem is communication and compromise between three senior IS executives. They had to work it out. A reasonable response, but the young manager was the one who was chartered to build the system. It was his tail if it didn't happen. One said that the CEO should take care of it, after all, he was the one who mandated the system. True enough, but the CEO has much bigger fish to fry. Besides, how could the young manager get word to the CEO that his project was in trouble and what would happen (to him) if he did?

I was the last person on the panel to respond. Most of the panelists comments had been reasonable, but not one told him what to do, in practical, concrete terms. Here's what I suggested:

1. Send a note to the most senior manager you know who has direct interest in the project. Tell her/him that the project is at an impasse and in gentle terms, indicate why the impasse has occurred. Be certain to note that until requirements are agreed upon by all of the customers, work cannot proceed.

2. In the note ask for two things:

a. The authority to create a "strawman specification" based on what is already known about the existing systems at the three chains and whatever information has already been gleaned from the three executives.

b. Ask for authority to request sign-off on the strawman from the three warring executives.

3. Send a note to the three executives. Tell them that a strawman has been created and that you'd like them to attend a meeting at which (1) they will recommend changes to the strawman, and (2) they will approve the modified strawman as a preliminary set of requirements. Also, and very important, let them now that you'll assume that failure to attend the meeting indicates their approval of the strawman specification as it is currently characterized.

4. Hire a professional mediator/facilitator who has specific retail business knowledge to serve as the leader of the meeting when it is scheduled. (An aside: Given the politics involved, the project manager should NOT serve in this role. More harm than benefit can result if a rookie tried to coordinate negotiations.

5. Hold the meeting using the professional mediator/facilitator and work out the real requirements for the new system among the three executives. The key here is negotiation among the three warring executives. The professional mediator/facilitator will remind the three that the CEO wants this system - has, in fact, demanded it - and that their efforts to come to closure will be viewed positively when the new system has been implemented and begins saving money through consistency, etc., etc.

Will the above steps work? "Maybe," is the only honest answer, but at least they provide a means for proactive response to a bad situation.

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