The Art of negotiating and getting your project back on track

A recent experience on how we negotiated with a team to get our project back on track

photo of Vivekanand Jayakrishnan
Vivekanand Jayakrishnan

Senior Program Manager

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. In Project Management, issues can occur when you are busy preparing the perfect project plan. And if it happens during the execution phase, it could derail all the good work that has been done in the earlier stages. There are different ways one can salvage the situation and even ensure things don't change at all despite the conflicts. I want to share with you a recent example of a conflict and how the project core team and I(referred to as "We" and"Us" henceforth) negotiated with a team and got the project back on track.

In March 2021 and we were 2 weeks into execution, the project encountered its first hiccup. A team (let's call it Team X) that was going to start contributing to the project, quipped that they cannot contribute due to resource constraints and that they are working on other higher priority projects. Having carefully sequenced the work package and planned resources, this was a crucial blow to us. All the more, as Team X's work was on the "critical path" and any delay on their side could completely change the project timeline and push the project completion date.

Anything that impacts the project can influence any of the three ; the Scope, Resourcing and Schedule (also fondly referred to as Iron Triangle). And that's where the focus of negotiation ought to be. One might be tempted to approach the project sponsor/steerco to break the deadlock, which we did but for a different reason. Instead, what one could ideally do is to inform the sponsor and stakeholders/affected parties that there is a potential delay and that you are trying to resolve it. And then start preparing for the negotiations. Before every negotiation, one needs to gather data that led to an issue/conflict.

Gather Data: Causal factors

We tried to understand what Team X was busy with. We gathered data on their project pipeline, conflicting projects and the effort involved, resource pipeline etc. After which we spoke with the Project Managers of the conflicting projects, to understand their timelines and if they have any timeline pressure. We collated all this information, and to our dismay we couldn't get Team X to start any time soon. But we knew where the scope of negotiations now lay. On the negotiating table.

Scope and Resourcing

Our first line of negotiation focused on 3 aspects: re-estimating the work packages, reducing the scope(if possible) and adding more resources (including freelancers). After the discussions, the estimates remained unchanged. However, we were able to reduce the scope by keeping only the "Must Have" and identified work that could be innersourced. All this meant, the total effort for Team X reduced by 50%. A sense of relief, but no start dates yet ,only a list of potential start dates. We moved to the next stage of negotiation: the start date.

Simulate and Cost of Delay

To get into schedule negotiation, one needs to have a solid project schedule (not the same as project plan) that lets you play the what-if scenario. The dependencies need to be mapped, the critical path - be identified and any slack duly noted. Before starting the execution phase, we had these covered and that held us in good stead. Now, we plugged different start dates for Team X and determined how they affect the timeline and resource planning (like a simulation game). For different start dates, we identified the impact of delay. In other words, the Cost of Delay. In the end, we shared 3 schedules and the cost of delay with Team X. With it, we recommended the ideal start date and also recommended to split Team X's work into 2 timelines to unblock downstream dependencies. This was the last roll of the dice.

We would have ideally taken all this information to the steering committee and asked if the steering committee is okay with the cost of delay etc. But before that, Team X offered us a ray of hope and a middle ground of a start date. We agreed. It took about 4-5 weeks of negotiations, but we pulled through. The project's completion date and the essential scope remained the same, but the milestone timelines and resourcing plan changed. Important thing to remember is that the scope, resource, and schedule negotiations happen in parallel as change to one aspect affects the others. As next steps, we presented the re-baselined schedule to the SteerCo and then published the new schedule to apprise all parties about the changes in the project delivery schedule.



Problems in a project almost always affect the Iron Triangle. To mitigate or minimise the impact:

  1. Gather data,

  2. Negotiate on Scope, Resourcing and Schedule

  3. Document the Cost of Delay.

And more importantly: involve the steering committee after the above have been carried out. Only when there is no headway despite all the negotiations, one could involve the steering committee to seek a decision or to accept the risks and the cost of delay. This is not a complete guide on how to negotiate, but could be used as a starting point.

I would like to thank the project core team as this wouldn't have been possible without their awesome work and collaboration. And a special thanks to Team X for their flexibility and staying at the negotiation table. Any successful project needs an excellent core team, an equally good project plan and the underlying project schedule, don't skimp on that.

Further reading

Using BATNA in Project Management

Englund, R. L. (2010). Negotiating for success: are you prepared? Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2010—EMEA, Milan, Italy. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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