Art of saying yes, part 3: retooling or escalating when collaboration stalls
Collaboration rarely happens smoothly 100% of the time. You can influence your client’s website vision with factual evidence attached to options you created together, but there will be times when the client’s final preference is his or her original plan. How do you move forward?
Go back to the options you developed with the client and see what can be changed and/or added. Align any new ideas with the stated objectives so that they are rooted in what the client cares about. If for example the client is keen to publish a monthly newsletter or blog without existing staff to adequately maintain it, recommend reducing the frequency from monthly to quarterly.
Keeping the line of communications open with the client is especially critical at this juncture. You can’t be dogmatic about your position but you do need to ensure you were clear about any risks and the proposed timetable for the work. As empathy researcher Indi Young observes in these situations, you want to keep a neutral stance so that emotions don’t get in the way of gaining further insight into what the client hopes to achieve.
Approaches for escalation
There is a point when the options for the client’s project run counter to other accountabilities in the organization. Under the TBS communications policy, accountability for the web falls to the head of Communications. You may need to leverage this accountability when it conflicts directly with a client’s request or introduces new risks. It is important to approach escalation as an important tool for the organization and work hard to avoid decision making based on the squeakiest wheel. In scenarios where all options present risks to one of the parties involved, you should leverage the hierarchy of the organization and provide them the information they need to make informed risk-based decisions.
Initially you can bring the client’s request to your manager to look at your analysis of the client’s preferred solution and the associated risks and impacts. Use this time to also explore other options, such as the possibility of getting temporary help or adjusting existing priorities to accommodate the new work.
Note that your client may be doing the exact same thing: bringing the original idea back to his or her management as the ideal solution. Now instead of two individuals in disagreement we have two teams in conflict. It’s not uncommon for the manager at this point to take over or move the decision further upwards, but these practices mean the lessons for this one conflict are not shared or explained as teachable moments for the team. Resolving conflict is a skill that should be part of everyone’s learning plan, since doing it well means more meaningful work can be accomplished and that business relationships stay healthy and open.
One tactic used in some organizations when the stakes (and risks) are high is joint escalation. In this method, the managers involved are required to jointly describe the problems and risks, what had been done so far to resolve it, and its possible solutions. They send a joint write-up of the situation to each of their bosses and stand ready to appear together and answer questions when the bosses meet to work through a solution. This process of systematically documenting the issues and efforts to resolve it can allow problems to be resolved on the spot, without having to be kicked further up the management chain.
Conflict often is considered a negative that should be avoided at any cost. When we regard conflict as a process that lets us get to better solutions, conflict can be valuable for those organizations who manage it well, and specifically, for web project managers who must work with client demands that seem like the vanity publishing request painted in part 1 of this series. If we look for ways to act like a collaborator early and often in our projects, conflict can be minimized, thus changing an initial “no” to a request into a reasoned “yes” that builds stronger business relationships and outcomes.