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Back to basics: responding to resistance on your projects

Back to basics: responding to resistance on your projects
2010-10-212013-02-11IT managementen
In a previous post, I wrote about the basics for running an effective call. In this article, I'd like to focus on some of the basics for responding to resistance during calls or meetings, especially when you're selling a project or an idea. Again, this is certainly nothing new for experienced...
Published October 21, 2010 by Michel Operto in IT management
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In a previous post, I wrote about the basics for running an effective call. In this article, I'd like to focus on some of the basics for responding to resistance during calls or meetings, especially when you're selling a project or an idea. Again, this is certainly nothing new for experienced PMs or sales professionals. But what goes well without saying, goes even better when you say it.

I learned that there are essentially three different types of resistance that need to be recognized and managed: Misperception, Skepticism and Concern. Actually, the way to respond is not so different but let's see the three cases:

1. Misperception

To misperceive is to perceive incorrectly or misunderstand. You are in a situation where you have exposed your point and then listened actively to your counterpart. And you notice that the message you are trying to get through is not understood. This could be due to many reasons: the way you expressed it; preconceived ideas or lack of listening on the other side; too complex to be understood in one shot; requiring prerequisite knowledge that the other person may not have... What is required in this situation is first of all to acknowledge the misperception, then provide clarification and conclude with listening again and probing for acceptance.

* acknowledge the misperception: prove by repeating as much as possible the words of the person that you acknowledge the fact that there is a misperception. Make it clear that the fault is yours. The misperception or misunderstanding has happened because you have not been able yet to convey your message clearly enough to convince the person.

For example: « I hear you say that you understand that this project will last 2 years and require 10 internal staff members. I have not been clear in my explanations and I'd like to clarify this very specific point. »

* provide clarification on the piece that has not been well understood.

In our example: « The project would indeed last 2 years and 10 resources with the currently defined scope. However, one option I presented is to resource with a 50/50 split between internal and external. Also, you have the second option I mentioned of reducing the initial scope to get the bulk of the benefits in a shorter timeframe if you believe this is feasible. »

* and conclude with listening again and probing for acceptance.

In our example: « I saw you nod your head when I clarified that we could staff the project with 50% of external resources. Are we in agreement that this option is a good approach to build upon for the project? »

2. Skepticism

Skepticism very often means doubts and desire to suspend judgment on new information that is not very well supported by argument or evidence.  When you notice that the information you provided is not well accepted and that it is not due to a misunderstanding but rather skepticism, you are in a situation that requires assurance or reassurance. I.e.  acknowledge the skepticism, then provide assurance and conclude with listening again and probing for acceptance.

* acknowledge the skepticism: you will often have anticipated this potential reaction as you reviewed your proposal or speech. You did put yourself in the shoes of your counterpart for a moment and tried to see from his eyes what could be doubtful with your project or idea you're selling. In other instances, you can recall the times when you were not familiar with the project or idea and potentially shared similar doubts. Use these to show that you understand the skepticism of your counterpart.

For example: « I see that you seem to have doubts with the 2 years and 240 man month effort. To be honest, it was also my first reaction when I saw these estimates.«

* provide assurance on the piece that is generating skepticism. If you can, provide more facts and evidence that the information you provided is certain. Industry benchmarks or studies, figures from prior projects, references (especially from persons your counterpart knows well), track record, statistics,... are as many sources you may want to use to assure the person on the topic.

In our example: « So, I challenged the team to understand the details. And, they were able to show me the figures from a prior project of similar complexity and scope that had cost 360mm with 12 resources over 2.5 Years. Thanks to that earlier experience, they were able to reduce the duration of our project to 2 years and the team size to 10 resources instead of 12. A 30% improvement with a team that has already undertaken a similar challenge! »

* and conclude with listening again and probing for acceptance.

In our example: « You appeared to be in tune with me when I exposed the way the estimates were built. Are you more comfortable with this aspect of the project? »

3. Concerns

« I have a concern... » is the traditional method of bringing up an issue to a meeting. It is a very strong statement and if unsettled a concern about something will stop it from being done. If your counterpart is not expressing his concerns openly but you can tell that there is a real issue for him or her that is not being addressed, ask the question. « In your opinion, what is the key issue or concern with the proposed project that we shall address? ». Again, what is required in this situation is first to acknowledge the concern, then to reaffirm the strong points of your proposal, seek resolution and conclude with listening again and probing for acceptance.

* acknowledge the concern: make sure that you understand the exact concern. Is it cost, time, contents, approach, staffing, skills, payment terms? Prove by repeating as much as possible the words of the person that you have really understood where the concern is.

For example: « I hear you mention as a concern the fact that the project will last 2 years and require 10 internal staff members.  And that the duration is a real issue for you because your window of opportunity is 18 months to bring the new services to the market. »

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* reaffirm the strong points of your proposal and use established agreements to reinforce the foreseen benefits. Restate the needs/benefits equation for the project.

In our example: « This new project is absolutely required to enable the company to deliver these new services and earlier studies have established that amendments to existing solutions would cost more and take longer. Additionally, we are in agreement on the scope of the project in terms of contents and resources required to achieve it.  The project will enable the new services to be developed and operated efficiently. »

* seek resolution looking for solutions with your counterpart that would remove his concerns.

In our example: « The project will indeed last 2 years and 10 resources with the currently defined scope. However, an option we looked at is to reduce the duration by bringing extra resources to run in parallel some tasks that are currently planned sequentially. Also, we have the option I mentioned earlier to reduce the initial scope to focus on very critical functionality that will get you the bulk of the benefits in 18 months with some manual processes while developing the full functionality in the next release. »

* and conclude with listening again and probing for acceptance.

In our example: « I saw you nod your head when we rediscussed the option to add external staff the project. Are we in agreement that this is a good approach to move forward on the project? »

Of course, PMs are not professional sales people, but mastering the basics for responding to resistance during calls or meetings is a very useful asset in our professional and personal life.

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