Tips for Negotiating With Project Stakeholders

StakeholdersProject managers have to be expert negotiators, able to forge agreements between people who often have competing agendas. For example, the sales team may be determined to speed up a project so that it launches before the holiday shopping season, while Product Development wants to delay long enough to include a hot new feature. Meanwhile, the development team warns that a change in either schedule or scope will wreak havoc on the work they’ve already done. Whatever the dynamics, the project manager has to labor between parties to develop an acceptable solution.

Negotiating with stakeholders is tricky. They can be possessive of a project and pressured about its outcome. Because they have so much riding on its success, they can become prickly when issues challenge their assumptions or their comfort level. At the same time, their lack of technical expertise can make it difficult to understand the options that are viable for resolving an issue. And, of course, project managers can’t unilaterally impose a solution. They have to rely on their negotiating skills to keep things moving forward.

In the end, all participants want the same thing: a successful project that is complete in scope and delivered on-time and on-budget. For this reason, maintaining a perspective of partnership often pays the most dividends.

Think About Their Point of View: Recognizing why your stakeholder approaches an issue in a certain way is as important as understanding what they’re arguing for in the first place. For example, grasping the Sales department’s considerations – their overall targets, the competitive pressure they face and the demands salespeople hear from customers – will allow you to have more effective discussions around their concerns about schedules or feature sets. Similarly, understanding the technical and logistical constraints of the development staff will lead to more meaningful conversations about delivery and quality control.

Be Prepared. You can’t go into a negotiation assuming you’ll wing it, so anticipate your partner’s concerns, and be ready to address them. If you know tradeoffs will be required, outline the stakeholder’s choices and explain the impact each will have on the project’s scope, timeframe, and budget. In some cases, schedule is the overriding concern. In others, it might be cost. Bear those priorities in mind as you lead the discussion. It doesn’t make sense to stress the schedule-related aspects of a problem when the stakeholder’s mind is on how much money they’re spending.

Be Honest: It’s just as important for stakeholders to understand the challenges you face. So be proactive about sharing your perspective and remember that the stakeholder’s goals are impacted by many of the same things that influence yours: You all want the project to succeed, for example, and for your company to be well positioned in the market. Always be forthright in discussions about business outlook, project status and any difficulties you may anticipate. Not only will this provide a complete picture, it could help uncover solutions as the stakeholders weigh in with their own experience and ideas.

Listen: In any negotiation, it’s important that both sides be heard. Be sure to let the stakeholder outline their viewpoint and ask questions when necessary to make sure you understand where they’re coming from. As your discussion continues, address the issues they’ve raised or promise to research areas that you can’t reply to on the spot. Too often, negotiations go off-track when one party believes their concerns are being given short shrift.

Of course, the situation is complicated by the unique place where PMs sit. Responsible for addressing everyone’s concerns, they almost never have the pure authority to pursue a particular approach without building some kind of consensus. Even if they did, successful projects are rarely built by edict. The best project managers have a knack for getting all sides to understand the others’ point of view and work cooperatively to attain the effort’s overriding goals.

Stakeholder Management can be tricky. Learn how to work with your internal partners more effectively in Merit Career Development’s Stakeholder Management course. To learn more, please contact Jim Wynne at