Complex diplomacy: how to deal with conflicting demands and information overload
In today’s fast-paced world of work, there is a constant need to negotiate a compromise between conflicting demands across multiple projects. But by implementing the right strategies and not succumbing to the desire to multi-task, project managers and team leads can successfully rise to the challenges of the digital age.
Tight deadlines, limited budgets and a variety of different stakeholders, clients and resources make the role of the project manager a tricky one.
But add to this advancements in digital technology, which have changed the way in which projects are managed, and new difficulties arise. By increasing the speed at which projects are now completed but increasing the volume of information included within a conflict emerges, with the potential to actually slow the project down.
At times, the communication streams within a project can often be louder than the project itself causing us to become distracted and focused on the wrong actions.
Project managers are faced with an overwhelming amount of data to process, opposing opinions and differing priorities. This information overload is coming at them at an astonishing rate from a multitude of communication channels e.g. email, Slack, WhatsApp, text, Zoom, Skype.
Now, more than ever, project managers need to be able to manage multiple streams of information, a variety of stakeholders and conflicting demands, all while role modelling the behaviours they require of their team.
The good news is these challenges can be addressed. Here are three key stages project managers and team leads can implement to help them effectively navigate within an era of information overload.
1. Scanning the horizon
Project managers should avoid getting bogged down with the minutiae of their own project. Encourage them to step back, look at the bigger picture and see how all projects in the studio are panning out. They should be clear what the objectives and deliverables of their project are as well as gain a high-level understanding of other projects.
Other projects need to be appreciated, particularly in small companies where sharing resources is likely. In essence, project managers need to be able to switch easily between detail and the bigger picture on projects throughout the company.
With respect to shared resourcing, potential conflicts should be looked out for. It’s good practice to regularly check in with the team on where they are with the deliverables on a project whilst also respecting the actions they need to complete for other projects, as this will contribute to a clearer picture and wider understanding of everybody's commitments.
By keeping the communication line open, project managers will harbour honesty around managing expectations. This will mean the team are more likely to come to them if they are experiencing problems and can highlight any challenges which may cause the project to not be delivered on time, to the required standard or in the budget.
2. Getting their ducks in a row
It is important for project managers to constantly engage and assess their priorities. One tool I use is a weekly priority call (as a minimum) as this is essential to understanding where each project is, taking in feedback from the team and knowing what the next steps are, with the aim of making decisions about what actions to take.
Key questions to ask as part of this meeting for each project include:
Is this already live or in development? (I usually ask ‘is this on fire?’)
What are our Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) with this client?
What, if any, associated financial implications are there?
What resources do we have available to use?
The outputs of this meeting will help project managers and their team to prioritise actions, focusing on understanding the urgency and importance of each project and task. These questions also serve to identify and acknowledge the potential impact on the organisation and include this within any decision making.
While all clients are important, directors are often going to be concerned about losing big clients and will, therefore, have an often unwritten hierarchy of clients based on perceived value. This too has to be considered by project managers when identifying which projects are deemed most important.
3. Leveraging relationships
At this stage, your project managers have stood back and scanned the horizon, taking into consideration their own projects and others throughout the company. They have also met with their team and analysed where they are with each project, reviewing any areas of concern before prioritising actions to be taken based on urgency and importance. Now it is time for them to communicate and leverage their relationships.
Stakeholders and clients become most frustrated when they feel like they are finding out information too late to be able to take any actions themselves. It’s therefore imperative for project managers to keep stakeholders and the client informed of any detrimental issues at the earliest opportunity.
There is a necessity for speed here as this allows clients the opportunity to communicate internally to their stakeholders, managing internal expectations. This example lends itself to the typical ‘delay’, and requires project managers to manage their own expectations of the clients.
This creates a healthy relationship built on give and take, making the project collaborative between the project manager and the client. Communicating any challenges or delays is easier when the relationship with the client is built on trust and integrity, where the project manager has a reputation for fulfilling their duties on schedule.
This means any challenges are the exception rather than the norm.
A note on multi-tasking…
While these three stages will support project managers in delivering a successful project, they will not remove the multiple flows of information from a variety of channels – or what I term ‘the noise’.
A default approach many project managers take is to multi-task, feeling that they are proactively managing each project and it’s deliverables and not realising that they are actually just reacting. This can lead to the illusion of progress where no progress is being made.
Two key ways project managers can avoid this are first, to plan their schedule, whether that be daily or weekly, and then make a concerted effort to stick to tasks until they are completed.
Second, to not react when ad-hoc tasks or challenges arise. Increasing the time and space between the trigger and a response will give project managers an opportunity to gain perspective and decide the appropriate action if any action is required at all.
Be the harbour in the storm
By implementing these stages, project managers will be able to take in both the bigger picture and the details of their project, effectively identify urgent and important actions that need to be taken, and proactively manage the expectations of their stakeholders and clients.
Although the potential for information overload remains, your project managers are now equipped with techniques to avoid multi-tasking and stay on track with their objectives.
A key takeaway here is that these stages and tools must be implemented in advance and sustained even when challenges strike.
“We are going through a period of intense change in probably every aspect of our lives - consistency, trust, values and honesty are like a harbour in the storm.” – Emma-Sue Prince, author of 7 Skills for the Future.
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Following a 15 year career in project and account management, Alison recognised the necessity for digital project managers to have an enhanced skill set. In 2015, she obtained a postgraduate certificate in the delivery of soft skills and experiential learning. Alison furthered her studies into soft skills by training with author Emma-Sue Prince...