Do Project Managers Really Have to Take Hostages?

February 24, 2013  |   General,Project Management   |     |   0 Comment

In the 1998 film The Negotiator, Samuel L. Jackson plays Danny Roman, a Chicago police hostage negotiator wrongfully accused of killing his partner. Roman pursues the desperate action of taking hostages (actually, key members of the Chicago Police Department) so he can buy time to prove his innocence. In a race against the very police force he both works for and has taken hostage, he must negotiate with Chris Sabian, played by Kevin Spacey, another veteran CPD hostage negotiator who’s charged with peacefully ending Roman’s siege – all while battling police corruption and an overzealous SWAT team leader seeking to end the situation at whatever cost.

How in the world, you might ask, does this relate to project management? Must project managers take hostages as part of their jobs? Well, no…at least I hope not. But it may relate more than you think since project managers often find themselves in negotiations over scope, schedule, cost, stakeholder expectations, team member needs, and a myriad of other items necessary to deliver a project that meets their customers’ needs.

I got to thinking about project management and negotiation after reading 12 Essential Negotiating Strategies For Consultants. As the title suggests, the article describes key negotiating strategies for consultants, which also relates to project management and The Negotiator illustrates. Excerpted below are the three strategies I thought were most important along with applications for project managers and illustrations from our movie (warning: spoiler alert):

Point 1:

  • Good negotiation starts with knowing what you want and putting it forth in conversation. This requires a substantial amount of preparation and asking the right questions through the discovery process, rather than improvising responses in calls and emails. When you negotiate from a position of strong preparation, the other party will be more comfortable meeting you on your terms, based on your expertise.
  • PM Application: Since negotiations usually happen around scope, cost, schedule, quality and the other usual project dynamics (like HR), you need to work with your project sponsor and project team members to understand the situation. Know what the boundaries are and what issues you might face when you push past those boundaries. If your customer wants to add scope, what does that mean to schedule / budget / quality dynamics? Do you have the resources to deliver the extra scope? If you understand those items going into the negotiation, you can have a more comfortable, fact-based negotiating position.
  • The Negotiator Illustration: Danny Roman knows what he wants from the moment he decides to take the extreme action of taking hostages at the CPD: to prove his innocence. Roman clearly prepared well before he began his mission. After he takes the hostages, he blocks windows, doors, and vents to prevent the police from having “eyes and ears” into the room he’s taken over. Roman brought the equipment necessary to implement this tactic, knowing that although he’d be outnumbered, he’d retain a tactical advantage strengthened only by his ability to trade hostages for considerations. As a project manager, you’re obliged to know your project’s flex points as you prepare for negotiations. This enables you to make the best strategic and tactical decisions for your customer and project.

Point 2:

  • Consulting firms bring a range of skills and hard-fought experience to bear on client problems. This is expertise that clients rarely have within their own organization.
  • PM Application: You were asked to manage the project for a reason: because your project sponsor, client executive, or some other important customer recognized that you have the necessary skills and background to deliver the goods. However, project managers must navigate competing demands and sometimes feel obligated to agree to things that are ultimately bad for the overall project. If, after researching options and investigating possibilities with your team, you believe the best answer may not please your client, remember that your client put you in the PM role because they trust your judgment and ability to deliver: don’t deprive them of that in the face of pressure.
  • The Negotiator Illustration: Roman understands the rules of engagement in a hostage situation; he wrote the playbook for the CPD. He also knows his police unit is likely corrupt, so he requests Sabian to take the role of counter-negotiator because he knows Sabian will relentlessly pursue the truth and that Sabian will play by the CPD’s hostage situation rules of engagement. Both sides of the hostage situation rely on Sabian’s expertise, which at one point enables Sabian to declare that he is in absolute charge and that all actions must be approved by him. Sabian’s skill as a negotiator, and his impartiality relative to Roman’s police unit, put him in a unique position of strength. As a project manager, you have this unique position as well: nobody knows the project like you do and nobody can find solutions like you can (although I don’t advocate declaring yourself an absolute ruler like Sabian does).

Point 3:

  • Don’t give up in your negotiations until you’ve exhausted possibilities that meet your shared interests and help your firm create a quality product.
  • PM Application: A key tenet of excellent project management is to pursue solutions that balance your client’s requests while maintaining your project’s ability to deliver. In other words, you must be strategically flexible. I’ve often seen project managers take inflexible positions when opportunities and possibilities are raised. Your job as PM is to listen carefully to your client’s requests and develop creative solutions with your team to meet client requests as best possible. If you cannot fully fulfill the request, then your role is to have a reasonable, thought-out answer as to why not — and then to offer alternatives with advantages and disadvantages for mutual consideration.
  • The Negotiator Illustration: Throughout The Negotiator, Roman and Sabian demonstrate flexibility.  Roman releases hostages in exchange for considerations and information, while Sabian flexes the rulebook to prove to Roman that he’s trustworthy. The inflexible SWAT team leader mentioned earlier ultimately makes a tactical move that completely backfires, proving that the best negotiations involve constant give-and-take. As a project manager, you’ll find the best solutions when you demonstrate flexibility as you help your clients and team members deliver the best possible project outcome.

Top-tier project managers clearly must be good at negotiation, as must top-tier police department hostage negotiators. They must:

  • Have clear visions of what they want in a negotiation and prepare thoroughly to communicate those visions
  • Trust their expertise
  • Be flexible, flexible, flexible while adhering to a path that meets the project’s and customer’s shared interests