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Negotiating Achievable Commitments in Software Project Management

Negotiating Commitments

Negotiations are in order whenever there’s a gap between the schedule or functionality project stakeholders demand and your best prediction of the future as embodied in project estimates. Plan to engage in good-faith negotiations with customers, senior managers, and project team members about achievable commitments. Principled negotiation, a method to strive for mutually acceptable agreements, involves four key precepts (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 1992):

  • Separate the people from the problem

  • Focus on interests, not positions

  • Invent options for mutual gain

  • Insist on using objective criteria

Separate the People from the Problem

Negotiation is difficult when emotions get in the way. It’s also hard to negotiate with individuals who wield more organizational power than you do. Before you dismiss a manager or customer as an unreasonable slave driver who makes impossible demands, recognize his legitimate concerns and objectives, including commitments others might have made that put him in a bind.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

A marketing manager who establishes a strong position in a negotiation (“This product absolutely must ship by November 5th!”) can find it difficult to change that position. If you, the project manager, define an opposing but equally entrenched position (“We can’t possibly be done before mid-January!”), conflict is inevitable. Rather than reaching an impasse by defending your terrain to the death, seek to understand the interests behind each party’s stated position.

Perhaps marketing’s real interest is to have a demo version available for an important trade show. Your interest might be to avoid burning out your team with massive overtime for four months and establishing a track record of failure. Maybe you and the marketing manager can agree on a core set of features and performance targets that would satisfy marketing’s primary interest and be achievable by the convention deadline. Delivery of the completed product could then be deferred to a more reasonable date.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

Negotiation is the way to close the gap between polarized positions. Begin with a win-win objective in mind (Boehm and Ross 1989), and look for creative ways to satisfy each party’s interests. Think of feasible outcomes to which you are willing to commit and present those as options.

If you can’t commit to fully satisfying a key stakeholder’s demands, state what you are able to deliver. Could you make a more ambitious commitment if certain conditions were met, such as shedding your team’s maintenance responsibilities for existing products? If your team is pressured to work a lot of unpaid overtime to get the job done, will the company grant them compensating vacation time afterward?

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

Negotiations based on data and analysis are more constructive than those based on faith and opinions. Data from previous projects and estimates based on a rational planning process will help you negotiate with someone who insists his grandmother could finish the project in half the time you’ve proposed. When you’re relying on commitments from a third party, such as a subcontractor or a vendor, trust data and history over promises. Keep these commitment tips in mind:

  • When requesting commitments from other people, remember that an estimate is not the same as a promise. Expect to receive a range for an estimate, not a single number or date. Alternatively, request a confidence level, a probability that the estimate will be met.

  • A common reason for commitment failure is making “best case” commitments rather than “expected case” commitments. Some teams define internal target delivery dates that are more optimistic than their publicly committed delivery dates (see Chapter 10, “Saving for a Rainy Day”). This sensible approach helps compensate for imperfect estimates and unanticipated eventualities.

  • Improve your ability to meet commitments by creating more realistic estimates. Base your estimates on data of actual performance collected from previous activities.

  • To avoid overlooking necessary work, use planning checklists that list all the activities you might have to perform for common tasks.

  • Contingency buffers provide protection against estimation errors, erroneous assumptions, potential risks that materialize, and scope growth (see Chapter 10).

Once some project requirements are defined, one approach to making commitments is to have team members “sign up” for specific task responsibilities (McConnell 1996; Jeffries, Anderson, and Hendrickson 2001). This is a characteristic of an organization with a healthy commitment ethic. Such voluntary personal commitments—based on each person’s evaluation of what it will take to accomplish a goal—motivate team members to make the project succeed. A manager cannot impose this level of enthusiasm and commitment upon others.

Your committed delivery dates might be farther out than your managers or customers would like, but if you consistently fulfill the commitments you make, other people will know they can count on you and your team.