4th Sigma: Project Charters, Part 3 – Building Consensus


A Project Charter is a document that describes a project, names the people who will perform the project, what their roles will be and the name of the project sponsor (the individual that requested the project). Any book on Six Sigma will tell you why you need a Charter (to clarify and document the project, and drive but disagreements), but few of these books… and courses and classroom training…  goes very far in helping you to resolve the disagreements when they arise. Partially, because the Six Sigma process is supposed to identify candidates for Black and Green Belts based on their ability to resolve problems and drive consensus, HOW to develop consensus is frequently ignored or at dealt with only superficially. Likewise, because three are so many other books, courses and methodologies out there many Six Sigma sources feel that this is best left to others to deal
with. However, if you are sitting on top of a contentious project that is stalled or about to stall you’re probably thinking, “If any of you geniuses out there have an answer for me, would it kill you to tell me? PLEASE don’t tell me I need to go out and read a 350 page book to figure this out!”

Nope! It can be a lot easier than that. There are a lot of “if’s” when you deal with opposition, but there are some basic techniques that will help you. Every one of you has a different set of negotiating skills, and each of you may be in a different stage of project completion, so not all solutions will fit everyone. You need to pick and choose, and try different approaches to see what works most successfully and which individuals respond to what technique. Having said that, let’s get started by looking at a few different situations:

Early Grumblings: In the very earliest stages of putting together a Charter, you may hear a lot of grumbling from a lot of people. Always listen for this in the early stages
of a project. This could be caused by anything, including a lack of familiarity with the Charter process. See if there is any pattern to everyone’s discomfort. If complaints are widespread and coherent, have one-on-one talks with a few people and see what their issues are. There may be legitimate reasons why this is a bad project.  Decide if you agree with the issues, if there are any obvious changes to be made, or if there is no specific issue… just normal differences of opinion. Keep in mind that if this is a bad project, it’s OK, it’s even a good idea to stop a bad project.

The Usual Suspects: If you deal with a large number of projects, there are certain individuals that you deal with regularly. Some of these individuals may be difficult to deal
with and require much more time and effort to work with. If certain people you regularly
deal with continue to be difficult, and regularly block projects there are two approaches you may want to consider. First,  have a private conversation with the individual to find out what is there issue. They may just be overloaded and find that attacking a project takes less time than understanding it. Or they may just be naturally cautious. Alternatively, they may just want attention. Ask them, “How can this project be changed to get your buy-in?” Find out what is the minimal change to move forward. If this approach works, then meet with them before the start of every project to see if they will approve or not. If this doesn’t work, have informal meetings with other members to see if they favor the project, and there is just one “dissenter”. If that’s the case, concentrate on building the consensus with receptive members and move on.

Official Opposition: Some people always oppose your project. Not because they are difficult to deal with, but because they believe this is their job. They may be a Regulator (compliance, corporate security, IT standards, legal, HR, etc.). This is another opportunity
for a private conversation. Being a Regulator means dealing with a lot of opposition, which is rarely a lot of fun. Reacting to this, some Regulators just say no to everything. Since your Project Charter is just part of a larger process, you can have a separate discussion with this Regulator and remind them that more and more of these Charters are on the way. Find out if the process itself can be adjusted to minimize resistance. Perhaps this Regulator just doesn’t have the information (or the background) to understand your project. Having
pre-meetings could improve success.

Grudge Match:  Here the problem isn’t you or your project, it’s two parties on the team that can never agree on anything. Meet with both, separately, and be an intermediary. Don’t try to take sides, just find out what they are disagreeing on and what sort of compromises they are willing to make. See if you can get them mostly on the same page now, and in a position to settle their remaining issues in the Project Charter meeting.  Don’t want to have private deals or secrete agreements that are outside of the charter. Just try to broker a deal, or move them closer to an agreement.

Public Theater: If you take all of the steps above, you should have diffused most of the issues for disruption and disagreement before the meeting takes place. Issues will still pop up, and you should be prepared for them. Some people just like to put on a show, and a public forum is their opportunity to raise an issue. Their behavior may be because they are naturally difficult to deal with, or they feel the firm has ignored an important point or even because they have a legitimate problem and are frustrated that people don’t understand them. It’s draining and demoralizing for the entire team to deal with a disruptive individual in a meeting.

The Meeting: You’ve now dealt with just about every problem that you can before the meeting starts. That doesn’t mean that the meeting will be conflict free, but it means that you have taken care of most known reasons for the meeting derailing. There can be legitimate issues, and there should be a discussion of real problems or missing elements. This should be a rational, non-emotional meeting without personal attacks. You should assume that some changes will be needed in the original Charter, but that’s what this process is all about. Ask everyone just how far apart they are, and what there is any common ground. If, after you’ve taken all the steps above you still face insurmountable opposition, there may be something fundamentally wrong with the project. Consider if the project is flawed, or if the group accepts the project but doesn’t see it as a priority. Is there another higher priority project that should replace it?

Re-Schedule: A legitimate reason for opposing a project is that this is simply the wrong time for this project. Can you reschedule? Can you replace this with another project?
Is it truly that this is the wrong time, or is this just a low priority… whenever it’s scheduled?

There is no magic bullet that can fix all problems. However, the reasons for opposition can often be dealt with, and they are usually best dealt with before you meet as a group. If you can deal with as many of these problems as possible before you meet,  the meting no only becomes more productive it becomes more enjoyable for all involved. When you see that there is a lot of opposition to a specific project, determine if these are real problems and try to address them; even if it requires updating the Charter. There will be projects that should never be started, because something is wrong with them. There are other projects that are too strongly opposed or too weakly supported; these projects are likely to fail, or not deliver the expected benefits, or require far more resources than assumed. The Charter process will document the reasons why these projects never got started…. Which is better than doing a post-mortem on a costly product that failed. If you have a list of projects, just move on to a more popular project and report back to your managers on why this one shouldn’t go forward. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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