Working to a difficult project brief

Project leaders from time to find find themselves working to a difficult or even impossible-seeming brief. Two approaches offer escape from the difficulty. Each involves finding ‘wriggle room’. The first involves a creative reformulation of the project drawing on the marketing maxim ‘what business are we in?’ The second involves renegotiating the project brief.

A project can be seen as a little business, with its business objectives, strategy, constraints and so on. The project brief represents the description of the strategy that the company is following

What business are we in?’

In organisational theory, the question ‘ what business are we in ’ was popularized many years ago in a famous article by Theodore Leavitt.

The railroads collapsed because they thought they were in the railroad business, when really they would have been thinking about themselves as being in the transportation business.

If we translate this into project terms, you could say that the corporate brief was being seen as ‘how to run a railroad business’. Leavitt argued that the project brief should have been challenged and redefined as ‘how to run a transportation business’.

There will always be wriggle room

Continuing to relate this to project leadership, the practical question becomes ‘How can we redefine our brief?’. Here, the general principle is that projects always define complete definition. This means that there will always be’ wriggle room’ or scope for redefining the project. This is where understanding of creative problem-solving, and negotiation come into play.

A good test of clarity of project definition is through asking the simple question: ‘what are we really trying to do?’. A further question is ‘what seems to be the key block or obstacle to achieving our goal ?.

Everything is negotiable (to some degree)..

The context within projects is the need to move from a project as it was initially proposed, to one which offers something acceptable to the client, even it is not what was originally requested.

The fundamental principle is to find a ‘win-win’. This rarely happens unless the project team has built up trust with the client. (Trust-building deserves a posting of its own).

However, professional negotiators argue that everything is negotiable.

George Kohlrieser, a leadership professor and hostage negotiator uses his negotiation system to show how leaders can overcome conflict, influence others and raise performance.

To go more deeply

Goal orientation for redefining your project brief is supported by creative leadership. It can be supported by various techniques or technique systems. For example, A rather formal problem-solving approach (TOTE), is useful for inexperienced teams when there is a preference for analytical methods.

Another description of Goal orientation can be found in described in . Do not be put off by the simple example. The article outlines a powerful analytical approach which (like TOTE) is valuable for inexperienced project teams.

This now-aging text Creativity and Problem Solving at Work may still be available in your regional Business School library. It contains one of the early accounts of problem definition through goal orientation.

A newer text is Tony Proctor’s Creative Problem-Solving, which has a business school emphasis, updating Creativity and Problem Solving at Work.

The negotiation system recommended by George Kohhreiser is particularly relevant to project leaders facing difficult project briefs.

Tips for leading difficult projects

Readers of this Blog are invited to contribute tips for leaders facing difficult project briefs? Messages of success (or traps to avoid) are welcomed, as well as unanswered questions.

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