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I've been running into this a lot lately between bosses and clients. I am told about a problem where there is only 1 solution. e.g.:

When asked to create a job posting and in describing what we do:

me:"we want to use the term accepted by the industry" 
boss:"well that's unacceptable - I think the term is outdated - find another"

or When implementing a training course and the client wants to have a quiz where they can tell who has taken it:

me:"the solution has to be routed through authentication services to ensure they are a member of your staff and to identify who is using the system like you want"
client:"well that is unacceptable - they shouldn't need to authenticate"

And it goes back and forth and eventually the project is forgotten or abandoned. Is there an approach to dealing with these sorts of situations that can achieve a more direct compromise rather than just abandoning things?

  • 1
    Is this actually a project management question? Seems like it might fit better on The Workplace. – Todd A. Jacobs Aug 6 '14 at 19:28
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    I see this as a project communication question. – Mark Phillips Aug 7 '14 at 2:26
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I see two (or well, three, if getting a new job counts ;-) ) possible ways to deal with such situations in general:

  • When you receive a refusal like above: ask for clarification or more explanation, open a discussion to understand the other party's view and to come to a common agreement based on facts instead of feelings.
  • To avoid receiving refusals: make sure you fully understand the problem and see all possible solutions, then present your opinion in a more cooperative, softer way.

To deal with refusal

You told your client "we have to do so-and-so" and got refused. As you are most likely well aware, it is quite difficult to move forward from such a direct conflict. You may try to navigate back towards an open-ended constructive discussion, as well as increase your own awareness of the situation, the other party and the available options.

Ask the client in order to understand why (s)he thinks your solution is unacceptable, and what would be an acceptable solution (and why). You may use questions like

  • "Could you explain what makes you think this is unacceptable?"
  • "Is there any information you are aware of (but I may not be) which makes this suggestion unacceptable for you?"
  • "Is there a way to improve my original suggestion which solves your concern?"
  • "Is there a better alternative?"
  • "Why do you see X as a better solution than my original proposal?"

What is crucial at this stage is to stay very calm and professional, to avoid making this a personal confrontation ("you dare to refuse my idea, so I will show you who is the boss by crushing whatever alternatives you offer!"). Keep focusing on the technical aspects, pros and cons of each proposal. Try to forecast the consequences, benefits and risks of each option. Get a realistic, fact based evaluation agreed upon by both parties. E.g. to your boss's reply above you may propose collecting some Google stats to determine which is the most used term, or look up Wikipedia to clarify the commonly agreed meaning / usage of the terms in question.

All this does not guarantee success, but may give you a chance (depending on the personalities involved, past conflict history, office politics etc.)

To prevent refusal

As I noted above, once you get a straight refusal to your proposal, it is very difficult to navigate out of it and get to an agreement without one of the parties losing face. So to give yourself better chances for success, it is recommended to present your suggestions in a way to avoid straight refusal if at all possible.

I see basically two ways to help this: first of all, make sure you actually understand the problem to be solved. The refusal may be the result of your proposed solution being inappropriate due to some factor you are unaware of. So have a discussion with the client to ensure you are aware of all important information prior to making your proposal. And also try to think with your client's head: e.g. you may be a technical guy, whereas (s)he is a businessperson, seeing the same facts in a totally different light. Presenting a technically sound solution which does not take into account the needs of the business is surely not going to work. So make sure you understand what's important for her, what's her actual problem and what kind of solution would be acceptable for her.

The other important factor is how you present your solution. If you say "we want to do this and this", you basically offer an "accept or refuse" choice, which obviously increases the risk of refusal. (And even if the client accepts, she may not be fully satisfied with it, may be just too timid to voice her concerns, but these concerns may surface in the long run in much more unpleasant ways...) So it is better to present your suggestion in an open-ended manner:

  • "Based on my understanding of the problem, we have the following options: A, B and C. Of these, I think B has very high costs as it requires setting up a new server. And I think C is quite risky because it allows unauthenticated users to access our services. So I think A is the best option overall."

Even if you really only see one possible solution (which is rarely the case), you can present it in a softer way:

  • "After evaluating our options, I think the only feasible solution is A."

This is better than saying "We have to do A" because it is easier for your partner to ask for clarification, suggest alternatives or point out problems without openly confronting you.

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You control scope, cost, schedule; everything you do responds to those numbers.

First, I'd make sure that my team and if possibly my customer have received the requisite training (that's a joke - go view the video, you'll thank me).

Then I just add the clients' requirements to the requirements, project the impact on cost, scope, schedule, and quality and let the client make an informed decision.

me:"we want to use the term accepted by the industry" boss:"well that's unacceptable - I think the term is outdated - find another"

OK, We'll check on that and see which way the industry is evolving. I'll just insert a new workpackage here that will delay your schedule by between 1 and 4 weeks - we'll project 1, and that will increase the cost by $X. Of course if you are right and the term is outdated, it will also increase the costs in other ways - as I said, the industry uses this term, and resumes, capability statements, etc. will be phrased in terms of industry best practice. I'll work up a better cost estimate after the research, but I'd estimate it will increase the total cost project by 10%.

me:"the solution has to be routed through authentication services to ensure they are a member of your staff and to identify who is using the system like you want" client:"well that is unacceptable - they shouldn't need to authenticate"

Understood; we can do the project without authentication. Let me draw your attention to the tension between that new requirement and your earlier non-functional requirement on security. The only way to reconcile those two requirements is to implement some pretty cutting edge technology that I can't guarantee is reliable, nor can I guarantee that the user experience will match your requirements in that area.

I'm not comfortable with this new requirement, so we're going to re-assess the impact on the project and let you know of any changes in cost/scope/schedule. We're also going to do a quick risk assessment (at our own cost), and as a part of the project acceptance test/closeout, we'll ask for a letter from your general counsel stating that we did the project according to your requirements and that we are indemnified from any legal, ethical or other consequences.

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As others note, data is your friend. Never argue with the premise. Treat it as rational, and then present the consequences (as noted above). The requirement conflicts with...., The requirement would add x dollars and/or y time to the project; the requirement adds these new risks based on this data....

Again, as others have noted, you don't want to turn the discussion binary--my "knowledge" vs your opinion. You want to tease out what lies behind the requirement and answer with enough detail that the client has the opportunity to "rephrase" or rethink (and you have the opportunity to re-hear--sometimes what we hear isn't what was said or intended) without getting ego involved.

And, sometimes, the culture is too toxic to address such issues. In that case, your resume and the many recruiters and online job forums are your friends.

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