Occasionally, key stakeholders of a given project (perhaps those with organizational authority several levels above that of the project manager) will have conflicting requirements or demands of the project manager. How can a project manager deconflict these requests when the stakeholders (who may be peers) can or will not come to an agreement?
Probably the best you can do is to gather stakeholders in a single room, lock the door, make a list of conflicting requests/goals (all goals actually), and not let anybody out until they prioritize the list in some way.
Let them have their discussions, let them have their fights. Answer their questions and make clarifications.
But as long as they're peers and none of them can make the call for anybody else it's their job to reach some kind of consensus. However it's PM's job to facilitate this meeting.
It can happen that, for whatever reason, they won't give up that easy and will oppose against having a meeting. Then PM's goal is the same except they have to run between one office and another passing bits of information between one and another trying to help them to sort the list of goals/requests. The pattern is similar, the difference is in time consumption.
I recently picked up a great trick from the book "Elements of Scrum" on managing trade offs.
The authors suggest a simple forced rank Four by Four table.
Along the top list:
FIXED FIRM FLEXIBLE FLUID
Along the right side list:
You then get four Xs. One X per column (Fixed, Firm, Flexible, Fluid). You get the stakeholders and sponsor to agree on this at the start of the program.
I am using this on a high risk project right now. Date is fixed, Quality is firm, Scope is flexible and Resources are fluid. We've run into a lot of issues and I've been able to go back to the chart to form a basis of discussion on what we will do.
Every single time we've either adjusted the scope or added resources (bodies, money, hardware) to the project. Halfway through the project and the chart is holding.
I am making the assumption that the conflicting demands are in the form of changes to the objectives and deliverables of the project, and hence can be considered as change requests, so I'm answering from that perspective. There may be other perspectives around timescales, resources, etc.
The PM should be working to the content of the Project Initiation Document (PID) and should have a strategy agreed with the Executive / Sponsor in terms of how to deal with change requests that move the scope beyond a given tolerance. It doesn't matter who is asking for a change: if this will take the scope beyond the tolerance, the agreed approach needs to kick in - and I would recommend that the normal route would be for the PM to escalate the change to the Project Board. Unless the change is adding value, the Board would/should be completely within its rights to reject the request, no matter who is asking for the change.
Pragmatically, there may be political reasons for going along with a change (ie the CEO wants it, and won't take "no" for an answer), in which case it gets logged, included in the scope, and the project is re-planned taking this into account.
In short, have a strategy for dealing with change, and use it.
Conflicting goals and stakeholder demands are the norm. Not only do you have stated objectives that differ but you also have hidden goals and agendas. The latter is even more problematic because you cannot see them, hear them, or respond to them.
For those that are known, hitting them head on is your only option. If these differing objectives and demands directly threaten your success, it is the joint responsibility/accountability of PM and sponsor to resolve to the degree possible.
You need to deploy a prioritization method that "objectively" scores each goal/demand comparing value, cost, and risk for the organization. This method needs to have strong rules of engagement--to which all stakeholders agree--so that you keep folks at the table and acting like adults. The PM needs to use a strong facilitator to get them through the scoring process. The method will rack and stack the objectives and get everyone a bit closer to the high priority demands. Allow each stakeholder to continue arguing his/her case for say the top 30%, maybe 40%, then score again. This is iterative and ought to end up with a group consensus. Your threat here is someone walking out of the process.
Once this parts finish, the real work begins. You need to maintain this prioritization and manage those that came up short, the politics and ongoing lobbying, and those that disengage. This is where your communication and org change capabilities come to play.
First, a stakeholder is not the same thing as a shareholder. A shareholder is a person who bought shares in a company and who became that way an owner of that company. They are not suppose to bug in the daily management of the company. They have their own yearly meeting and they elect the board of the company that decides the main goals of the company and the strategies and tactics to achieve them.
Second, now a days, most people are afraid to lose their job. We are getting out the worst economic recession after the great depression of the 1930s. Usually, a company fires some of its employees when they sell less than expected of the products and services they provide.
Third, a company, an enterprise, a small business is not a social group of friends. When you are a private company, you don't receive bail out money from a foundation or a government when you go under for a few months.
Fourth, an employer signs contracts with their employees. When they meet the requirements, they are given a pay.
Finally, when people disagree on something you have to find out if they really have at heart the profit of the company. It is not everybody that remind themselves regularly than without a profit, the company must close its doors. You have to focus your employees on the profit making. A good manager can drop a product or a service, start a new one and do that in a way that assures the stability of the enterprise. A good manager is able to see under the disagreements the new opportunities that will benefit all.