Project manager negotiating

We wear so many hats as project managers over the course of our projects and our careers. I don’t want to make PMs sound like superheroes because we aren’t. But we often have to be a ‘jack of all trades.’ And if you lack the ability or confidence to do that…to take on multiple roles (often several at the same time)…then perhaps the PM world isn’t for you. We must be resource managers, task masters, financial planners, conflict resolver, workflow managers, documentation specialists, business analysts to some degree, tech gurus on some projects (or at least talk the talk), wise and on-the-spot decision-makers and sometimes we have to be master negotiators. It is this last one that I’d like to discuss in this article.

The need to negotiate

The need to negotiate on our projects probably comes up more times than we ever realize. We negotiate with our team on who takes on what task; we negotiate with vendors on when they are going to deliver if something is running late, we negotiate with our internal resource gatekeepers on how soon we can on-board that data specialist to our project…it happens throughout engagements. Often these don’t have huge impacts on our project – they’re just part of our daily project management life cycle and happen without us thinking about them as a negotiation.

However, there are times when negotiation skills are important to make things happen on our project that would otherwise cause it great harm. Times when a key deliverable won’t be ready, or a phase of a project must be moved out farther or swapped with another phase to keep the project moving forward when it might otherwise be canceled or halted for days, weeks, or even months.

For these events or critical project crossroads, project managers often find they must figure out a way to negotiate timetables, costs, delivery schedules and tasks sequences to be able to keep the project viable. They must learn how to become master negotiators.

Key areas of negotiation on our projects are:


How many times have you had a key resource pulled from your project for another ‘critical’ project? Or how many times have you needed a particular skill set that you don’t have at the moment? An organization only has so many resources and only so many ‘experts’ in a particular area. When resource negotiation comes up, you may find yourself negotiating individual resource availability with whoever is the resource gatekeeper in your organization. You may even find yourself involving the customer and the rest of your team as you try to shift portions of the project timeline and tasks around to accommodate when a particular ‘key resource’ can be made available for your project need.

Budget needs

Funding – I’ve never led a project that had an abundance of money. It may have started out looking like it did, but that’s never how they finish. And everything from outside vendors, to resource availability, to change orders, risks, and major issues can necessitate an increase in project funding for your engagement. That may need to come from the customer – usually in the form of change orders – or from your management needing to throw more money at a project to keep it going. Either way, you’re likely going to have some give and take negotiations with either party to make it happen. Unless the customer requests the change order or sees an absolute need for it, then it’s not always an easy thing to get approved. And we all know that getting more money from executives in your organization requires a considerable amount of justification and, in some cases, negotiation.

Timeline issues

Most of the negotiation I’ve had to do on projects centered around change orders and timeline issues. For timeline issues, it usually involves shifting priorities and tasks which require convincing the customer that this is a good thing for them, won’t injure the project, and won’t affect the budget over time. It usually involves some negotiation to move phases around to ensure that the project still comes in on time or will still come in within a time frame that is acceptable to the key stakeholders.


The hope, of course, is that few – if any – of these ‘needs to negotiate’ will arise on any of our projects. The reality is that most or all will from time to time and on some critical, long-term projects all of these (and more) may be subject to negotiation with our customer or our senior leadership. Negotiation is just part of the project management game and its area in which every project manager must acquire some skills or expertise.