Administrai ron

total project. Scheduling conflicts often occur with other support departments over which the project manager may have limited authority and control. Scheduling problems and conflicts also often involve disagreements and differing perceptions of organizational departmental priorities. For example, an issue urgent to the project manager may receive a low-priority treatment from support groups and/or staff personnel because of a different priority structure in the support organization. Conflicts over schedules frequently result from the technical problems and manpower resources.

Conflict over project priorities ranked second highest over the project life cycle. In our discussion with project managers, many indicated that this type of conflict frequently develops because the organization did not have prior experience with a current project undertaking. Consequently, the pattern of project priorities may change from the original forecast, necessitating the reallocation of crucial resources and schedules, a process that is often susceptible to intense disagreements and conflicts. Similarly, priority issues often develop into conflict with other support departments whose established schedules and work patterns are disturbed by the changed requirements.

Conflict over manpower resources was the third most important source of conflict. Project managers frequently lament when there is little "organizational slack" in terms of manpower resources, a situation in which they often experience intense conflicts. Project managers note that most of the conflicts over personnel



Figure 7-1.

Mean conflict intensity profile over project life cycle. Source. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, "Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Summer 1975, pp. 31-50. Reprinted by permission.

resources occur with those departments that either assign personnel to the project or support the project internally.

The fourth strongest source of conflict involved disagreements over technical opinions and tradeoffs. Often the groups who support the project are primarily responsible for technical inputs and performance standards. The project manager, on the other hand, is accountable for the cost, schedule, and performance objectives. Since support areas are usually responsible for only parts of the project, they may not have the broad management overview of the total project. The project manager, for example, may be presented with a technical problem. Often he must reject the technical alternative owing to cost or schedule restraints. In other cases, he may find that he disagrees with the opinions of others on strictly technical grounds.

Conflict over administrative procedures ranked fifth in the profile of seven conflict sources. It is interesting to note that most of the conflict over administrative procedures that occurs is almost uniformly distributed with functional departments, project personnel, and the project manager's superior.14 Examples of conflict originating over administrative issues may involve disagreements over the project manager's authority and responsibilities, reporting relationships, administrative support, status reviews, or interorganizational interfacing. For the most part, disagreements over administrative procedures involve issues of how the project manager will function and how he relates to the organization's top management.

Personality conflict was ranked low in intensity by the project managers. Our discussions with project managers indicated that while the intensity of personality conflicts may not be as high as some of the other sources of conflict, they are among the most difficult to deal with effectively. Personality issues also may be obscured by communication problems and technical issues. A support person, for example, may stress the technical aspect of a disagreement with the project manager when, in fact, the real issue is a personality conflict.

Cost, like schedules, is often a basic performance measure in project management. As a conflict source, cost ranked lowest. Disagreements over cost frequently develop when project managers negotiate with other departments that will perform subtasks on the project. Project managers with tight budget constraints often want to minimize cost, while support groups may want to maximize their part of the project budget. In addition, conflicts may occur as a result of technical problems or schedule slippages that may increase costs.

Conflict Sources and Intensity in the Project Life Cycle

While it is important to examine some of the principal determinants of conflict from an aggregate perspective, more specific and useful insights can be gained by exploring the intensity of various conflict sources in each life-cycle stage, namely, project formation, project buildup, main program phase, and phaseout (see Figure 7-2).

14 See Thamhain and Wilemon in note 10.

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Figure 7-2.

Relative intensity of conflict over the life cycle of projects. Source. Hans J. Thamhaln and David L. Wllemon, "Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Summer 1975, pp. 31-50. Reprinted by permission.

Figure 7-2.

Relative intensity of conflict over the life cycle of projects. Source. Hans J. Thamhaln and David L. Wllemon, "Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Summer 1975, pp. 31-50. Reprinted by permission.

1. Project formation. As Figure 7-2 illustrates, during the project formation stage, the following conf sources (listed in order of rank) were found:15

1. Project priorities

2. Administrative procedures

3. Schedules

4. Manpower

5. Cost

6. Technical

7. Personality

Unique to the project formation phase are some characteristics not typical of the other life-cycle stage The project manager, for example, must launch his project within the larger "host" organization. Frequently, conflict develops between the priorities established for the project and the priorities that c line and staff groups believe important. To eliminate or minimize the detrimental consequences

15 Conflict intensity is computed as the total frequency (F) x magnitude (M) of conflict experienced within the sampl of project managers, when 0 < M < 3. For example, if the average conflict intensity experienced by project managers schedules with all interfaces was M = 1.65 (considerable) and F = 14% of all project managers indicated that "most" this conflict occurred during the project formation phase, then "conflict over schedules" would be M xF 1.65 x 0.14 0.23 during project formation.

that could result, project managers must carefully evaluate and plan for the impact of their projects on the groups that support them. This should be accomplished as early as possible in the program life cycle. The source of conflict ranked second was administrative procedures, which are concerned with several critically important management issues; for example: How will the project organization be designed? Who will the project manager report to? What is the authority of the project manager? Does the project manager have control over manpower and material resources? What reporting and communication channels will be used? Who establishes schedules and performance specifications? Most of these areas are negotiated by the project manager, and conflict frequently occurs during the process. To avoid prolonged problems over these issues, it is important to clearly establish these procedures as early as possible.

Schedules typify another area where established groups may have to accommodate the newly formed project organization by adjusting their own operations. Most project managers attest that this adjustment is highly susceptible to conflict, even under ideal conditions, since it may involve a reorientation of present operating patterns and "local" priorities in support departments. These same departments might be fully committed to other projects. For similar reasons, negotiations over support personnel and other resources can be an important source of conflict in the project formation stage. Thus, effective planning and negotiation over these issues at the beginning of a project appear important.

2. Project buildup. The conflict sources for the project buildup are listed below in order of rank:

1. Project priorities

2. Schedules

3. Administrative procedures

4. Technical

5. Manpower

6. Personality

7. Cost

Disagreements over project priorities, schedules, and administrative procedures continue as important determinants of conflict. Some of these sources of conflict appear as an extension from the previous program phase. Additional conflicts surface during negotiations with other groups in the buildup phase. It is interesting to note that while schedules ranked third in conflict intensity in the project formation phase, they are the second major conflict determinant in the buildup phase. Many of the conflicts over schedules arise in the first phase because of the disagreements that develop over the establishment of schedules. By contrast, in the buildup phase, conflict may develop over the enforcement of schedules according to objectives of the overall project plan.

An important point is that conflict over administrative procedures becomes less intense in the buildup phase, indicating the diminishing magnitude and frequency of administrative problems. It also appears that it is important to resolve potential conflicts, such as administrative disagreements, in the earlier phase of a project to avoid a replication of the same problems in the more advanced project life-cycle phases.

Conflict over technical issues also becomes more pronounced in the buildup phase, rising from the sixth-ranked conflict source in the project formation phase to fourth in the buildup phase. Often this results from disagreements with a support group that cannot meet technical requirements or wants to enhance the technological input for which it is responsible. Such action can adversely affect the project manager's cost and schedule objectives.

Project managers emphasized that personality conflicts are particularly difficult to handle. Even apparently small and infrequent personality conflicts might be more disruptive and detrimental to overall program effectiveness than intense conflicts over nonpersonal issues, which can often be handled on a more rational basis. Many project managers also indicated that conflict over cost in the buildup phase generally tends to be low for two primary reasons. First, conflict over the establishment of cost targets does not appear to create intense conficts for most project managers. Second, some projects are not yet mature enough in the buildup phase to cause disagreements over cost between the project manager and those who support him.

3. Main program. The main program phase reveals a different conflict pattern. The seven potential causes of conflict are listed in rank order below:















In the main program phase, the meeting of schedule commitments by various support groups becomes critical to effective project performance. In complex task management, the interdependency of various support groups dealing with complex technology frequently gives rise to slippages in schedules. When several groups of organizations are involved, this in turn can cause a "whiplash" effect throughout the project. In other words, a slippage in schedule by one group may affect other groups if they are on the critical path of the project.

As noted, while conflicts over schedules often develop in the earlier project phases, they are frequently related to the establishment of schedules. In the main program phase, our discussions with project managers indicated that conflicts frequently develop over the "management and maintenance" of schedules. The latter, as indicated in Figure 7-2, produces more intense conflicts.

Technical conflicts are also one of the most important sources of conflict in the main program phase. There appear to be two principal reasons for the rather high level of conflict in this phase. First, the main program phase is often char acterized by the integration of various project subsystems for the first time, such as configuration management. Owing to the complexities involved in this integration process, conflicts frequently develop over lack of subsystem integration and poor technical performance of one subsystem, which may, in turn, affect other components and subsystems. Second, the fact that a component can be designed in prototype does not always assure that all the technical anomalies will be eliminated. In extreme cases, the subsystem may not even be producible in the main program phase. Disagreements also may arise in the main program phase over reliability and quality control standards, various design problems, and testing procedures. All these problems can have a severe impact on the project and cause intense conflicts for the project manager.

Manpower resources ranked third as a determinant of conflict. The need for manpower reaches the highest levels in the main program phase. If support groups also are providing personnel to other projects, severe strains over manpower availability and project requirements frequently develop.

Conflict over priorities continued its decline in importance as a principal cause of conflict. Again, project priorities tend to be a form of conflict most likely to occur in the earlier project phases. Finally, administrative procedures, cost, and personality were about equal as the lowest-ranked conflict sources.

4. Phaseout. The final stage, project phaseout, illustrates an interesting shift in the principal cause of conflict. The ranking of the conflict sources in this final project phase are:















Schedules are again the most likely form of conflict to develop in project phaseout. Project managers frequently indicated that many of the schedule slippages that developed in the main program phase tended to carry over to project phaseout. Schedule slippages often become cumulative and affect the project most severely in the final stage of a project.

Somewhat surprisingly, personality conflict was the second-ranked source of conflict. It appears that much of the personality-oriented conflict can be explained in two ways. First, it is not uncommon for project participants to be tense and concerned with future assignments. Second, project managers frequently note that interpersonal relationships may be quite strained during this period owing to the pressure on project participants to meet stringent schedules, budgets, and performance specifications and objectives.

Somewhat related to the personality issue are the conflicts that arise over manpower resources, the third-ranked conflict source. Disagreements over man power resources may develop due to new projects phasing in, hence creating competition for personnel during the critical phaseout stage. Project managers, by contrast, also may experience conflicts over the absorption of surplus manpower back into the functional areas where they affect the budgets and organizational variables.

Conflict over priorities in the phaseout stage often appears to be directly or indirectly related to competition with other project start-ups in the organization. Typically, newly organized projects or marketing support activities might require urgent, short-notice attention and commitments that have to be squeezed into tight schedules. At the same time, personnel might leave the project organization prematurely because of prior commitments that conflict with a slipped schedule on the current project or because of a sudden opportunity for a new assignment elsewhere. In either case, the combined pressure on schedules, manpower, and personality creates a climate that is highly vulnerable to conflicts over priorities.

As noted in Figure 7-2, cost, technical, and administrative procedures tend to be ranked lowest as conflict sources. Cost, somewhat surprisingly, was not a major determinant of conflict. Discussions with project personnel suggest that while cost control can be troublesome in this phase, intense conflicts usually do not develop. Most problems in this area develop gradually and provide little ground for arguments.16 The reader should be cautioned, however, that the low level of conflict is by no means indicative of the importance of cost performance to overall rating of a project manager. During discussions with top management, it was repeatedly emphasized that cost performance is one of the key evaluation measures in judging the performance of project managers.

Technical and administrative procedures ranked lowest in project phaseout. When a project reaches this stage, most of the technical issues are usually resolved. A similar argument holds for administrative procedures.

A graphical summary of the relative conflict intensity over the four conflict stages is provided in Figure 7-3. The diagram, an abstract of Figures 7-1 and 7-2, shows the change of relative conflict intensity over the project life for each of the seven conflict sources.

It is important to note that while a determinant conflict may be ranked relatively low in a specific life-cycle stage, it can, nevertheless, cause severe problems. A project manager, for example, may have serious ongoing problems with schedules throughout his project, but a single conflict over a technical issue can be equally detrimental and could jeopardize his performance to the same extent

16 Depending on the work environment and particular business, there might be various reasons why conflicts over cost are low. First, some of the project components may be purchased externally on a fixed-free basis. In such cases the contractor would bear the burden of costs. Second, costs are one of the most difficult project variables to control throughout the life cycle of a project, and budgets are frequently adjusted for increase in material and manpower costs over the life of the project. These incremental cost adjustments frequently eliminate some of the "sting" in cost when they exceed the original estimates of the project manager. Moreover, some projects in the high-technology area are managed on a cost-plus basis. In some of these projects precise cost estimates cannot always be rigidly adhered to.

Figure 7-3.

Trend of conflict intensity over the four project life-cycle stages. Source. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, ''Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Spring 1915, pp. 31-5G. Reprinted by permission.

Figure 7-3.

Trend of conflict intensity over the four project life-cycle stages. Source. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, ''Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Spring 1915, pp. 31-5G. Reprinted by permission.

as schedule slippages. This point should be kept in mind in any discussion on project management conflict. Moreover, problems may develop that are virtually "conflict-free" (i.e., technological anomalies or problems with suppliers) but may be just as troublesome to the project manager as any of the conflict issues discussed.

The problem that now should be addressed is how these various conflict sources and the situations they create are managed.

Use of Conflict-Handling Modes

The investigation into the conflict-handling modes of project managers developed a number of interesting patterns. The actual style of project managers was determined from their scores on the aphorisms. As indicated in Figure 7-4, confrontation was most frequently utilized as a problemsolving mode. This mode was favored by approximately 70 percent of the project managers.17 The compromise approach, which is characterized by trade-offs and a give-and-take attitude, ranked second, followed by smoothing. Forcing and withdrawal ranked as the fourth and fifth most favored resolution modes, respectively.

In terms of the most and least favored conflict resolution modes, the project managers had similar rankings for the conflict-handling method used between

17 Quantitatively, this means that 70 percent of the project managers in the sample indicated that the proverbs that are representative of this mode (i.e., confrontation) describe the actual way the manager is resolving conflict "accurately" or "very accurately" as related to his project situations.




70% 60% 50% JC% 30% 30% f0% 0 10% S0% 30% 40% S0% S0% 70% _!_i_I_J_I_1_I____J_I_I_I_i_I_J_






Figure 7-4. Conflict resolution profile. The various modes of conflict resolution actually used to manage conflict in project-oriented work environments. Source. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, "Conflict in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Summer 1975, pp. 31-50. Reprinted by permission.

himself and his personnel, his superior, and his functional support departments except in the cases of confrontation and compromise. While confrontation was the most favored mode for dealing with superiors, compromise was more favored in handling disagreements with functional support departments. The various modes of conflict resolution used by project managers are summarized in the profile of Figure 7-4.


A number of ideas evolved for improving conflict management effectiveness in project-oriented environments from this research. As the data on the mean conflict intensities indicate, the three areas most likely to cause problems for the project manager over the entire project life cycle are disagreements over schedules, project priorities, and manpower resources. One reason these areas are apt to produce more intense disagreements is that the project manager may have limited control over other areas that have an important impact on these areas, particularly the functional support departments. These three areas (schedules, project priorities, and manpower resources) require careful surveillance throughout the life cycle of a project. To minimize detrimental conflict, intensive planning prior to actual launching of the project is recommended. Planning can help the project manager anticipate many potential sources of conflict before they occur.

Scheduling, priority-setting, and resource allocation require effective planning to avoid problems later in the project. In our discussions with project managers who have experienced problems in these areas, almost all maintain that these problems frequently originate from lack of effective preproject planning.

Managing projects involves managing change. It is not our intention to suggest that all such problems can be eliminated by effective planning. A more realistic view is that many potential problems can be minimized. There always will be random, unpredictable situations that defy forecasting in project environments.

Some specific suggestions are summarized in Table 7-1. The table provides an aid to project managers in recognizing some of the most important sources of conflict that are most likely to occur in various phases of projects. The table also suggests strategies for minimizing their detrimental consequences.

As one views the seven potential sources of disagreements over the life of a project, the dynamic nature of each conflict source is revealed. Frequently, areas that are most likely to foster disagreements early in a project become less likely to induce severe conflicts in the maturation of a project. Administrative procedures, for example, continually lose importance as an intense source of conflict during project maturation. By contrast, personality conflict, which ranks lowest in the project formation stage, is the second most important source of conflict in project phaseout. In summary, it is posted that if project managers are aware of the importance of each potential conflict source by project life cycle, then more effective conflict minimization strategies can be developed.

In terms of the means by which project managers handle conflicts and disagreements, the data revealed that the confrontation or problem-solving mode was the most frequent method utilized. While our study did not attempt to explore the effectiveness of each mode separately, in an earlier research project, Burke18 suggests that the confrontation approach is the most effective conflict-handling mode.19

In some contrast to studies of general management, the findings of our research in project-oriented environments suggest that it is less important to search for a best mode of effective conflict management. It appears to be more significant that project managers, in their capacity as integrators of diverse organizational resources, employ the full range of conflict resolution modes. While confrontation was found as the ideal approach under most circumstances, other approaches may be equally effective depending on the situational content of the disagreement. Withdrawal, for example, may be used effectively as a temporary

18 R. J. Burke, "Methods of Resolving Interpersonal Conflict," Personnel Administration, July-August 1969, pp. 48-55.

19 Although Burke's study was conducted on general management personnel, it offers an interesting comparison to our research. Burke's paper notes that "Compromising" and "Forcing" were effective in 11.3 percent and 24.5 percent of the cases, while "Withdrawal" or "Smoothing" approaches were found mostly ineffective in the environment under investigation.


Project Life -Cycle Phase

Project formation

Conflict Source




Buildup phase Priorities


Procedures Main program Schedules





Personality and Manpower


Clearly defined plans. Joint decision-making and/or consultation with affected parties.

Develop detailed administrative operating procedures to be followed in conduct of project. Secure approval from key administrators. Develop statement of understanding or charter.

Develop schedule commitments in advance of actual project commencement. Forecast other departmental priorities and possible impact on project.

Provide effective feedback to support areas on forecasted project plans and needs via status review sessions.

Schedule work breakdown packages (project subunits) in cooperation with functional groups.

Contingency planning on key administrative issues.

Continually monitor work in progress. Communicate results to affected parties. Forecast problems and consider alternatives. Identify potential "trouble spots" needing closer surveillance.

Early resolution of technical problems. Communication of schedule and budget retraints to technical personnel. Emphasize adequate, early technical testing. Facilitate early agreement on final designs.

Forecast and communicate manpower requirements early. Establish manpower requirements and priorities with functional and staff groups.

Close schedule monitoring in project life cycle. Consider reallocation of available manpower to critical project areas prone to schedule slippages. Attain prompt resolution of technical issues which may impact schedules.

Develop plans for reallocation of manpower upon project completion. Maintain harmonious working relationships with project team and support groups. Try to loosen up "high-stress" environment.

Source: Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, "Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review. Summer 1975, pp. 31-50. Reprinted by permission.

measure until new information can be sought, or to "cool off" a hostile reaction from a colleague. As a basic long-term strategy, however, withdrawal may actually escalate a disagreement if no resolution is eventually sought.20

In other cases, compromise and smoothing might be considered effective strategies by the project manager, if they do not severely affect the overall project objectives. Forcing, on the other hand, often proves to be a win-lose mode. Even though the project manager may win over a specific issue, effective working arrangements with the "forced" party may be jeopardized in future relationships. Nevertheless, some project managers find that forcing is the only viable mode in some situations. Confrontation, or the problem-solving mode, may actually encompass all conflict-handling modes to some extent. A project manager, for example, in solving a conflict may use withdrawal, compromise, forcing, and smoothing to eventually get an effective resolution. The objective of confrontation, however, is to find a solution to the issue in question whereby all affected parties can live with the eventual outcome.

In summary, conflict is fundamental to complex task management. It is important for project managers not only to be cognizant of the potential sources of conflict, but also to know when in the life cycle of a project they are most likely to occur. Such knowledge can help the project manager avoid the detrimental aspects of conflict and maximize its beneficial aspects. Conflict can be beneficial when disagreements result in the development of new information that can enhance the decision-making process. Finally, when conflicts do develop, the project manager needs to know the advantages and disadvantages of each resolution mode for conflict resolution effectiveness.

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