For all the drama that often accompanies contract negotiations in the professional sports sector, there are some worthwhile lessons project management professionals can glean from popular athletes. Consider some of the ways your Project Team can learn from the tactics used by today’s most powerful sports stars.

project management negotiation

Timing is everything. Do professional athletes make their demands during the off season? No. They know they have far more leverage when the team is coming together to begin training for the first game. Project Teams often shouldn’t wait quite that long to begin negotiating key points, but they can still take some cues from athletes. First, determine when your stakeholders are mostly likely to be motivated to negotiate. Depending on the organization and the various individuals involved, that may be at the beginning of the budget cycle or when the project plan is moving into the approval phase. When your team’s stakeholders are most receptive, that is when you should be ready to lay your requests on the table and negotiate for what you need.

Know where value exists. Every big-time sports star knows what makes them valuable. Maybe it’s their ability to hit home runs or plow through the opposing team’s defense. Whatever that special skill is, you can be sure the athletes—and the teams—are acutely aware of what makes each player worth the money. Your Project Team needs to determine the same thing before beginning any negotiation. If you’re negotiating in support of a particular objective, be sure you understand the benefits the organization will reap. If you’re negotiating on behalf of a stakeholder group, know what’s truly important to them and what they’re willing to concede.

Know how far to go. Nearly every year, an athlete makes headlines by holding out. They may arrive late to training camp or they forego participating in other contracted activities. But at some point the real negotiating begins and everything seems to come together at the last minute. Project teams need to know just how far they can push things, too. Determine ahead of time how much resistance you can realistically generate before an executive, a senior stakeholder, or a vendor calls your bluff or simply directs you to proceed without further discussion (leadership teams usually have that ability, don’t forget). You want negotiations to be productive rather than destructive, so have a game plan in mind early and be willing to reach a settlement before time runs out.

Solicit help from allies. Several key players holding out for more money or other contract perks make a much more formidable negotiating team than just one player going it alone. Project Teams should employ similar tactics whenever possible. Look to your stakeholders for help, especially if any portion of your negotiations are likely to benefit a particular group directly. Vendors and other outside collaborators or partners may also be useful allies. Work with them to gather any data you need to support your position or to identify potential cost savings or other resource benefits that may be possible if your negotiations are successful.

Deliver. The athletes who are able to consistently negotiate the best contracts and play for their preferred teams are those who deliver results, period. Of course your project team wouldn’t give anything less than their very best, but you may sometimes need to remind stakeholders of past successes when the time for negotiating arrives. Highlight where the Project Team has triumphed on previous projects that were difficult or complex. Correlate those successes to what you’re currently trying to achieve, and demonstrate how your requests will enable you to once again execute the organization’s vision.

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