My husband and I recently remodeled our bathroom. (By which I mean, my husband remodeled our bathroom.)
Among other things, he designed a new shower door. And in a great show of stakeholder engagement, he made sure to review the design with me before sending it in. I liked the design, gave the go-ahead, and the glass company came to install it.
And then —
— I realized the door opened in the wrong direction. To reach the towel rack, you would have to completely exit the shower. Whereas if the door opened the other way, you could just reach your arm out and grab your towel.
Functionally, the door worked. But the usability wasn’t ideal — at least from this stakeholder’s perspective!
Does this sound familiar?
I have to say, it drives me crazy when this happens on projects. And it happens all. the. time.
You can do your very best to avoid the situation. You can check in with stakeholders, uncover assumptions, develop a definitive list of requirements, and align everyone around priorities — and your project will run all the better for it.
But new requirements still crop up at the last minute. People change their minds or realize they forget to tell you something or discover they’ve overlooked a key element of the project. And you and your team will have to figure out a solution.
So since we know that this will happen…
…we’d best figure out how to deal with it gracefully.
The Diplomatic Way to Handle Last-Minute Project Changes
Because our projects are our top priorities, we project leaders often forget that not everyone is paying such close attention to the details.
People are busy. Even when they are sitting in front of us, we rarely have their full, undivided attention. And when they are fully present, they still may not be retaining all the details and decisions. Much of what’s covered in a meeting never gets committed to the brain’s long-term storage — so they’re not likely to remember the details of the conversation a week or a month (or a day) later.
So what to do when a stakeholder raises a last-minute change request?
Here’s how to handle the situation in way that preserves the relationship — without sacrificing your sanity:
1. Assume good intent. The other person wants the project to succeed, and they are raising issues because they’re trying to help. You’ll respond better — stay calmer — if you remember this fact.
2. Ask for a conversation — and stay curious. Get on a call with the stakeholder, and have them walk you through the situation. Ask questions. Find out why the existing situation is a concern. Find out how big a priority this change really is — and why. Get very, very clear on what problem the stakeholder is trying to solve.
People will appreciate your willingness to entertain their desires. And occasionally, if you let people talk long enough, they’ll talk themselves out of their own ideas. Problem solved, and you look like a caring hero!
3. Adopt their perspective. Do your best to understand where the change request is coming from and make an objective determination as to whether making the change will improve project outcomes. This might be hard to do… but make the effort. If the change request is a true priority, you need to acknowledge that so you can make plans.
Be sure to keep project goals and organization strategy in mind when you’re doing this evaluation. Those are the objective standards against which you’re measuring the change request. Will the change help or hinder those bigger goals? Will the change actually solve the problem it is intended to solve?
4. Brainstorm solutions. Pretend that you’re 100% on board with this request. What are some ways you could make it happen? How would it impact other elements of the project? What resources would you need? When could you get it done?
This is a time to think creatively. Could you implement this change at a later stage of the project? Could you implement a minimal viable version of the change now — and plan to build out the rest later? Are there other ways you could address or solve the problem the stakeholder has identified?
5. Offer some options. Lay out the considerations and consequences of making the requested change. Take this opportunity to remind your stakeholders of the strategic priorities and project goals. Explain what other timelines, deliverables, or specifications will need to be altered in order to make the requested change. Identify pros and cons of each option, and be sure to tease out the implications of each. Take time to understand the impact of not making the change.
Project leaders sometimes understand last-minute change requests as orders. So they may feel that they have only two options: 1) to fight the change and preserve their sanity, or 2) to acquiesce completely and damn the consequences to their project and their team.
With that framing, It’s hard not to feel either adversarial or victimized in the face of a requested change.
But change requests are rarely set in stone. They may be a priority — and you may need to accommodate them — but you can often do so on your terms.
When you address a change request with curiosity and exploration, you position your team and your stakeholder as partners in finding the best solution for the project. That makes for a better relationship with your stakeholder, better outcomes for the project, and more peace and sanity for you and your team.