Getting to Know “No”

By Bob McGannon, PMP

Certainly, project managers don’t want to make it a habit to say “no”. However, it is often the exact thing we need to say as a means of protecting the project’s integrity, the sponsor’s reputation, and the finances of the sponsoring business. So, how can we say “no” in an effective fashion? Often, it is not by saying “no” ourselves, but helping our customers down the “no” path. For those cases where we need to “defend the project”, here are some effective ways we can “get to no”.

  • Ask questions of the project’s customers or sponsor

At times the ramifications of an idea are not fully understood by the proposer. What may seem like a great idea often is a pathway to greater costs and major scope changes. Often, the best approach the project manager can take is to pose questions that cause our project stakeholders to review the considerations behind their “proposals’ or expectations. An example: We can add that function to the product, however it will cost an additional $200,000. Do you have a means to increase the project budget to accommodate the incremental funding? This can yield the “no’ a project manager is seeking, without having to be the contrarian. It protects the project, as well as protecting how the project manager is perceived. In instances where the budget might be available, and the function would support a positive business case, asking the question to verify this, is a good path for the project manager to take.

Other powerful questions that can be used in this manner include: Can you support the additional time it will take to change plans and redesign the solution to accommodate that newly identified need? Does this fit within your strategic business plan? If you are unable to attend our requirements verification meetings, will you sign a document that delegates your approval of those business requirements to me? (I’ve asked this last question often, and have yet to get a “yes” answer; invariably people suddenly find the time to attend requirements verification sessions!)

  • Propose a prioritization

Often, a proposal or situation is not so simple and cannot be addressed with one or two questions. Examining the priority of what is currently in scope, or is being addressed in an organization’s project portfolio can be an effective tool to inject some perspective into a proposal or situation. In the current business climate where skills are short and we can’t find the people or the capabilities we need, prioritization of work is paramount. Review the current priority of the work you are doing, or come up with a list that reflects your organization’s current activities. Ask where the new initiative (or work to support it) would fit in that priority. The premise here is to instigate a review of the work that is currently in process, and see what would need to change to facilitate this new initiative or idea. If we are to add 12 hours of work a day to the plate of our project team, 12 hours a day of what is going on now will have to be put on hold (assuming we don’t impose overtime or add staff). Given that fact, what change would the proposer support?

An alternative to this occurs when priorities for the organization are well known and followed consistently. In that case, it is a matter of surfacing that list and asking who will propose changes to that priority, and at what cost to the organization will those changes take place.

  • Risk implications

Often changes to the triple constraints of a project aren’t significant; however a proposed change will alter the risk profile of the project. Therefore an effective way to ‘no” should  be alerting the customer that a new risk profile would result from acceptance of the change. If that statement alone does not deter the inappropriate change, then producing the new risk profile with appropriate response strategies and other implications documented will often lead to a more rational thought process over the change, maintaining the integrity of the project.

  • Don’t do it!!! (An activity that is…)

Sometimes, as we will address shortly, we must say “no” directly. In other cases, we need to “say no” by upholding our own claims, whether they are perceived as positive or negative. If we say that something cannot be done, we shouldn’t produce it. If we say something is not practical, we shouldn’t magically find a way to “make it happen”. That being said, it is always a good thing to “under promise and over deliver.” I’m not suggesting that we abandon this practice. However, when we push back, we should not “contradict ourselves” with our actions; we need to uphold our integrity in both good and bad instances. Should we push back, then discover a new method or approach where we CAN produce a change in deliverables, then present the “new method and information”, get a change approved, and only then should we deliver the new desired functionality or alteration to the triple constraints. Simply don’t contradict yourself – although it might make you a hero in the short term, your ability to push back or say no will be greatly diminished in future situations. Producing miracles will suddenly and consistently be expected – putting undue pressure on you and your project teams.

  • Sometimes, “No” must come directly out of our mouths

We must not compromise our ethics. Our integrity must always be rock solid. Any instance that could put a dent in that perception of us needs to be addressed directly and quickly. Saying no immediately and in such a way as our meaning cannot be misinterpreted, is paramount. We place undue risk on ourselves, our project teams and the businesses we support when we don’t say no in these instances.

In other instances, despite the use of good questions and relevant facts, others will not back down from a desire to change the project, no matter how inappropriate. In this case, we need to say no, and offer to take the next appropriate step to address the confrontation that will result. Offer to arrange a meeting with the sponsor, customer management or whoever will be in the best position to assess the situation holistically.

When “no” is the best thing for the project and the business, we must be the advocates for rational thought. As project managers we must be clear about this, however, there are a number of approaches to “get to no.” Most experienced project managers will find the “hot buttons” of their stakeholders and use that knowledge wisely, getting the customer to say no, based on their priorities and needs. The techniques discussed here can add to that “toolkit” of approaches and improve the perception of the project manager’s skills and increase the success of our projects

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a company providing project management services, leadership workshops and team building programs throughout North America, the United Kingdom Australia and New Zealand. Bob can be reached at MINDAVATION via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463)

The Mindavation Foundation is proud to donate 5% of profits towards development of youth leaders.
Copyright © 2011 Mindavation - All rights reserved.