Project Managers Should Never Say No

18 August, 2014

Despite advances in technology, the best oral contraceptive is still “No”. However, Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® should learn not to say “no”, because stating that a request is impossible and cannot be done is not the answer senior management wants to hear. The company’s decision-makers want options and a flat refusal to do something makes life difficult. While you might be perfectly correct in stating that something is impossible, this is no help to a manager or a sales executive who is close to closing a sale but needs this extra feature or an earlier delivery.

I began to understand how to deal with these situations at a presentation by a management consultant on requirements. He admitted that he did not understand requirements until he set about having a house built for himself. Every evening after work he would pass the building site and stop for a moment to see how the building was taking shape.

One day, he noticed that the upstairs windows appeared a bit too short for his liking and he got out of his car and approached the contractor who happened to be on-site during that visit. Knowing that the windows had not been ordered yet, the management consultant felt that this would be an easy change to make. The contractor listened to his request and carefully noted the details – how much extra height was needed. He even brought up CAD drawings and made the change, so that the client could see what it would look like. Then he said “leave it with me” and the client walked away, happy that the change would be made.

However, next day, the contractor rang him up and said yes, the change was possible, but it would cost $22,000. The management consultant was shocked by this – “But you haven’t ordered the windows yet – why is it so expensive?” To which the contractor replied: “But I have the roof on. Lifting the roof and increasing the height of the walls is what costs the money.” All of a sudden, the management consultant was very happy with the original design.

For practicing Project Managers, many change requests from management or stakeholders appear unrealistic. This is because we try to place them in the context of our triple constraint. Adding more work to a project will either lengthen it or drive up the cost. If our baseline schedule or budget is threatened, we react by refusing the request – it cannot be done.

However, we should learn from the contractor. He did not refuse the request. Instead he carefully studied it, identified the consequences and laid these out clearly to his client. This is what Project Managers need to do. Instead of trying to deflect the request, take the time to understand what the stakeholder requires. Try to determine what the underlying benefit is. This change might lead to a new sale or a better chance in the marketplace. Then determine what is involved – how many staff will have to work on this, what tasks will have to be carried out and what equipment and materials will be needed. Explore the options – would more resources allow the schedule to be maintained? Could it be done by letting the end date slip? Could we realize the same benefit by doing something different – something with less impact on the triple constraint?

Now present the stakeholder with choices: we can do it, but the project end date will have to move out. Alternatively, if we could get access to the Large Boson Collider for two weeks in October, we could accelerate several of the tasks and meet the original schedule. Of course, a small tweak to one of our existing work packages could achieve the same end – this would have no schedule impact, but would require some more material.

Faced with options, stakeholders can decide. If they are willing to absorb the consequences, then you can re-baseline your scope, schedule and budget (having gone through the correct change control procedures along the way of course). The important thing is that you, the Project Manager, do not find yourself in the impossible situation where the project scope has increased but you are still expected to meet the original schedule and budget.

Accepting a change to your scope, without highlighting the consequences, means that you have made the decision that this is possible within the original constraints. By offering alternative courses of action for getting the task done, you are supporting the decision-making process, but leaving the decision in the hands of those who want the change. Being pressurized into accepting such changes and not explaining the consequences is not only unprofessional, but it leads to ulcers, hyper-tension and a much shorter life expectancy.

The bottom line is: don’t say “no”. Instead, learn to say: “yes, but …”

Velopi’s project management training courses cover all aspects of project management, including Project Scope Management. If this is an area of interest to you, our project management certification courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins


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