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  • Rick Ktorides

5 Steps - How to Say NO in Project Management

Feeling pressured to accept extra scope into your project without being provided any extra budget or time is something all project managers go through regularly!

How to say NO in Project Management

But what if it’s going to cause your project to bust its constraints?

Do you have the power to say "no", especially to the likes of your customer, project sponsor or other stakeholders that are either very vocal or in authority and highly influential?

Saying "no" is arguably one of the hardest things to do in project management.

It seems to fly in the face of trying to meet stakeholder requirements and winning them over but moreover, people tend to say "yes" to avoid confrontations with higher authority.

Yet your ability to say "no" is one of the most important skills you must have as project manager.

If you can't say "no" to defend the integrity of your project as its project manager - then you need to ask yourself what value you are actually bringing to your own project.

Here are my 5 steps that will hopefully help you say "no" in project management and command respect by doing so in these types of situations:

Step #1: Never commit on the spot

No matter how much pressure you may feel or who they are - do not agree to do something on the spot without having had a chance to first regroup and perform an impact assessment.

I can't stress this point enough!

Even if your stakeholder comes across as uncompromising - don't give in!

Instead, divert the focus by asking enabling questions to help you better understand exactly the who, what, when, where, why (Five Ws) - as well as what would happen if the request was not done.

Listen to what's been said (rather than how it's been said), take note and give assurance you'll get back to them to confirm what the state of play is and what you can do.

Delaying the decision also provides an opportunity for the stakeholder to reflect on what they are requesting.

They may have been having one of those days (like we all do) and the request may be emotionally driven.

Step #2: Do your homework - make a fair assessment

This step is about performing a fair assessment and doing your level best to try to incorporate what's been asked without compromising the constraints of your project.

Don't be one of the ones that gives up too easily!

You'd be surprised how flexible people are and willing to help under difficult circumstances to help achieve a good outcome - all you need to do is ask and lock in their commitment.

The one thing that you can't compromise on as a project manager is the integrity of the constraints of your project.

If it turns out you can't incorporate what's been asked without breaching those constraints, then it's time to explore options.

Step #3: Prepare high-level options

Prepare a high-level view of easy-to-understand viable options that are directly linked to the constraints of the project.

By doing so, you will be extending your project's constraints, into becoming constraints the stakeholder also needs to work within and abide by.

In effect, your constraints will become their constraints.

Be thorough when considering viable options, however, also be mindful to include options that provide your stakeholder with easy-outs.

These easy-outs enable your stakeholder to change their mind without losing face.

Here are some examples of options you could present (and what they mean):

  • Option #1: Do nothing Continue the project excluding the change request

  • Option #2: Accept Change Request Requires $$$ of extra budget which will need steering committee approval

  • Option #3: Accept Change Request but remove current scope Requires buy-in from other stakeholders as well as steering committee approval

  • Option #4: Accept a minor part of the Change Request Team member / vendor has kindly agreed to provide this at no extra cost

  • Option #5: Defer Change Request to a later project Requirements will be noted for the next iteration of the project

  • Option #6: Stop project due to Change Request being a showstopper Requires steering committee approval and subsequent communication to all stakeholders

The easy-out for your stakeholder in the above example is option 5.

I would recommend keeping it close to the end of the list so it's easier for them to remember, whilst also having it paired with the worst option (option 6).

Step #4: Say “no” and present your options

There are several ways you can say "no" - there's a whole art to it, but will delve into that in another article.

In this instance, I would recommend:

  • Having an in-person meeting or phone call (rather than via email)

  • Starting off by being completely up front

  • Talking through what each option entails

  • Recommending an option as the project manager

  • Asking how they would like to progress

By getting the negative aspect out of the way first >> then shifting to actionable options >> then transferring the power back to them >> you are much more likely to leave the stakeholder with a positive impression of you, whilst leaving them feeling empowered and in control.

You could start the conversation with something like this:

  • "As much as I have tried to, I'm afraid I can't include your request without breaching the constraints of the project. If I did, the project would be a bust and that's not an option" (that's the negative aspect out the way)

  • "However - here's what we can do....Option 1...2...3...4...5...6 etc...I would recommend going with Option 2" (this is the actionable options bit)

  • "What are your thoughts - how do you want to progress?" (this transfers the power back to them)

Option 2 is the recommended option as it allows you to accept the stakeholder's request on the condition that you can obtain extra budget.

By presenting this win-win scenario for both you and your stakeholder in the first instance, you are also showing them your support.

If the request was more emotionally driven, your stakeholder would probably suggest an amalgamation of options 4 and 5 as the easy-outer - rather than taking this a step further to the project's steering committee.

However, if your stakeholder counters with their own option that you had not considered and are not comfortable with, don't forget to hold your ground.

Go back and consider the impacts before committing to anything as per Step #2.

Step #5: Close it out via summary email

No matter what the outcome is, you need to create a formal record of the stakeholder's change request, what's been agreed, the state of play as well as any agreed actions.

I recommend doing this via email and sending it to not only the requesting stakeholder, but to all key project stakeholders so it's out in the open and there is general awareness.

It also benefits you in the following ways:

  • Provides other stakeholders an opportunity to weigh in

  • Provides you with a formal reference point should any questions be raised in the future and what was ultimately decided upon

  • Helps ensure there are no misunderstandings in relation to what's been agreed

In closing...

Where you command respect in all this is in your ability to defend the integrity of your project as its project manager - whilst trying your level best to cater to all the out-of-scope needs of your stakeholders.

It would be great to know your thoughts - what other pointers do you have to make it easier for project managers to say "no" ?



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