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Knowing Your Limitations

~ By Brad Egeland

Businessman looks perplexed choosing between two huge stacks of files

Most people are prone to taking on as much more than they can handle. A polished professional hates to tell senior management that he's reached his limit - he has too much on his plate already. We aren't really programmed to tell those who are in charge of our raises and promotions and bonuses 'no more’.

What I'm trying to say is most of us trust our leadership and if they are trying to add more work to our load then we must have the bandwidth to take it on, right? If we say 'no' then we look incompetent. Can't let that happen. Have to say 'yes'…we don't have a choice.

Seriously though - don’t forget about your own career and your own project load. If you've reached that point where you're concerned about failure if you add more to your workload then you have to stop and take stock of where things stand. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How are my current projects performing?
  • Am I behind schedule on anyone milestones or deliverables?
  • Is my customer satisfaction high or low right now on each of my projects?
  • What is my workload in relation to other project managers in the organisation?

And finally, that all important question…"if all is ok now, do I think one more project will bring it all crashing down?" If the answer is yes, then you must raise a flag. It’s far better to say ‘no’ to a new project and succeed on the four or five projects you’re currently leading, then to chance failing on all projects because you took on too much work.

If You Think ‘No’ Is the Right Answer, Then What?

Have all status info up to date. First, make sure all of your projects have up to date schedules, status reports, resource forecasts, and budget forecasts ready. It’s a good idea to have all issues and risks listed and current as well.

Sit down with your manager. Second, sit down with your leadership - whether that’s a manager or PMO director or whoever you report to - and go through each project carefully, outlining current status, any concerns you currently have with each one, what your forecasted effort is on each project, and discuss the customer health on each project. You want to give you management a full-disclosure view of your current workload and project health. If you’re turning down more work - and basically telling them that they are wrong in assuming you have the availability to take on a new assignment at this time - then you need to be ready to back it up with current information.

Be ready to take it on anyway. Finally, you need to be ready to discuss how you are going to take on the new assignment in case your management insists you still add it to your project load. It may be that everyone else is overloaded, too, or that this new project falls under a particular area of expertise of yours. Maybe you have a smaller project that isn’t at a critical phase and you could suggest offloading that one to another PM. Or you could consider negotiating some timeline restructuring on another engagement with that project sponsor to free your time up immediately to take on this new project. Either way, you need to alert your leadership to these possible scenarios and get their buy-off before any action can be taken.

Summary

The bottom line is, we need to make sure that we aren’t always just saying ‘yes’ to new projects without considering the ramifications to both our current project loads and our careers. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we can take on anything and just ‘make it work’, but the truth is we can’t always do that and the last thing we want is for our careers to suffer or our project clients and teams to suffer as a result of poor forethought and planning on our part or our own inability to speak up on our own behalf. If it’s time to take a stand, then take that stand. You’ll likely be less stressed as a result.

Has this happened to you? Have you had to tell management ‘no’ when a new project was thrown your way? How was it received? What strategy did you use to justify your position?


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