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The Hardest Word in the Project Management Vocabulary

Role of the Project Manager | By Carl Pritchard | Read time minutes

Blue sticker with the word NO written on it

For project managers "no" is often the toughest word in the English language to deploy. We often prefer the classic PM strategy of "Yes, but…" as the softer, kinder, gentler alternative. "No" sounds harsh. Uncooperative. It sounds reticent and recalcitrant. It sounds negative. And yet, for many of us, the time has come as professionals to set "yes, but…" aside and venture into the world of "no."

I say this because I note that with increasing frequency, clients are not taking "yes, but…" as an answer. No sooner do we offer a "yes-we-can-do-that, but-it-costs-you-another-million" response that the customer hears only the first half of the equation. They often seem far more interested in capability than cost. As a result, when we come to the table with the costs for their ventures, they balk.

One of my clients recently asked for a much higher level of review and a much higher degree of involvement in my consulting work than that to which I have become accustomed through the years. I agreed to a single review, but during that review, it became very clear that this was not to be a one-time event. They wanted more and more involvement in the work I have historically done to great accolades. And so, at the end of the first conference call, I tried a "yes, but…" approach.

"Yes, we can do additional reviews, but there will need to be a change in our contractual arrangements to accommodate them."

When they replied that they saw this as work under the contract, I realised it was not a "yes, but…" situation. It called for clear, defined action.

"No. I cannot continue to do these reviews, so we need to develop an exit strategy, as I cannot provide the requisite number of reviews and still achieve my financial objectives."

The client was flummoxed. They wanted to know why I had suddenly changed my tune. They wanted to know why I was willing to walk away from such a critical opportunity. They wanted to know why we should terminate a long-standing agreement over such a minor issue. I explained that I had attempted to provide reasonable accommodation, but that it was no longer possible to make the required margins with the additional reporting pressure.

They grumbled. They groused. They threatened to walk away from the contract. And then they ceded the point and went back to the original levels of tracking and reporting.

At first the post-event relationship seemed strained and tenuous. But I think the reality is that I was projecting that on them. In fact, since I said "no," only once, they have actually been more cooperative, more supportive, and more sensitive to my organisational needs. And I'm the consultant!

The reality is that any business relationship is a two-way street. We have the opportunity to generate support from our clients, but in many cases, we will only be able to achieve that support if we set clear boundaries.

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 3rd Edition added the term "project boundaries," to be defined as (paraphrased) "what the project is NOT." The fact that PMI recognised the need to define what projects are not should set off alarm bells for us as project managers, as we attempt to define what our work is not.

Try it. Today, identify three things that are not part of what your work is supposed to entail, but that seem to find a way to creep into your day-to-day life. (No, you can't include email in that list, as someone has to keep up with it). But as you identify those elements that really don't belong in your work, your daily performance, or in your relationship with the client, take a moment to ask yourself how you will deal with them the next time they rear their ugly heads.

What will I say if the client says…?

Then practice how you will say "no." Feel free to start with a "yes, but…" or two, but recognise that if the client isn't willing to accept or acknowledge your "but" premise, then you will, ultimately, have to resort to "no."

No, I cannot do that because it exceeds my [capability, mandate, contract, allowances, contingency, whatever]. I prize you in this relationship, but that's outside where I can go here.

Then, after you've rehearsed it three or four times, give it a whirl. When the situation is right, take Nancy Reagan's advice from the 1980's and "just say no."

Expect the firestorm. Expect challenges. Expect an unwillingness to concur that "no" is one of the options from the answer menu.

But if the request is genuinely beyond what your or your organisation can deal with, you have just taken the first step toward a much, much, healthier relationship.

And if the client walks away?

If their request was genuinely unreasonable and would have led to bad business practice or behaviour on our part, we have done our organisation a positive service. Some clients (or some elements of their work) deserve to be let go. But be sure the climate is right. If you have the ability and the authority to let them go, and if what they're doing is not in our organisations' best interests, then we are one step closer to a healthier, stronger and more nimble organisation, and we are freeing resources to do more valued and valuable work.

Do we want to do this often? Probably not. But do we have to do this often? Definitely not. In most corporate environments, there are very few clients who really tax an organisation and its personnel to their limits. But those who do tax organisations hard do incalculable damage, damage that gets worse and costs us more the longer they're with us.

If you've set the stage well, and have a clear understanding that you have the ability, the authority and the rationale for forging ahead with a "no" response, it's worth a try. But remember, practice makes perfect. And if it hasn't been part of your vocabulary for a while, it might take some serious rehearsal before you're ready for the main event.

© 2008, Pritchard Management Associates, used with permission of the author.


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