How to say no nicely: A tip for project managers

You know the importance of capacity planning and resource management, so why do all of your projects get derailed by ad-hoc requests?

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by Ty Kiisel, @task - Forget everything you've ever learned about the Holy Grail from watching Indiana Jones or reading about King Arthur's quest. In project management, the Holy Grail is really all about accurate capacity planning and resource management.

Whenever I speak with project managers and the topic of resource management comes up, the discussion centers around one of two themes. Which describes your organization?

1. I'm told, "Capacity planning and resource management is a critical part of our work management process and makes us more efficient and competitive."

2. Or, "We see the value of better capacity planning and are working toward a more formalized method for actually measuring capacity and effectively utilizing our resources."

However, as important as capacity planning is, there are really very few organizations that have a handle on it. I think it's safe to say that many organizations find capacity planning difficult because there is simply too much to do and not enough resources to do it. To make matters worse, most project team members seem to spend a large percentage of their time working on what I call "drive-by" projects, in other words, ad-hoc or emergency work that gets dropped in their lap every day. These drive-by projects suck up time, they suck up resources, they distract project teams, and they have the potential to push active projects behind schedule.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that they are of no value. In fact, accurate capacity planning and effective resource management is seldom a simple matter of separating the good projects from the bad. It's usually about choosing the best projects from a list of good projects. Unfortunately, when project teams are forced to deal with a drive-by project, all the work to keep them focused on those initiatives that drive the most business value gets thrown out the window. They may be worthy projects, but if they don't measure up to the "does this provide the most value" test, they ultimately limit an organization's capacity to work on the things that do.

In theory everyone agrees with this, however actual practice is something different. In the heat of the moment, it's difficult for decision-makers to step back and ask the tough question, "Will this drive-by project provide enough value that someone should drop what he or she is doing to work on it?" Sometimes the answer is definitely yes, but often the answer is no. And, saying no can be difficult when you are facing a powerful internal stakeholder who wants his or her project done.

Saying no without actually saying no

Let me suggest two strategies that make it possible to say no without offending a stakeholder or that will at least make saying no sound less arbitrary:

1. Create a visible list of active, prioritized work: This may sound overly simplistic, but prioritizing the work being done by project teams is only the first step. Making those priorities visible is what makes this strategy powerful. It's difficult for a stakeholder, even a powerful stakeholder, to circumvent a prioritized and strategically valuable project for something that doesn't pass the "does this provide the most value" test. Offering to sit down with the stakeholder and review where on the list of prioritized projects his or her project might fit often makes it unnecessary to say no. Frequently, a stakeholder will look at the list and realize that "no" is the best answer on their own. Visibility into what the project team is working on is the key to the "no" that isn't a "no."

2. Say yes, but make sure everyone knows what yes costs. There is a resource cost (as well as other costs) for everything that a project team does. Sometimes it is only the cost of the labor, but often it is the cost of stopping work on a project that provides great value to the organization to work on a project of lesser value. These costs need to be expressed whenever one project is pushed ahead of another. Although the squeaky wheel (the stakeholder who complains the loudest) shouldn't always be the one to get the grease, if the cost of "greasing that particular wheel" is known, an informed decision can be made as to whether or not it is really the best thing for the organization.

What do you do to manage capacity and resources in your organization? How do you say no?

Ty Kiisel writes about project management issues and best practices for @task Project Management Software. Follow Ty on Twitter: @tykiisel

For more project management tips, see:
Project management: Scrapping a doomed project
Project Management: 4 Questions To Ask Before Starting Any Project
Project management: 4 tips for dealing with problem stakeholders

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