Saying No To A Project

Paul Naybour

Sometimes saying no to a project can be the best course of action for you, your career and your organisation, and yet so many of us avoid doing it.
Have you ever wondered why you agreed to take on a certain project? Have you wished you had just said no without any repercussions? Have you ever volunteered for a project no one else wanted? Although volunteering for a project no one else wants to do can sometimes be beneficial to your career (assuming it all goes well) it can also have the opposite effect so sometimes you need to have the courage to turn down projects.

Saying no can be difficult so we often say yes to avoid that short term difficulty when, in fact, in the long term agreeing to the project can have a much worse outcome.

The Problems With Saying Yes

Saying yes to the wrong project can cause serious issues that can be easy to predict, such as late delivery because the schedule is clearly unreasonable. If you start a new project with less time than should have been allocated to it no amount of good project management strategies are going to save it from failure.  All all the milestones and deadlines will be off-course before your even start – you basically have to start with a lot of baggage already attached to the project. Saying yes when you should have said no can also prevent problem solving within the organisation. Sometimes organisations need to face an issue that will not be faced if the organisation only hears what it wants to.

It’s Hard Saying No

So why is it so hard saying no? Many people agree to projects they know cannot be truly successful because they don’t want to get into conflicting arguments with the people they work with. They fear the consequences of an unhappy boss, or people blaming you for an increased workload, or receiving a less than great work review. The problem is that fear you have is there regardless of whether or not you say yes or no. Why? Because many projects are simply impossible to complete in a certain timeframe or within a certain budget and that is very often clear at the outset.

Of course it is sometimes possible to gradually remove some of the constraints on the project as it progresses (reducing scope, for instance, on a project constrained by time and cost) and sometimes we can convince ourselves we can do that. But what sort of satisfaction does that give you, the people working on the project and, more importantly, the client if you are delivering something below par?

This approach is just avoiding the fact that some tasks are simply non-achievable but allowing your organisation to convince themselves that they are. As a project manager you are a natural problem solver – but it is important to recognise that some problems cannot be solved without a change of mindset – you’re a PM not a magician.

How To Say No (or, at least, re-negotiate)

Firstly watch how other people do it. Watch someone else in the position of saying yes or no to a project and see what happens to them with the decision they make. Seeing a “no” situation work out for the better or a “yes” situation result in complete meltdown will help you recognise the benefits of saying no yourself. Recognise when you agree to a project when you shouldn’t and consider trying to negotiate a better schedule, budget or scope next time. You can gain the confidence to turn down the next impossible project. Try looking for support from other project managers facing the same issues – offer and receive support from them and share experiences to deal with such issues.

Remember, being a ‘yes’ person can be good for your career but you also need to recognise when to say no.

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