When a project manager has to say no.

I have often been asked by a project manager how to say no. Sometimes the demands on the manager are (in their words) so unrealistic or unachievable that they face a real dilemma; how to say no.

I have often advised those on project management training courses that rather than say a direct no (which many would like to do) they ought to use some of the tools within project management to help them.

So, rather than say no, what can a project manager do or say? Some suggestions are given below. However, words of caution; if you use some of the suggestions you will need to use a wide range of personal skills. These include areas such as influencing, being assertive, questioning and listening being aware of organisational politics. Or, maybe it is simply standing up for being right (in your mind). As one person suggested, the real skill is dealing with the fallout from how you say no! So, revise and practice those soft skills….

1. when the project scope is challenged – use the system! Ensure that the person who requests the change or you (the project manager) goes through the appropriate change control process. If you don’t have one then get one, very quickly. Do not action any changes until the full ramification of changes have been identified, agreed and formally signed off

2. when the budget looks likely to be exceeded – as above or by reducing the overall scope of the project.

3. when you get another project on top of your exhausting list – (an all to often occurrence according to people I meet) ensure you know which project has what priority. You may need to argue that the resources you have do not match the priorities given which means you will need good skills in developing resource charts and plans.

4. when the business case makes no financial sense but someone (a key stakeholder or senior manager)is pushing to get the project started – develop a strong well argued business case to gain formal approval before moving the project forward. Sometimes you have to accept that politics will win over however cover yourself by putting a very strong case against the project

5. when the business benefits are compromised – the project manager must point this out to the sponsor or project owner suggesting a way forward including abandoning the project (if appropriate). Include in the risk register and submit this for formal sign off by senior managers

6. when there is no clear sponsor/owner – the project manager must seek one or abandon the project. Now I could say, if there is no owner then there is no one to object! However, good practice shows where there is clarity of ownership projects have a much better chance of succeeding

7. when there is no clear monitoring and control process, or the monitoring and control process is not as strong as it should be- this should clearly be identified as a project risk and fed back to the sponsor/executive

These are some areas identified on some of our project management training events and my response. Do send me your ideas on how to say no……


This entry was posted in benefits management and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to When a project manager has to say no.

  1. Peter Bowyer says:

    Good list. Can I add a suggestion…

    Don’t say what you can’t do. Concentrate on saying what you can do – eg ‘I can deliver the full scope as long as I have the opportunity to re-work the timescales’. Offer options, use your influencing skills to steer the sponsor towards your preferred option.

  2. Ron says:

    No problem here Peter!! I often use the quality/cost/time triangle to emphasise what you CAN do. As the song says accentuate the positive.


  3. Excellent list.
    Is the govenance to be used as “intelligent” bulwark against prevarications of the project’s chart?
    It should be be considered a hideout, just a good reference.

  4. Ajay Khullar says:

    Ron, nice listing. I suggest that proper and good resources are also part of project deadlines. In absence of good resources project is liable to crash and Project Manager should say no in this case too (in polite and diplomatic) words.

  5. Samad Aidane says:

    Sometimes “No” is a complete sentence 🙂

    I read this a couple of days ago and I loved it. Sometimes, I wish I can say that to my sponsors and project team members.

    Unfortunately I can’t.

    Actually, I am learning to never say “No” and to always say “Yes” with a condition. Example, “yes, we can add that feature to the product/application, if we delay the Go Live by 1 week. If that is O.K with you (Mr. Sponsor), I can estimate how much that will add to the budget and get back to you shortly. We can proceed as soon as you approve the change”.

    I think we as PMs have been trained to be logical and use logic to influence people. If our data is solid and our logic is sound, then people should be convinced.

    But we all know that this does not always work in the real world of project. Sometime people have such a strong emotional reaction when they get a “No” to their requests. They often stop listening and start getting ready to respond and push back. Often, they come armed and ready to fight for what they want. Depending on the context, a “No” can trigger such a strong emotional reaction that no amount of logic can diffuse it. Hearing a “Yes” tends to disarm people. The condition gives them a way to move forward. It is a possibility. It is always a possibility that comes with a cost but it is a possibility nonetheless. It tells them that you are on their side and that you are willing to work with them to find a solution to what they want. It also engages them and forces them to do their part in achieving what they want.

    Samad Aidane
    IT Project Manager
    Seattle, WA

  6. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for When a project manager has to say no. | Ron Rosenhead's Project Management Blog [ronrosenhead.co.uk] on Topsy.com

  7. Jay McManus says:

    This is a very good article and really hits home for me. I find that sometimes it helps to ‘go back to basics’ to figure out what the real motivation behind a project is to help focus in on what is really important. For example, a project may be initiated to fullfil a regulatory requirement. When the funding is being obtained the scope may increase to include other ‘nice to haves’. If the delivery of the overall project gets jeopardized, it may help to focus on what is legally required to ensure that this meets the required timeframe.

  8. Ron says:

    Thanks for all these great comments. A couple of thoughts:

    Samad; you are correct. You cannot say NO directly however use the processes within project management – as you well illustrated. Ajay, this falls into the too direct trap! Maybe look at the delivery of the project as Samad described and say something like yes, I can deliver by then however I will need a staff member with XYZ skills for 2 weeks to do this, handing the project issue (risk?) back to the owner.

    Jay, understanding the motivation behind the project is essential – so agree here.

    Thanks again for your contributions. Any one else got any suggestions or thoughts?


  9. Pingback: Tweets that mention When a project manager has to say no. | Project Management Training with Ron Rosenhead -- Topsy.com

  10. Pingback: When a project manager has to say no | CAI's Accelerating IT Success

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *