Project Management Institute

Say no!


No. It's only two letters, but it's one of the toughest words to say, especially to sponsors because they wield so much power over your project.

Sponsors have been known to expedite a timeline, limit resources or constantly shift scope—all while expecting you and your team to keep the project on track.

When faced with requests you know aren't feasible, what's the best way to communicate with sponsors? Make your case with these five strategies.

TIP #1: Be Clear From the Start

Managing expectations must begin before project launch, says Marcel Ekkel, PMP, managing consultant at SynergySynQ Ltd., a project management training and consulting firm in Hong Kong.

“A chartering workshop is a critical tool to be used at the beginning of a project,” he says. “The sponsor and other key stakeholders should participate to establish the project, agree on top deliverables, discuss resourcing and define highlevel risks. Having key stakeholders involved creates buy-in and allows for early communication on potential issues.”

Establish tolerances (i.e., stretches in the schedules or budget), so you know when to turn to the sponsor for decision-making.

TIP #2: Explain the Consequences

Even with thorough pre-planning, some sponsors still make unrealistic requests during the course of a project.

While it may feel empowering to give a firm “no” to every change request, it's not the best tactic. Instead, explain how the demands will affect constraints.

“Project managers should frame the project in such a way that sponsors can see for themselves where the tradeoffs are,” says Christa Ferguson, PMP, an independent program manager in San Francisco, California, USA. “It's your job to figure out and present options to them. A good project manager is not going to simply say, ‘Yes, we can change the design’ without also saying, ‘I'll get back to you with the schedule and budget impact of this change.’”

Let's say you're working on a project with a schedule of one year, and your sponsor insists you accelerate the timeline by three months.

“Don't say, ‘No, we can't do that,’” advises Bill Mabry, PMP, program manager at Lake Shore Associates, a management consultancy in Chicago, Illinois, USA. “Say, ‘Sure, I can work on that. However, it's my job and my responsibility to evaluate how the change is going to affect the project. Do you mind if I adjust the project timeline and come back with a summary of the impact?’”

Help the sponsor understand that if time will decrease, there's a high likelihood that another constraint will shift.

TIP #3: Have a Contingency Plan

While it's your job to figure out the impact a change will have on a project, sponsors ultimately make the final decision. If they want to push the deadline forward, for example, but aren't willing to adjust the scope, come up with a plan B.

“Specify a contingency, an agreed-upon action you would take if your adjusted plan was not tracking as you had hoped,” Mr. Mabry says. “For example, say you're planning to complete something in nine months instead of 12. You should agree to evaluate the status of the project in three months, and if you're not on track, execute your contingency plan. Then if things don't go as planned, you'll know exactly what to do.”

TIP #4: Avoid Surprises

One of the worst predicaments in which project managers can find themselves is telling sponsors something can't be accomplished after assuring them it could. Many project managers fall into the trap of always saying yes to a sponsor because they're afraid to push back for fear of upsetting their superior, Mr. Mabry notes.

“While that can happen, in the long run it's better to address issues early,” he says. “If you're a ‘yes man’ and put in time and resources, but then it ends up not happening, you're worse off.”

Aligning expectations can be difficult, even for experienced practitioners, says Jan Mandrup, PMP, senior project and program manager for IT giant IBM in Bangkok, Thailand.

“Saying no in most situations is never easy, and I have found that even for senior practitioners, it can be painful,” he says.

Compounding matters is the fact that project managers sometimes have to wrangle multiple stakeholders with differing views.

“I've been in situations as a project manager where the commercial partner was reluctant to say no to the client early in the project,” Mr. Mandrup says. “Because of this, small decisions were postponed until they grew to a size and impact that could no longer be contained.”

If your sponsors constantly are surprised by bad news, their confidence level in your ability to lead the project effectively will be severely compromised, Ms. Ferguson warns. “Any number of negative outcomes could result, such as twice-daily status updates or daily meetings with executives to provide progress status or reassignment. I've seen it all happen to unsuspecting folks who were trying to ‘protect’ their sponsor from bad news by saying yes to everything,” she says.


IN ACTION: Saying No…Without Having to Really Say No

When Christa Ferguson, PMP, an independent program manager in San francisco, California, USA, received a product requirements document from her sponsor in July and was asked to deliver a fully functional tablet device by September, she knew it wasn't possible. “The request for quotation effort alone would last at least three weeks,” she says.

Instead of immediately saying no, Ms. Ferguson gathered facts and documentation that would illustrate to the sponsor a more realistic timeline helping him reset expectations with his management.

“I created a timeline for the request for quotation and requested the companies quoting the job to include a breakdown of the work required with a high-level schedule,” she says. “Then we could see the project was going to take at least six months to complete. By creating a factual, data-driven picture of the situation, I didn't have to explain anything other than what work had to be done and how long it would take. Our sponsor reset expectations once he learned what it took to produce the tablet.”

TIP #5: Take a Stand

Some sponsors just won't compromise. When facing a stubborn stakeholder, you still must voice your opinions on how their requests will impact the overall project and offer recommendations, says Tom Sheives, PMP, senior project management consultant at Unstuck Company, a project management consultancy in Washington, D.C., USA.

“If you can't advise and get that credibility by standing up for what you believe in, you'll be looking for another job,” he warns.

In the end, saying no can be part of the job. “If you don't step it up and say, ‘We cannot get this done and this is the way it is,’ then what are you there for?” Mr. Sheives says. “If a sponsor wants a good, seasoned project manager, that's what you must do.” PM

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