Take a Stand—Yes or No, Not Maybe

Edna sprinted down the hall to her next meeting. “Edna, wait up,” her boss yelled.

“What do you want, Wayne. I’m in a rush to get to this meeting,” she said.

“I want you to run another project for me. It’s about …”

Edna interrupted, “Wayne. Stop right there. We had this discussion last month in the hall. About you asking me to take on more work, right?”

Sheepishly, Wayne agreed.

“So, I’m in the hall now, and I’m thinking about this meeting I’ve got now. I want to be able to think about what you’re going to ask me, so I’ll catch up with you before I go home tonight. Will you be in your office at 5:00?”

“For you, Edna, I’ll be there as late as you want.”

“I only want 5:00. I’ll see you then.”

After her meeting, Edna knocked on Wayne’s door. As he finished his phone call, she opened her calendar and brought up the spreadsheet of all of her work. She was ready.

“Edna, here’s the scoop. I want you to manage this Critical Serious Fix project. Bruce—you know, the architect from Enterprise—thinks it will take about four weeks, as long as he also gets another three people. So, whad’ya say? Do we have a deal?”

“Wayne, you know I hate to say no to you.”

“Good, then it’s a done deal.” Wayne turned back to his computer.

“No, it’s not a done deal. I haven’t said yes, yet.” Edna smiled and leaned back.

“Oh, what do you want?”

“I want you to decide either when you want this project done or which projects I don’t have to do to take this one on. You know how Bruce is—I’m going to spend a bunch of time listening to him complain. If you want me to start this project later, after my current projects, I can do that. But I can’t do the Critical Serious Fix project and do my current work as well. Something has to go.”

“You could multitask.”

“Wayne, stop and look at me.” Edna paused until she had Wayne’s full attention. “We had this discussion already. Multitasking doesn’t work. It slows me down. I don’t keep all the context I need about the project in my head. I am not going to multitask. Either I will say yes to the work or I will say no, but I won’t give you a half-baked maybe. Let’s discuss my priorities.”

Edna and Wayne walked through her list of work and the priorities of each project. At first, Wayne was resistant to the idea that Edna wouldn’t just take on more work. But then he realized she was actually doing him a favor by telling him what she really could and could not commit to.

They revised her workload, and Edna postponed work on another project to give this new project her undivided attention.

Two weeks later, Edna checked in with Wayne. “I’m just about finished with shepherding the Critical Serious Fix project—you remember, the critical fix Bruce is working on? I’ll be picking up the other project we postponed two weeks ago. Is it still the next priority, or is there something else I need to do?”

Wayne looked at his project list. “Nope, I want you back on that project when you’re done with this one.”

“OK. I’ll let you know if there’s a delay. I’ll expect to start working on that project next Tuesday.” Edna turned to leave.

“Hey, Edna, wait a minute. How did you manage to finish this project early?”

“Well, you know how pessimistic Bruce is about his estimates, right?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, he’s pessimistic because he doesn’t believe we can give him the people or the uninterrupted time to do the work. So, I got him the people he needed at the beginning—I freed them up from their other work. No multitasking for them, either. And, since this was my top priority project, I kept all my attention on it. We worked hard, and we were able to stay in flow on the project. We didn’t miss any of our internal milestones because we estimated work in small chunks and checked in every day. But the real key was, because we didn’t work on anything else the entire time, Bruce’s estimates were a little high. Now we’re almost done, and as soon as we are, we can go back to our other projects. But we’ll have finished this project, soup to nuts.”

“See? This focus on one project and no multitasking really works.” Edna looked at the papers overflowing Wayne’s desk and grinned. “Maybe you should try it.”

They both burst out laughing as Edna left.


Story Lines

–       Saying either yes or no can be difficult.

–       Saying maybe allows other people to decide for you.

–       Develop your portfolio of projects so you can discuss priorities with your boss.

–       Nurture your relationship with your boss so you can have frank discussions.

© 2007 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Better Software, Mar 2007, pp 14-15.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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