How to Say ‘No’

I originally wanted to write about how to start an agile project, possibly the pilot agile project in your organization—if it was starved of resources, people, machines, space, whatever. But I can’t write that article because no advice is worth the space. You shouldn’t even start that project.

An important tenet of agile project management is that both the team and management fully commit to the project. It’s the same idea as when an agile team commits to backlog items for an iteration–it’s got to be a full commitment all around.

Let me be clear about what a starved project is: That’s a project where you’re busy counting the FTEs (Full Time Equivalent) because no one is assigned to this project full time. Or it’s a project with no testers. Or a project with no database people (even though the database is an integral part of the project). Or it’s a project with no testbed, even though you can’t move the product directly to production; you have to test it first. That’s a starved project. Most of the time, I see projects starved of people because they are “just finishing up” a previous project.

Sometimes, I see projects starved of project management time because the project manager is supposed to be managing several projects at once. Well, that doesn’t work for any project—and it definitely doesn’t work for an agile project because the project manager’s job is to protect the process and remove obstacles for the team. The project manager provides the organization’s interface to the project. How the heck are you supposed to support your team if you’re trying to manage more than one project? You can’t.

Commitment Is a Two-Way Street

Management has a key job. That job is to commit to projects or not. If you are a project manager and your management has not committed to your project, why would you try and start it? Once you agree to manage a project, you have committed to that project. Don’t commit unless your management has made the same commitment to you. If you have a project starved of resources, don’t commit to it or even say you’ll try.

Instead, let’s talk about how to say no to projects.

Saying No Is Difficult

Saying “no” is not easy. It might be the most difficult thing you ever say to anyone in management. It’s almost always politically incorrect to say no. Sometimes you feel you’re inadequate because you want to say no. Maybe you feel as if you are letting down someone or the organization. And sometimes it can feel like it’s career suicide to say no.

But starting a project without the resources—the people and then the hard resources that you need—is a lot closer to career suicide and definitely lets the organization down. Project commitment goes both ways: to and from you and your managers. Learning how to say no is a useful and necessary skill for project managers. It can be tricky. Here are some of my favorite ways to do it…

When Do You Need This Project?

One way to say no is to ask, “When do you need this project?” Not all projects need to be done now–some need to be postponed for a while. When the project is postponed, you have an opportunity to gather resources such as a team room, machines or all the people that you need.

When you ask “when” for a project, you’re asking management to make the strategic decision about what needs to be done now and what needs to be done later. This is a management decision. Sometimes your PMO will make this decision. But somebody who can see the organization’s strategy needs to make this decision.

Let Me Tell You When We Can Start That Project

You don’t always want to be the person who asks when. Sometimes, you want to tell your management when you can start that project. If you’re working in a small organization or you’re one of few project managers, you have a pretty good idea of which team is assigned to which project and for how long. By default, you might be managing the project portfolio yourself. Or you might be collaborating with the other project managers to slot the work into the time a team can get to that project. In that case, you will know when a team is free to start the next project.

You can say, “Okay, I am pretty sure we can start that project after the next three iterations of this other project. I’ll explain to the team we’ll finish this project and let’s both talk to the product owner to make sure he knows what you’re thinking.” Now you’ve made it clear that the current project should only last three more iterations and that the product owner has to agree.

What Should I Stop Doing?

Another alternative is to ask, “What should I stop doing?” Not all managers realize they’ve asked you to do Project 1, Project 2, Project 3 and now Project 4. When you ask what you should stop, you’re explaining to your manager what you are already doing, what the team or teams are already doing and asking your manager to prioritize your work.

Managers need to be able to explain what the priority of every project in your organization is. Not all managers realize this is part of their job. So you might need to help your managers build a project portfolio in order to answer this question.

Being a Martyr Doesn’t Help

Starving a project and starting it anyway isn’t “sucking it up.” Sure, you get martyr points. But do those points count anywhere? It’s crazy and foolish.

Being a martyr as a project manager guarantees you have a team on a death march—and no one wants that. You and I (and your team) all know a death march project is an ineffective way to manage.

Here’s the deal: It’s possible your management doesn’t quite understand that when they commit to an agile project, it’s the same idea as when an agile team commits to backlog items for an iteration—it’s a full commitment, not a partial or limp “We’ll see if we can do this.” In order for them to commit, you need a project that’s ready to go. That means that all the people you need for now and all the other resources need to be available and committed for your project.

You may realize as you proceed with the project that you need more of something or some role. That’s fine—discovering obstacles and removing them is part of your job as an agile project manager. But to knowingly start a starved project? Learn how to say “no.” It’s within everyone’s best interest.

© 2010 Johanna Rothman. This article originally appeared on

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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