Saying No to More Work

If you are like most people I know, it doesn’t matter what approach you take to your projects—your manager has too much work for you to do. Instead of a potential career-limiting conversation, frame the conversation so you can show your manager you’re considering his or her perspective.

Here are some options for how to say no and still stay on good terms with your boss.

Ask: “Can We Add More People?”

Does your boss expect you to solve problems alone without working with a team? That is a classic case of optimizing for resource efficiency, which is the least efficient way to manage (and deliver) knowledge work.

If you have expertise in a specific area of code, testing, or a certain function, such as database administration, your boss might think you are most efficient when you work as an expert. Your boss might even think that you, alone, can do this work. And that might be true—for your part of the work.

The problem occurs when we think of software product development as manufacturing. Manufacturing is a repetitive process. We don’t learn as we manufacture.

All software is some form of product development. We learn as we develop the software. We need to build in time to learn together as a team to deliver a working product.

Think about how you perform your work. In all the software projects I’ve seen, people don’t spend the bulk of their time writing code or tests. Rather, people spend their time thinking about the problem: including wrestling with requirements; redesigning the interactions inside the code; and understanding what the tests tell us about the code.

That means—regardless of your approach—you need to work as a team to finish work. Your boss might not realize this yet. In that case, explain about flow efficiency.

Flow efficiency optimizes for finishing a chunk of work as it flows through the team. In contrast, resource efficiency optimizes for each person’s strengths, so it creates queues of partly finished work waiting for the handoff to the next person down the chain.

When you suggest to your boss that you might need more people, explain how a team of people focused on finishing work can deliver finished features faster than experts working separately.

According to Brooks’ Law, adding more people to a late project makes it later. I have often found Brooks’ Law to be true, especially if you work with handoffs, as in resource efficiency. I have not seen the effects of this law when people work together to optimize at the team level to finish features.

If you can’t add more people or organize in flow efficiency to help complete the work, try to limit the work.

Ask: “What Should I Stop Doing?”

It is entirely possible that your boss does not know all the work you are trying to accomplish. In that case, consider asking what you should stop working on. This works at the team level and at the personal level.

When I have too much work, I rank it and put some onto my personal parking lot. I don’t forget the work; I postpone it, so I’m not thinking about it for now. When I’m ready to address work in my parking lot, I can reassess my decision.

You can do this for yourself, your team, and your organization. If there is significant customer demand for your products, you will have more work than you can easily complete. Separate the work you need to deliver now from the work you can do later.

Explain: “These Are the Risks I See …”

Every so often I realize I have taken on a project with too much risk. I don’t know how to start, or, worse, I don’t know what done means. And, for me, one of the biggest risks is that I don’t see how to deliver this work in someone else’s promised time.

If you are ever in that position, you can say to your manager, “Here are the risks I see if you want me to start on that work.” Then, you can explain how you don’t see how to do that work with all the other work you are supposed to complete.

Provide your boss facts without whining. Facts will help your case. Whining will not.

You might provide facts about other people’s availability, the time it’s taken so far to finish whatever you have done or not done, and the general riskiness of the project.

Sometimes, it’s not about the project risks. You have too much work and your manager might not realize that. It’s time to show your manager, not just tell him.

Visualize Your Work for Yourself and Your Manager

I use pictures to help my manager see what is on my list and when I might finish the work. I like two views of the data: a kanban board and a calendar.

You can start a kanban board with four columns showing the state of the work: To Do, In Progress, Stuck, and Done. If you need more states for your work, or you want to show the team’s work, add the states you need. I often see these additional states: Waiting to Discuss, Waiting to Analyze, and Waiting for Testing.

In addition to the kanban board, a calendar view can show when you’re supposed to finish the work. You might have two-week intervals on the calendar view. Sometimes, one-month intervals work. I do not like intervals longer than one month. I find that we interrupt ourselves with too much work if the intervals are longer than that.

Now, label the left column In Progress with the intervals across. At the bottom of the chart, draw a big, black horizontal line. Under that line, in the left column, write Unstaffed.

Place a sticky note in each column of the projects you intend to work on during that interval. If you don’t plan to work on that project in that interval, put a sticky in the Unstaffed row for the relevant column. Once you have a picture of the work, you can have a conversation with your boss when he asks you to perform more work.

Saying No Works

You do not have to say yes. You can say no in at least these four ways and help your boss become more aware of what you are working on and what is practical for you to accomplish. You might even make it a career-enhancing conversation!

© 2017 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Better Software magazine.

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