Inspired Project Teams Enduring Wisdom & Guided Challenges to Help Project Teams Achieve Their Best
  • Just Say No

    Filed under Focus
    Jul 20

    Audio: Just Say No [Time – 9:45, File Size – 9.3 MB]

    In most of these Inspired Project Teams posts and podcasts, I’ve tried to focus on the positive. We’ve examined optimism, happiness, trusting your inner voice, embracing your work, joyfully taking risks, and generally saying “yes!” to the challenges you and your team face. However, while it might make sense for individuals to say “yes” to life as often as they can, there are critical moments when project teams have just gotta say “no!” Otherwise, your team could find itself swamped by chores that you never agreed to and that are not tied to the essential project deliverables.

    As Stephen Covey says:

    “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside. The enemy of the ‘best’ is often the ‘good.’”  – Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

    Then there’s this from journalist Herbert Bayard Swope:

    “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”

    Finally, Steve Jobs warns:

    “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

    Be the Plumber

    The best people – the ones you really want on your team – are highly-motivated professionals who want to do great work. That’s the good news. The bad news is that these same highly motivated people often find it difficult to say “no” to add-ons, those additional bells-and-whistles that customers and stakeholders dream up as “nice to have.” Each request for add-ons poses a challenge to these high achievers. For them, meeting and beating that challenge can often be a matter of personal pride. Unfortunately, most project budgets are finite, as are project schedules. So adding deliverables – even ones that are professionally challenging and potentially wonderful — usually means chewing up more time and money than is available.

    In my classes I challenge new project managers to “be the plumber.”  That is, to ask yourself this question: What would happen if you contracted with a plumber to put new plumbing in your kitchen and then, half-way through the project, ask him to add new plumbing for a nearby bathroom?  Everyone realizes that doesn’t make sense! Either the plumber would say “no” flat out, or he would demand two essentials to accept such a request:  more time and more money!

    But for some odd reason, many professionals find the plumber’s simple business logic difficult to grasp. I’m guessing this is largely due to grad school habits and internship experiences in which they gleefully accepted every challenge and request that came from advisers or supervisors. And if this meant working around the clock, accepting unfair assignments and changes, or generally allowing themselves to be the victims, then so be it. That was all part of the hazing … er… challenge of earning a place in their chosen profession. The result: By the time they are employed in our organizations, they’ve had plenty of practice having people ask them to do more or provide additional features, without offering more time or money, and they readily agree because doing so has become a habit!  The original contract, the original project specifications, even the original verbal agreements everyone supported can be forgotten as these seemingly reasonable requests for “little add-ons” or enhancements are accepted. And later, when the project budget and schedule are blown, the whole project team is blamed.

    So here’s the deal: Our project teams need to say “no” to such requests… as Covey says, “smilingly, non-apologetically” — but “no!”  And that means drawing on that strength that comes from having that bigger “yes” that burns within. That bigger “yes” that is the unique definition of quality deriving from the team’s shared passion for the limited and finite project vision that everyone agreed to in the first place!

    Senior Managers and Customers Respect a Well-Reasoned “No”

    Finally, here’s a footnote for all of you who are thinking that saying “no” is going to get  you in trouble with your clients or senior management. During the debriefing sessions following my PM Basics workshops, I ask my class participants to develop a list of organizational changes they’d like to see made in order for them to improve their project management practices or the way things are done in the organization. Invariably, the recommendation “Reduce the workload or get us more people to help us” ends up on these lists. At the end of these debriefing sessions, I ask the participants’ senior managers to join us and hear what the class is recommending. Class participants wait nervously to hear what the big bosses are going to say when they hear the “less work or more people” suggestion. And almost always they’re pleasantly surprised to hear the response. Invariably senior managers respond with something like this: “Well, why didn’t you tell us your workload was too much?  Unless we hear differently, we’re going to assume that you have all the people you need. So from now on, speak up! Otherwise we’ll just keep piling on the work!”

    The lesson that’s learned from this response: Take a deep breath, summon your courage, and just say “no.” For the sake of quality… for the sake of that bigger “yes” burning inside… Just say “no.”  Your senior managers, customers, and project sponsors will respect you for it.

    Greer’s Challenges


    Reflect on these questions:

    • Are there elements of our project that might be vulnerable to “scope creep” from our stakeholders’ expanding “wish lists?”
    • Are team members prepared to say “no” to these wish lists “smilingly, nonapologetically?”
    • Are any of your team members predisposed to saying “Yes” to certain enhancements that they would enjoy creating, but that aren’t part of the project specifications? Are you staying alert to these potential scope changes and figuring out the best ways to handle them?

    Team Challenges

    Ask your team:

    • What are some parts of our project that might be vulnerable to “scope creep” from stakeholders’ wish lists?
    • How will you handle these requests for add-ons?
    • What do you need from me (as project manager or team leader)… or from other people inside or outside the project team that would help you say “no” more confidently to these add-on requests?

    Project Manager Challenges

    • Make sure everyone on the project team has deep knowledge and respect for the boundaries of the project. Make sure they know, and are willing to defend, the finite nature of the project deliverables as specified in the contract or the work plan.
    • If you haven’t already done so, make sure there is a method in place for handling add-ons, wishes, and other requests for expanding the project scope. For example: Keep a list of items marked “Version 2” or “Enhancements for Future Projects” when you’re in those meetings with stakeholders that can be rolled into another, subsequent project that is separately funded and has its own schedule. That way they’re assured that their ideas are captured.
    • Back up your team members and be there to help them say “No” when they are faced with scope creep.

    Learn More…

      • Check out this related Inspired Project Teams post/podcast:  Spend More Time in Quadrant 2
      • Go to PhilosophersNotes and get the full notes and MP3 on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
      • Get the 12 hrs. 58 min. unabridged audio edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, narrated by the author, Stephen Covey, from
      • Check out the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, on Amazon.

    • Go to for lots of great information on new books and other resources by Stephen Covey.


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