The Most Important Word in Project Management

by Bogdan on January 29, 2010

Once in while, junior project managers ask for immediate tips, tricks, and advanced ninja moves which could bring them some serious advantages, with almost zero effort. And you know they are junior – whether this is written or not on their business cards – as they keep asking about quick fixes to their project issues, before even knowing the basics of the project management.

Of course – there are a lot of tips and tricks to be shared: but how valuable are those if you don’t handle the fundamentals? Imagine that you want to know how to drift a racecar, but you don’t know how to shift gears… And – this is probably the hardest lesson I had to learn, going through lots of pain – but no rookie seems to be interested in finding out the fundamentals.

So here it is, the most plain, powerful, single word you have to know, and use when managing a project:

NO

Yes, it that simple: NO, NO, NO. Knowing how and when to say no, is so important. In project management is one of the most ecological tools, as it helps saving resources, energy and time to be dispersed with minimum effort. For example, read this gem, from 37signals.com blog:

“The hardest part about making good software that ships on time is knowing what and when to sacrifice. As programmers and designers, we often fall in love with our requirements and are unable to kill our darlings. We mistake what we said we’ll do with what must be done. It’s rarely so; you can always do less.”

So my friends: please do say NO – as you can always do less. As a team member say NO, when your project manager or sponsor volunteers you for a mission impossible. As project manager say NO, when a team member wants to implement something which is not essential to the project, or is sapping on the project resources (especially when asking for more time).

One more thing: please say NO, but do it graciously. Otherwise your ecological efforts will turn you into a dictatorial neysayer. And this has nothing to do with being a solutions seeker, a good submarine captain or a project manager.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven | The Emotion Machine January 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm

This is a lesson in time management that I have learned long ago when I used to be lazy with school. Productivity is being able to say more “No’s” – because you know that if you do the things that are most important, then the little stuff is inconsequential. I applied this to school by always going to class and doing my homework, by the time studying for the final exams came along, I’d whip out the big ol’ NO!

It saves me a lot of time too. I practically never, ever studied for school but I always got straight As.

Reply

Bogdan January 30, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Hi Steven,

Thanks for your thoughts and insights from your experience. Like you say, NO is a sanitizing word, which may wash away the unproductive junk

Reply

Steven | The Emotion Machine January 29, 2010 at 2:29 pm

To sum it up: If you do what truly matters, you will have more room for “NO”

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Bogdan January 30, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Exactly: you are hitting the nail in the head with this comment: great input!

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Kevin P. January 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Please be careful with this advice. Lots of good people with “can-do” attitudes are looking for work right now.

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Bogdan January 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for your advice: you are right. I was not referring to the mental attitude, which should be, by all means a “can-do” one, anytime in life. I was stressing that, in order to protect “the Definite YES” (in getting things done, in securing resources, in clarifying the scope of the project before starting the work) from its less helping cousin (“the May Be YES”), I prefer to use “NO” to set up clear boundaries, especially when expectations of different stakeholders start to go wild.

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Dana January 29, 2010 at 5:26 pm

It’s definitely true that you need to say NO to get the most important work done. This saves you from working along the lines of “the squeakiest wheel gets the grease” and lets you plan out what needs to be done. It also helps to organize your tasks and projects so you understand your capacity to take on new projects. Project management solutions can easily help with that need. Great post.

Reply

Bogdan January 30, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Hi Dana,

Thanks for your nice words. You are definitely right: although the attitude should be a positive one (finding solutions), when using NO you remind everyone that the resources within the project are limited and forces everyone – like you say – to concentrate on the delivering the most important thing

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