I remember my first change request: “We need the center to host 150 people, 50 more than initially planned, which means building one extra wing.” That would have increased the budget by 30%. It was unrealistic, given the budget cycle. I had to ask another colleague from the regional coordination to say “No”. Then I came across Peter Taylor’s book ““The project manager who smiled” where I read: “The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary is ‘No’.
Project managers get often requests like: “We want these new features to the product. And by the way, why doesn’t the software have these new reporting tools we just adopted?!” or “We liked the study visit. We would like to go on one more by the end of the year.”
These are not Christmas letters to Santa. But it is pretty close. In the course of project implementation, beneficiaries tend to try to get more than initially planned. And it’s normal for them to try, for different reasons. I usually do not questions their motives. Not my job. My project manager’s job is to give them what we agreed, when we agreed and for the budget we agreed, without jeopardising the expected quality.
Because the project manager is not Santa, it’s ok to say “No”. There are a number of ways to say “No” in a project by considering the repercussions on the project and ultimately the beneficiary. The most important part is to have the beneficiary understand why the project manager says “No”. Reference to facts or similar past experience may support the understanding of pragmatic beneficiaries. One approach is to show what would happen if “yes” would be the answer.
Let’s take one of the wishes from the above list. “Yes” to an extra wing would mean delayed opening of the temporary detention centre (due to reopening the construction authorisation procedure etc.) and increased risks of revolt at the current facilities, which hold 100 people in less than acceptable conditions. Data shows that over the last three years the number of incomers is stable and the documents processing rates have improved. Therefore, the centre’s capacity is aligned with the demand. It worked in a project I managed years ago with a data-adept beneficiary.
When the beneficiary is guided by emotional or more personal motives, he/she may not hear /want to hear a reasoned “No”. The costs of “No” can be also high. For example, it asks to choose a certain consultant/service provider. A “No”, even if demonstrated by strictly adhered to procurement procedures and open competition rules, can have the beneficiary complain to the project sponsor and/or lead to the rejection to work with the chosen consultant/service provider. Each project is different and each beneficiary’s powers are context specific, so careful consideration is warranted. What I found important in such situations is to be as open and transparent about these kind of requests with all concerned. It cost me once a friendship, but then it was not perhaps the kind of friendship I would keep.
A “No” does not need to be brutal and cutting-off. One soft way of saying “No” is to help the beneficiary find another project who can accommodate the request. It will bring value added through networking to the relationship with the beneficiary, in addition to the opportunity for a good collaboration with another project/partner.