CXO

How to say no to a project the right way

IT often gets a bad rap as the Department of No. Here's how to keep the lines of communication with other departments open, even when the answer is still no.

istock-618460026-1.jpg
Image: iStock/Rawpixel

I've spent about half my career working inside IT departments, and the other half working with entities outside IT who were trying to leverage technology, those strange entities IT leaders usually call "the business." Oftentimes it seems as if IT and the business are like nations in a Cold War of sorts, exchanging only terse comments and assuming nefarious intent is at the root of the other side's actions. Much of this tension stems from IT being asked to play multiple roles and quickly execute dozens of projects with limited resources, making "no" the default answer when asked to add one more item to the list of projects. If you find yourself defaulting to "no," here are a few tips to move to yes, or at least say no the right way.

1. Solve the root of your "no" problem

In most cases, IT leaders decline new projects due to resource constraints, with some combination of their financial and human resources that are already at capacity. If you find yourself in this predicament, rather than immediately declining new work, or requesting more funding, evaluate where your resources are being spent. Look for ongoing activities that are consuming time and money that could potentially be replaced with more efficient activities. If a particular technical component is consuming your staff, a project to replace or upgrade it might liberate resources in the longer run. Perhaps there are activities you're doing internally that a vendor or partner could take on, or your top technical talent are consumed with maintenance tasks.

Rather than restructuring your portfolio of projects and ongoing maintenance tasks on a one-off basis, get a handle on your portfolio quarterly, and proactively look for opportunities to retire, re-platform, or outsource resource-consuming assets. When someone comes knocking with a new project, you can even bargain to retire a low-volume system that is less important.

In addition to the technical portfolio, look for ways to make your team more efficient. If your top teams are spending half their day in meetings, something as simple as eliminating half your status meetings could open your team up to new projects.

2. Collaborate on "no"

If you're unable to clear an item or two from your plate in order to say yes to a new project, collaborate with the requester to jointly arrive at a "no." Assuming you have a handle on your portfolio of assets and activities, ask the requester to help identify projects in their area that could be de-prioritized or removed. If the request is deemed critical, seek the help of the requester in reprioritizing other projects, essentially allowing the entire organization to help you set your priorities, rather than making what you see as the best decision and ultimately disappointing others who don't feel involved in the decision.

When you collaborate to reach a decision, you can also help the requester explore IT-friendly outside options. While this will require some level of involvement from your team, it will be better in the long run to be involved in the decision-making and implementation process, since you'll ultimately have to support the platform anyway. Even if you still ultimately say no to a request, collaborating on the decision will chip away at the "Department of No" image, since IT is behaving transparently and collaboratively.

As you legitimately demonstrate IT's lack of capacity, you may find an interesting thing happening. Rather than seeing your budget trimmed, your budget requests may suddenly start getting support from unfamiliar parts of the organization. Saying no in the right way ultimately demonstrates that you're running a high-quality organization that's simply capacity constrained, rather than a plodding monolith that's painful to work with. In the case of the former, it's far easier to get a yes to budget requests that ultimately mitigate the capacity concern.

Also see:

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox