Home Thinking Aloud The Parenting Of Corporate America (Or Tips On When And How To...

The Parenting Of Corporate America (Or Tips On When And How To Say “No” For Project Managers)


By Russell Harley, veteran project manager and Director at PMO

Big boss yelling at his employee

As children, growing up we heard “no” a lot: no you can’t have ice cream for dinner, no you can’t go out and play until your chores/homework/etc. are done, and so on and so forth. As we grew older, the no’s we heard became more important, like no, you can’t use the car, as the roads are too dangerous. Once we became adults – by age, at least – our parents could still say no, but we no longer had to listen. Unfortunately, we ran into an entirely different set of no’s, in the form of the laws of the universe (which are very unforgiving as the Darwin Awards clearly point out) and in the form of our first jobs. No you can’t take time off again, is one example of this. As we grow, we learn to deal with these restrictions and come to work on time, learn to work within the laws of nature, etc… up to a point.

If we are successful in our work environment, we can get promoted and may end up at an executive level position. At this point a transformation occurs. There are no longer a lot of no’s in our lives. Without a lot of no’s, their absence must mean everything is “yes,” right? If everything is perceived to be a yes, instead of no, then anything and everything must be possible.

This leads us into hearing the following clichés, spoken by executives, that we have all come to know and love:

  • ​Not on my watch
  • If “this” doesn’t happen, then there will be consequences
  • Failure is not an option
  • Plus many more…

The ‘Failure Is Not An Option’ cliché is a personal favorite. Anyone who doesn’t live in the land of the Gods should understand, failure is always an option and any person saying this has lost their touch with reality. Unless you can throw thunderbolts from the sky, and/or bend the laws of time and space, there will always be a chance of failure in any human endeavor. In the Y2K projects – which had to get done by the end of 1999, or “bad things” would happen – there were executives who wanted different projects to get done first, and so, requested the Y2K projects have their end-date moved. Some actually had difficulty understanding why this couldn’t happen. After all, up to now, they could move projects around to their liking, so why could these projects not move? See the previous paragraph about bending space and time, please.

Here is where project managers step in. Since we actually deal with the “real world” on a regular basis, we, unfortunately, have to be the parents to those executives who no longer understand how reality functions. Sadly, we can’t be as direct as our parents either; Since typically, the executives we deal with have a direct influence on our own personal success or failure. So we try and avoid telling our executive sponsors things like, I’m sorry, but you can’t do that; Although many of us would really like be more direct at times.

Instead, we spend a lot of cycles along with our project teams to develop pro-and-con analysis, along with several options and flavors. Even though there is usually only one “best” way to do something. Of course actually stopping the project – even though that would be the best option – is typically not part of this analysis. After all, failure is never an option, right?

For those of us with children in pre-school, see if you can translate the below into pre-school language used by pre-school teachers (suggested answers are at the end of the article):

  • The unit-testing pipeline is full, so your project will need to wait
  • The subject matter experts you need are being used by other teams
  • We need to follow the meeting agenda, so we can get through the listed items

Does this mean that every executive is equivalent to a 4-year-old? I’m sure many people do think this, but they are definitely not. The issue, is without hearing no’s, people tend to behave like small children who do not quite yet understand what no means. A critical part of a project managers job, is saying no, in creative and different ways, just like you would do with small children so they can learn what no means without getting upset (or firing the messenger).So do project managers need to take courses in early childhood development, in order to enhance their skills? It may not hurt. It’s better though if you just accept that, no matter what, executives will have the final say. Regardless of what you or your team recommends they should do.

The following example is provided as a case in point (for more details please visit this link):

A small data center was upgrading their servers, which at the time had a 10M backbone. It was recommended by the project team to the CIO, that a separate 100M network (which is 10 times faster than the existing 10M one) be set up to transfer all the data. This was nixed, as the existing network had never had any issues and it would not have any now (according to the CIO anyway). Once again, referring to the topic of bending the laws of space and time, the CIO’s belief – in that the existing network could handle the load – caused massive issues. This is because, there is a finite amount of data that can be sent before an Ethernet network completely shuts down. With a 10M network, this can happen pretty quickly, which is why the team recommended a separate network with a much higher capacity.

Parents say no a lot which tends to make children upset. As project managers, we too say no a lot. Plus, we also raise issues/risks/budget concerns/etc. about projects. Needless to say, this causes a lot of dislike toward us and/or our field at times. After all, we are the ones standing between the executives and their version of utopia. Consider the below:

Executive: I want a pony.

Project Manager: Where are you going to put the pony? Do you have a budget for the equipment to ride, feed, and take care of its vet bills? Will you take care of it, or will you hire someone?

Executive: I don’t care. I want a pony, so get me one. Make it blue too, or you’re fired.

Fortunately, there are many executives out there who still understand the “real world.” Executives like these, are the ones who can really help projects, project managers, and project teams to be successful. You can work with them on an “adult” level and actually have “real” world discussions. In other words, they get it. These are the kind of executives we keep searching to work for. Pair a good project manager with an executive like this and maybe, just maybe, failure really is not an option. Otherwise, we need to get very good at finding blue ponies. Answers (I’m sure there are many other samples you can think of):

  • The Unit Testing Pipeline is full, so your project will need to wait

There is enough snack/drink/etc. for everyone. You just need to wait your turn for your portion.

  • The Subject Matter Experts you need are being used by other teams

You have to wait until the other children are done playing with the swing/toy/etc. before you can have it.

  • We need to follow the meeting agenda, so we can get through the listed items

It’s nap time, so please stop bothering the other children so they can nap. You can play after nap time.

Note: This deals with executives ignoring the meeting agenda and going off on tangents that others in the meeting may not care to hear/discuss/etc.


russell harley

Russell Harley is a veteran project manager and PMO director, passionate about helping organizations embrace world-class project management practices and “climb out of the quicksand” in terms of gaining control over complex, ever-changing project portfolios. The best practices he advocates stem from key learning’s acquired from his M.S Degree in Project Management, combined with over 20 years of hands-on PM experience in the high technology, telecommunications, and clean energy sectors.