Too Many Projects Chasing Too Few People-It’s Time to Learn to Say No!

One of the themes that I hear consistently in workshops and in discussions with the professionals in my MBA classes is frustration over the propensity of a firm’s leaders to never say “No” to a project. 

Lacking a viable mechanism to compare, evaluate and select and reject projects, decisions are made based on politics, gut feel and the squeaky customer wheel. 

The net result of this lack of discipline is that the people doing the work end up overloaded and overwhelmed.  They operate in compliance mode, focusing on surviving until the next deadline and adding little creative value or innovation to their activities.

This is a perfect formula to waste money, squander creative energy and decimate morale.  This “we never met a project we didn’t like” approach is also the antithesis of the formula for performance excellence.

The current economic pressures amplify the need to create better screening mechanisms and to truly manage your investment in projects with rigor and discipline.  You need to deliver the right projects effectively, and you need to learn to say “No” to some that seemed like a good idea last year and many that will jump out at you during the next year. 

Take a look at the portfolio of projects that you and your colleagues are engaged with today and make each of these projects earn their way back into the portfolio.  It’s OK and even healthy to challenge yesterday’s priorities as they bury people in today’s work. 

Use these filters:

  • Why are we doing this project? What are the assumptions that made it seem like a good idea before and are they still valid?
  • Is it a must-do or compliance initiative?
  • Is it strategic?  If yes, you should bounce it up against the current-state strategy and determine whether it is still relevant today.  If not, kill it.
  • Is it an operational improvement?  If yes, can you connect the operational improvements to something that impacts strategy and customers…even through one or two degrees of separation?  If you cannot connect it to something that allows you to serve customers (internal or external) more effectively, consider killing it.
  • Do we have the right balance of strategic and operational initiatives?
  • Are we evaluating projects based on a combination of objectively developed financial and non-financial criteria?  Does our evaluation approach allow for reasonable comparison of alternatives? 

If you struggle to answer these questions because your strategy is vague or out of date, you’ve got another problem that needs to be fixed.  While some decry the usefulness of strategy in a time of crisis, I would argue that now more than ever is the time to create a robust, dynamic strategy and execution program.  Instead of wandering aimlessly through the minefield of the economy, I want a team that is opportunistic, experimental and focused on finding and exploiting gaps and ignoring distractions.  This is strategy. 

The bottom-line:

Your organization executes strategy one project at a time.  Too many leaders fail to support the creation of processes that effectively evaluate and manage the nearly endless list of options to work on.  Start the process by refreshing on strategy and then work unceasingly to manage and cull the portfolio in support of the strategy.  Learn to say, “No” and you’ll be shocked at how much great work your team will complete.  You might even find them smiling as they work.  

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Wally Bock March 4, 2009 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    Wally Bock

  2. […] Say No Too Many Projects Chasing Too Few People-It’s Time to Learn to Say No!, By Art Petty at Management Excellence. Just Say No! It’s OK and even healthy to challenge […]

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