How to say no to a project sponsor

Monday, June 9th, 2014 By Jack Nevison

All too often, project managers have difficulty saying no. While some project changes are beneficial, others only generate scope creep, to the project's detriment. It is nearly impossible to incorporate every change to a project and still expect it to complete on time, within budget and with the same quality results.

There is a definite stigma to the word "no" in project management. It can come across as uncooperative, negative and harsh. Many PMs instead try the strategy of "yes, but…." as a gentler alternative. Carl Pritchard, founder of Pritchard Management Associates, described one of his experiences with a client whose customer would regularly take advantage of the "yes, but…" strategy.

The PM's customer had asked for a much higher level of review than was in the contract, but would not agree to any extra compensation for the effort. After failing to find a way to meet the customer's needs within his own budgetary and time constraints, the PM was forced to take action. He had to say no.

"I explained that I had attempted to provide reasonable accommodation, but that it was no longer possible to make the required margins with the additional reporting pressure. They grumbled. They groused. They threatened to walk away from the contract. And then they ceded the point and went back to the original levels of tracking and reporting," Pritchard recalls.

Part of saying no to a client means being ready to handle pushback. While denying a sponsor's request is never personal, it can certainly put a strain on the relationship.

At New Leaf Project Management, we offer over 200 hours of PM training to show you how to manage the unexpected in your projects. Our 2-day program, "Managing the Project's Organizational Context," tells you how to handle sponsor/client expectations successfully. In addition, our online QPM games and white papers let you learn while you earn affordable PDU credits for PMP recertification.

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