Editor’s note: Filling in today for LTW Editor Rick Smith is Bill Warner, who writes The Angel Connection for LTW. Warner is the Managing Partner of

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – We are often told that we just need to say no to a few things so that we don’t get ourselves over committed. After all, we cannot do everything our customers ask us, and we cannot go after every possible market. Some folks will ask if you are going to teach the team how to say no. Because if you don’t say no, you just keep adding more work to an already overloaded plan. Well, we just say no to that question. No, we are not going to teach people how to say no. We don’t think that is the question. Instead, we see the need to learn how to make choices.

What is a choice?

To make a really simpleminded analogy, remember as a kid when you asked your mom or dad for an ice cream cone. Then, as they were about to buy it you asked for a milk shake too. They might have said, we only have money for one, so you can have one or the other, not both. That may have been one of your first choices in life. That lesson was very valuable in that it was going to be an important principle in your business career.

Let’s get a little more real. There isn’t a day that goes by that you aren’t asked to do something that was not in your plan for the day. Most are trivial and you can fit them into your daily schedule.

Some represent a major commitment of time and resources and will impact other activities if you try to fit them in. The wisdom that is needed is to know the difference between requests that are trivial and those that are not. So, how does one gain this wisdom?

Making choices means making commitments

With experience comes understanding of what it takes to perform many of the tasks related to your job. So when you are asked to perform a familiar task, you can easily give a commitment as to when it will be done. However, when you get a request that you are not sure about, you should do some work to figure out what it takes before you make a commitment.

In this process, talk to people who have the experience in order to get advice on what is required and how to perform the tasks needed to fulfill the commitment. You are just asking for trouble when you commit to something that you don’t really understand.

The people who fulfill commitments consistently are usually the ones who have really done their homework and who make sure that their plan is on track by frequently checking on progress.

Once getting advice, lay out a plan and determine if you have the resources and time to execute the plan. Once you have this kind of information, you can then make a thoughtful response to the person requesting your commitment. Your wisdom is expanded every time you make and fulfill a commitment, and your professional judgment is improved as a result. Your quest is to become a person who people say can be relied upon to get things done. The ultimate in professional recognition comes from being able to consistently meet your commitments.

You need to know your limitations

Sometimes the trivial requests can overcome you too. As Dirty Harry said, “a man has to know his limitations.” It is important to keep track of what you have committed to. Allocate your time as if it is a valued resource. Knowing your limitations in this case means knowing where you are spending your time and if you are spending it on the right things.

Keep a calendar and a project schedule. If you know where you are going to spend your time then you can do a much better job of making new commitments. People get into trouble if they are out of control with respect to allocating their time. People who can be relied upon, do a great job of planning their time and take the time for planning.

Sometimes this process of making commitments gets a lot tougher though. What do you do when you cannot get something done in the timeframe that is being requested without impacting another commitment that was previously made? Knowing how to effectively deal with this situation is the key to being a responsive and successful person or team.

Making choices requires research

When faced with this dilemma, there are several things one must consider and resolve before giving a response.

• Make sure you know what it takes to successfully execute the request. This includes people with the right skill as well as the capital resources. Ensure that you have all your dependencies lined up. As with any commitment, know what it takes to deliver it because you may have to actually do it.
• With the understanding of what it takes to fulfill the request, suggest possible alternatives to accomplish it. It really comes down to a few general possibilities:
o Determine when the request could be fulfilled with your current resources. A request can be satisfied once the right people become available. It’s just a matter of time.
o Search for innovative ways to accomplish the request, by thinking through real possibilities that would get the required results. Then create a new plan.
o Negotiate phased delivery that delivers some key part of the deliverable early, but delays full delivery until resources can be freed to complete this request. This is the classic win-win or compromise.
o Ask for additional resources to accomplish the request, but make sure you can really execute if you get them. The resources can come from one of many sources like higher management, the requestor, or an interested third party.
o Delay some other commitment in order to satisfy the new request. With this comes the responsibility to manage the impact of the changed commitment if this alternative is chosen.
• Always have the baseline understanding of how you could fulfill the request within your current resources and without changing other commitments. This serves to answer the question of when you can get the request fulfilled. You can fulfill any request. It is always a matter of when it can be done.
• Determine if the request can be fulfilled under any circumstances. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to do something that is impossible, but be prepared to offer other alternatives that could achieve the same objective.

With all this information, you can now engage in making a choice.

Depending on the nature of the impacts of the choice, you can determine what level of management needs to be involved in making the choice. If the impact is only to commitments you have made and nobody else will be impacted by the decision, then it’s up to you to make the choice and manage the implications.

Making choices requires tradeoffs

Most tradeoffs do involve a lot of people however. It is necessary to have the levels of management that are affected by the decision participate in making the choice. As with any decision, business factors are weighed and a choice is made. It is what happens after the decision is made that determines the success of making a choice. Here are the steps to follow:

• Communicate the decision to the various players that are affected by the decision. If a plan change is being made, then people’s work has to change and new schedules have to be established. Plan changes often impact marketing, sales, manufacturing, development, test, support, publications, build, system test or release. This is where the project managers earn their keep by making sure changes are coordinated.
• Inform the requestors that are affected by the decision. If a commitment has to be changed, then go to the person to whom the commitment was made and explain the change and why it is being done. In a lot of cases this may be a customer, and this is a hard thing to do successfully. I believe it is better to be straightforward and honest with the customer and work out the impacts, than to miss the commitment later and have a totally dissatisfied customer who has lost all faith in you. You lose all credibility if this happens.
• Make sure that all the plan changes are made and that the new plan is being executed.

Turn “no” into a choice

Said simply, but harder to execute, any request should come down to a matter of making choices and dealing with the implications of the decision. Dealing with issues in a straightforward way is the best policy. Getting the issue escalated to the right level of management that can make the choice and then marshalling the resources to manage the impacts is the right way to deal with requests. So, it’s not so much about saying yes or no, but a matter of making a thoughtful choice and communicating to all those affected by it. So when asked to commit to something that will impact current commitments turn the request into alternatives and participate in the process of making a choice.