There is an amazing, near magical word that can save projects, hit deadlines, prevent burnout, and gain the respect of your team. Sadly, few project managers seem to know it. What’s this magical word? “No.”
Really, it’s that simple. Just saying no (respectfully, in the right situation) can do all of the amazing stuff I listed. It’s not a guarantee of success, but it will give you a fighting chance.
How does “No” save projects? If you don’t commit to more than your team can actually do, your project’s odds of success skyrocket (this isn’t news, is it?). If you say “No” when someone tries to add features without taking other features out or pushing out the deadline, again, that can only be good for your odds of success. If someone tries to change a feature repeatedly, say no until they figure out what they actually want.
How does “No” hit deadlines? If you have too much work for the time you have left, say no to some of it or say no to the deadline. Developers are not magicians, we can’t fit infinite amounts of work into a fixed time period. Say no to some features planned for the next release if you know they aren’t going to fit. Say no if you can only hit the deadline if everything goes perfectly.
How does “No” prevent burnout? One of the biggest causes of burnout is working excessive hours. If you say no to unreasonable deadlines, like magic your team will be able to get everything done on time without living at their desks. They’ll also be happier because they’re being treated like people instead of cogs that can be replaced when they wear out.
How does “No” gain you the respect of your team? Developers actually aren’t idiots. We can tell when you’re sacrificing our time to make yourself look good or because you’re scared to stand up to your boss. We can also tell when you got us the best deal you could in the face of political pressure to manage the project incorrectly, and we will respect you for that.
So if “No” is so awesome, why won’t people say it? Because they want to be nice, because they want to be seen as a go-getter, not a downer, because they’re afraid they’ll never get promoted if they say no, because they’re afraid to stand up to their boss, etc etc. Those are all compelling reasons, but here’s the problem: refusing to say no doesn’t work.
Sure, you look good in the moment, but when it’s time to deliver and the product is buggy or doesn’t have all the features everyone was expecting, you’re in much bigger trouble than you would have been if you had just said no in the first place. If you do that repeatedly, all you get is a reputation for not delivering. If you don’t want people to trust you that’s your call, but you’d better be amazingly charming (or related to the CEO) if you can’t actually get things done.