Project Managers Can Say No to More Work

Let’s take a look at the issue of having too many projects to manage well. There’s an old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. That’s fine – unless you are the busy person. Ultimately it can lead to career burnout or sub-standard work that hurts your career.

Jen Lawrence, pictured at left, is a business coach and author of the new book Engage the Fox. Throughout her career as a senior-level executive as well as a business coach, she has witnessed everyone from the entry-level worker to senior management get burnt out due to increased work loads, mounting deadlines, and office politics.

She answered some questions about saying no that could be helpful for getting a project manager’s life under control.

Q. What are simple ways for project managers to say no when they have too many projects? After all, it would seem managing more might be a good thing initially.
A. When you have too many projects to manage effectively, it’s better to let your boss or client know that you have too much on your plate than to take it all on and do a poor job. Instead of saying no to a new project, let your boss know that you are happy to take on something new if you can put one of your other projects on the backburner or assign it to someone else. As a project manager, the onus is on you to manage upward and you will gain more respect if you show that you are managing your projects effectively than taking on too much and then running into trouble.

Q. Sometimes being swamped comes down to simplifying complex problems. How can people solve complex business issues effectively?
A. It’s key to have a good critical thinking process in place so that you don’t fall into time-wasting pitfalls like procrastinating, spinning your wheels, or chasing false leads. A good process ensures that you engage the key stakeholders so you don’t waste time finding a solution that will be rejected by others. By following a thinking process, you can move more quickly through your projects and have better results.

Q. You embrace four types of thinking that lead to better solutions. What are they?
A. The critical thinking process outlined in Engage the Fox has four key steps:

  1. Gather information before making decisions.
  2. Generate ideas using a fresh perspective.
  3. Evaluate options using a logic-driven process.
  4. Seek agreement at each stage of the process.

First, you want to gather the facts to ensure you have all of the necessary information. To remember this step, I like to think of a squirrel: nature’s gatherer. Once you have gathered all of the available information, you want to generate possibilities (ideas, solutions, alternatives) like a fox (think about how they work their way into the chicken coop.) Next, you want to evaluate the information to figure out the best action to take. I like to think of an owl, sitting up high, swiveling his head around to take all of the information into account. Finally, you want make sure that the key stakeholders agree with your ideas. I like to think of a friendly dog like a golden retriever who draws others close. While you might feel silly thinking of animals in order to solve complex business problems, it breaks things down into simple, memorable steps you can rely on when in high stress situations.

Q. A project manager’s training leads them to make assumptions based on past experience. How can they avoid jumping to conclusions in their work?
A. When you follow the steps of the thinking process, it helps you avoid thinking pitfalls like jumping to conclusions. By taking the time to gather all of the information about a situation and asking others if they agree you have all the data, you are less likely to overlook any key piece of information simply because it does not fit with your prior experience.

Q. You cite a statistic that an average professional gets interrupted 7 times an hour. What does that do to productivity and how can you cut down on interruptions?
A. It is impossible to think clearly when you are facing constant interruptions so it can be a real productivity killer. I’m a big fan of scheduling 50 minute blocks of uninterrupted work time if you are doing complex problem solving or decision making. Treat it like a meeting with a client: ask for no interruptions unless there is a true emergency and don’t check email or texts. If you are in an open-concept work space, see if you can book a meeting room so people are less likely to interrupt you. If you have a lot of people who rely on you for information or approvals, build an hour or two in your day where everyone knows you are available. People are less likely to interrupt you if they know you will be available at a specific time to answer their questions.

Q. Any software solutions out there for these problems or is it just old-fashion ingenuity that is going to help someone succeed?
A. Technology is a wonderful thing and there is fabulous software out there that can make life easier in terms of scheduling, tracking results or sifting through data. There is no software that replaces good old fashioned critical thinking, however, which is why senior executives have identified critical thinking skills as key for future leaders.

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Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping,, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.