Project Management

How Project Managers Say No

From the The Project Shrink Blog
Bas de Baar is a Dutch visual facilitator, creating visual tools for dialogue. He is dedicated to improve the dialogue we use to make sense of change. As The Project Shrink, this is the riddle he tries to solve: “If you are a Project Manager that operates for a short period of time in a foreign organization, with a global team you don’t know, in a domain you would not know, using virtual communication, high uncertainty, limited authority and part of what you do out in the open on the Internet, how do you make it all work?”

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Project Managers have so many ways of saying "no". "Out of scope", "Works as designed", "Request for change", "Not in spec". It's polite. It sounds official and professional.

But, it's still simply "no".

Remember last week when I talked about setting boundaries to your project? (How can you forget. Shabba!) Saying "no", in whatever weird or twisted lingo, is setting a boundary. It creates tranquility. The relaxing silence that benefits your team. It keeps some stuff out and lets other stuff enter.

But by using professional phrases, the PM lingo, you create other boundaries. By using objective sounding phrases you create a distance with your conversation partners.


Some PMs radiate to the outside world icons like Gantt Charts, two-digits precise risk assessments, large documents that seems to cover every little aspect imaginable. If you are a member of this group, you ooze control. You ooze control by using visible cues that some might associate with professionalism.


I once told my wife that I was unable to comply to her request. She smacked me on the head telling me that she was not my customer. So, I assume that we  have a specific language that sets us apart from other mortals.

Jonathan Whitty from University of Southern Queensland creates fascinating articles and lectures around this theme: looking at the project management community as a social group. I have been an admirer of his work for 3 years now.

For example, in his mindshifting article, “The PM BOK Code“, he writes:

"... in order to socially survive in the organizational environment, individuals are driven to put on the performance of project manager as an actor would perform project scenes in the theatre of organizations."

This performance is a form of setting boundaries. You let people that are looking for some kind of reassuring behavior in, but you exclude the people that see through the performance and are put off by it.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that Project Management is not a profession. I am saying that Project Managers are a social group and have all the aspects of being one, like rituals, icons and language.

So, the way you say "no" matters.

By adapting your language you can improve your communication. By using simple words, a child will understand you better. By using the vocabulary of the industry, the client will connect easier.

By changing your language you can also improve the relation with a person. By talking 'the same' you appear more similar, and the more similar you are perceived, the more attracted you are to your conversation partner.

"Speech convergence includes reducing the linguistic differences between oneself and one’s interlocutor in terms of accent, dialect, paralinguistic features, or the language of choice. Convergence is a tool among many that individuals use as a means "to become more similar to another."" (Wikipedia)

It doesn’t matter if you have a job interview, talking to a project sponsor or trying to get a date. Like attract likes and language is a huge influencer in that process.

In the end, if you talk like a Project Manager, you are a Project Manager. At least to the outside world.


Posted on: November 21, 2010 10:36 AM | Permalink

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