The “Yes” Culture in Government Contracting and How to Say “No”

By: Tracy Simmons, Fleet Account Program Manager, in collaboration with Laura Lugo, ACMS Data Analyst

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a stakeholder has made a request to commit time or resources to a task that is outside of the project’s scope? Or outside the authority of the stakeholder? If you have been around government contracting for very long, the chances are that you have. How many times have you agreed, knowing that this would be a strain to the project or worse? There is an inclination to say yes because no one wants to be perceived as “carrying the SOW around in their back pocket.”

We also want to make the customer happy! Unfortunately, saying yes in these situations tends to overcommit precious resources or set unrealistic expectations. Which often leads to an inability to optimally control or even successfully complete a project. Moreover, agreeing to implement processes that add no value or support unnecessary/burdensome tasking that is not within the project scope dilutes project strategy to accomplish the primary objectives required by the contract and planned for in your project management plan, undermining project command and control. Left unchecked, projects can quickly become mired in unnecessary details. This pattern, although often well-intentioned, can cause projects to operate at a suboptimal level or even fail.

Why is it that saying no can seem so hard? Primarily because it is so important to have stakeholders committed to the success of the project that stakeholder happiness is often given precedence over optimal project control, whether consciously or subconsciously. Stakeholder buy-in is difficult to maintain. If they believe they aren’t getting what they want, even when all contract deliverables are being satisfied and performance is exceptional. Good rapport between the contractor and the stakeholder is vital, as a poorly viewed relationship can sink a project or make it difficult to execute. Even if a stakeholder’s impact or influence on the project is minor, you may need to work with them in the future when their impact and interest is greater to either the project or your daily work life. Saying no can often make you feel like you are jeopardizing the project or the relationship with the stakeholder. However, saying yes may actually jeopardize the project while saying no, when appropriate to do so, builds trust and offers an opportunity to increase alignment and understanding.

In order to avoid a misunderstanding, saying no should be completed with finesse and respect. I try to ensure that when saying no I avoid being abrupt or absolute and always offer an explanation to support my position. I only say no (or yes) to ensure project health and success. Also, I never simply avoid saying no but remind myself that there is also no reason to make a rash or snap decision. I take time to ensure I am saying no for the right reasons and tailor my response to the audience. Being decisive, reasoned, and measured will only bolster credibility on this and future projects. Avoiding a decision or being non-committal opens the door for more requests that sap resources, undermine morale, and often derail projects. Saying no can and should be communicated with a simple layout of the parameters you have to work within and the risks you are trying to avoid.

I have found it to be very effective to say no in terms of project risk. Introducing change to a project at any point presents risk. Risk is a subject that almost everyone understands at some level. When I find myself in a situation where I need to say no to a stakeholder request, communicating that the project plan is based on the cost, schedule, and performance requirements in the SOW and the request cannot be accomplished without significant risk to one of those constraints really clarifies my position. Almost anyone involved in project management or contracting will understand this line of reasoning right away. Extra deliverables, superfluous rules, and add-on tasking involves more time or more people and can also put at risk some of the intangible aspects of the project like team morale and mission purpose. Negative impact to these intangibles may have a direct effect on staffing, recruiting and retention, all of which add costs to the project.

Normally, simple illustrations or explanations puts things into focus for stakeholders. When explaining my reasoning, I try to be as specific as possible. I never approach a stakeholder with vague impending doom. Taking time to really qualify and quantify the risks illustrates my care at coming to my conclusions. Most importantly (and if possible) I come with a solution or compromise ready to discuss. All this ensures that the stakeholder understands that I am not an obstacle to work around but a trusted steward of government resources to work with. There are many other ways to communicate these types of messages effectively, this is just the way I have found works best for me.

No matter how you proceed in this type of situation, be sure to clearly communicate that you do not see a way to do what they have asked within the constraints of the project or that the request introduces unnecessary risks to the project. Open and early “no surprises” communication will go a long way to establishing trust, building rapport, and setting expectations. Which will ultimately lead to projects that are completed on time and within budget and quality standards. This way of conducting business also sets the stage for future discussions of project requirement changes that will add value and that are absolutely necessary, but that can only be satisfied after a contract modification. In these instances, the same approach is beneficial: evaluate cost, schedule, and performance risk, be clear and open with expectations and communicate solutions and compromises proactively.