Learning to Make Good Choices

By: Rich Kramarik


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.

 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?

 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.

 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.

 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:

    • 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.

    • Search for innovative ways to accomplish the request, by thinking through real possibilities that would get the required results. Then create a new plan.

    • Negotiate phased delivery that delivers some key part of the deliverable early, but delays full delivery until resources can be freed to compete this request.  This is the classic win-win or compromise.

    • 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.

    • 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.

 Most tradeoffs do involve a lot of people however. It is necessary to have the levels of management that are effected 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 loose all credibility if this happens.

  • Make sure that all the plan changes are made and that the new plan is being executed.

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, its not so much about saying yes or no, but a matter of making a thoughtful choice and communicating to all those effected 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.




Learning to Make Good Choices Case Study

By: Rich Kramarik


This engineering company builds custom electronics and control systems that automatically track precision mirrors to the sun in huge solar power generating “farms” in the western deserts of the U.S.  The company has always engaged in fixed bid contracts with its clients.  Over the years, the mostly “cookie cutter” custom products and services have satisfied the clients and made good profits for the engineering company. 

 The CEO of the engineering company came to us with a problem.  He had a new project that required new technology, new components from new vendors, new requirements for higher sensitivity, and a new project manager to work with from the power company.  The project manager wanted the customary fixed bid for the new project.  The engineering company CEO told us and the power company that there were too many unknowns to be able to fixed bid the project.  Then on top of that the project schedule and date the new power generating “farm” needed to go on-line was too short given all the unknowns.

 The engineering company CEO didn’t feel he could say no to a fixed bid project.  He didn’t think he could say no to the over ambitious project schedules.  He didn’t think he could charge the power company additional fees for the rework required because the new components were not working as specified.  This CEO didn’t know what to do to save this multi-million dollar two year contract.

 We started working with the CEO on evaluating alternatives.  First we discovered that about half of the work in the project was still the “cookie cutter” flavor.  Second, we discovered about a fourth of the project was work that although the engineering company didn’t know how long it would take, they thought they could estimate a number that was not more than 30% off actual.  That left only one quarter of the project where engineering and installation was a total unknown. 

 We helped the CEO put together several negotiation stands or positions to help him negotiate a win-win between the engineering company and the power company.  

  1. Fixed bid the half of the project that was within the engineering company’s past experience and time and material bid the rest of the project.  i.e., each party gives a little so that they can both win.

  2. Do number one and bid the quarter of the project that could be as much as 30% higher at a fixed price 30% higher. 

  3. Do number two and contract to return to the client a refund of half of the savings if the additional 30% is not all used to complete that quarter of the project.

  4. Other alternatives not needed for this example.

 The CEO started negotiating and early in the discussions the power company asked if the engineering company could find a manufacturing company who could build the hardware for a lower cost than the company that had been used on older projects.  This was a good sign because it indicated that the client was willing to give and take. 

 The two companies went back and forth with new issues and new solutions coming on and leaving the table.  In the end the power company agreed to a later date to put the “farm” on-line, a fixed bid component, a milestone date at which point the engineering company would be in a position to fixed bid the remainder of the work in the project and a facility for the price to be higher than the fixed bid if the engineering company actual costs were more than 20% above budget.  So, in the end the engineering company got a safety net on profits and the power company contained costs – the win-win. 

* * *

 This Program Director in a services company was in the habit of saying no to peers, his team and the clients.  “I’m too busy” was the usual mantra.  The CEO had conversations with him expressing the CEO’s confusion over why this Director was “too busy” when all his peers were just as busy and they were getting the work done and not complaining.

 We know there are always choices so we sat down with the Program Director and started exploring the situation.  Here is a list of what we discovered: 

  1. He rarely delegated because it was “easier to do the work himself than teach someone to do it.”

  2. He rarely (as in never) volunteered to help a peer and therefore never got any help from his peers.

  3. He had a team that included several new employees who had not yet learned all the skills needed to do their jobs. 

  4. He was not making time to train, or making training available to his new team members.

  5. He was a very demanding personality type who used aggressive, demanding body language.

  6. He seldom worked at home or late in the day, but he came in early to get things done in the “quiet time” before everyone came into the office.

  7. He did not spend much time talking to the clients.  However, he thought he had a good relationship with the clients.

  8. He rarely planned his day because “It didn’t add any value because the plan always changes because of unknowns.”

  9. Whenever, one of his team had an issue they brought it to his office.  He took the problem and spent what ever time it required to solve and then gave it back to the team member.

  10. And the list went on…

 Let’s look at the choices this Director had: 

  1. Delegate – like Nike – Just Do It!

  2. Use the golden rule – you have to give unto others before they will give unto you.

  3. Get the team trained and they will not be bringing you issues and you will be better able to delegate to them.

  4. If you don’t communicate with your clients you are handicapped when it comes to negotiating with them.  Talk to them regularly and they will be more willing to give you more time, be more tolerant of errors, be more open to your suggestions and generally more pleased that they are getting your company’s attention.

 If our Director makes any one of these four changes he will see additional time in his schedule to say yes.  Choices give you the opportunity to accomplish more.  Our Director is working to implement all four of these choices.  We’re confident that he will find his way to “yes.”


Brought to you by:                                                         [BACK]

            Bob De Contreras                                                  
            Rich Kramarik                                                     


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