Setting limits without saying no

Whether you are an individual contributor, a department head, or a CEO answering to a board, you can often find yourself in the position of being asked to do more work than is possible given the time and resources available.

The bad news is I don’t have a magic formula for adding infinitely more work capacity.

The good news is I do have some magic phrases for responding to requests (or demands) for more work in a way that manages your capacity while still being a good team player.

The first step is to make sure you understand what is most important for your business. Do you have a goal that everyone is aligned around? Have you identified the most important objectives – both ongoing work to keep the business running and customers served, and new initiatives critical to reaching that shared goal? [If not, we can help you with our strategic clarity + roles to goals process]

So there you are with your team busy with the most important work, when someone asks you to add something new. Here are some ways to respond that show your willingness to support them, and at the same time making sure you are continuing to work on what is most important.

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  • “Yes, as soon as...”

    • “Yes we can add that feature, as soon as we finish this release.”

    • “Yes, we can start providing that extra service, as soon as we get approval and hire for our open position.”

  • “Sure. Here are the other resources we would need to make that happen. How do you think we can make them available?”

  • “We are happy to do that. What other projects (tasks) would you like us to stop doing or delay?”

“Saying yes to everything, and trying to do everything is actually a lazier way of working than setting Ruthless Priorities and sticking to them.”

— Patty Azzarello

Remember, you are not being a team player by saying yes to more than you can accomplish. You are just delaying the disappointment. My friend Eric uses the phrase, “I’d rather turn you down than let you down” as a way to avoid over-committing.

As a leader, one of your most important roles is to keep the business and your team focused on what’s most important. It’s ok to change priorities, as long as you understand the trade-offs. Then once again, work to stay focused on what’s most important for success.