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Art of Saying “No” for Small Business Leaders

by Anthony J. Bradley  |  January 13, 2017  |  Submit a Comment

“Just say no.”

“No means no.”

So simple, so straight forward, and yet so inaccurate… so inadequate.

When it comes to project portfolio management I often hear the sage advice of “just say no.” As if it were that easy.

I just had a great discussion on this with Gartner VP and Distinguished Analyst, Tina Nunno. She has this great story about her conversations with Gartner clients on this very topic. It goes something like this.


“We are really struggling with demand for projects. Things are changing so fast that we can’t keep up. And prioritization is getting more and more challenging.”


“Are you saying no to many of these requests.”


“How do you do that?”


“Well, you should say no, as a default, to those requests that are obviously not going to make the doable priority list.”


“I mean, how do you actually say no?”

At which point I would be thinking, “You put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and make an ‘N’ sound then quickly transition to rounded lips and an ‘O’ sound.” But then again, I was missing the complexity of the challenge.

After hearing that same question from a significant number of clients Tina decided to conduct research into the mechanics and ramifications of saying no to proposed projects.

And as it turns out, saying “no” effectively and in a productive manner is not so easy. Tina presented the findings of her research at Gartner Symposium this year in a session called “Mastering the Art of ‘No’ for CIOs.” She explains several different attitudes of “No” including the assertive no, passive no, aggressive no and passive-aggressive no.



She also examines how to effectively say no for different working relationships.



Saying the word “no” means far less to motivation and desired actions than what you say after. It is the qualifying message, and manner in which it is delivered, that makes all the difference.

Check out this 1.5 minute long video my team put together on employing the “assertive no” vs. the “aggressive no.”

Project management skills: how to push back on requests



“As an organization grows, one of the indicators of their maturity is a developing competency in project portfolio management,” Says Gartner Analyst Tina Nunno.

I find this ironic since smaller businesses generally have less funds to invest in projects and a project failure poses greater risk to survival. So logic would say that small businesses need to be stronger at deciding which projects to pursue and which to ditch. However, in small businesses, project portfolio management often starts and ends with the business owner. The business owner is the attorney, judge and jury so to speak. This is a lot of power.

How a small business owner says no will have a major effect on the morale of the team. Especially if it is the team’s idea. It must be done carefully and thoughtfully.

I am the father of three. I have a 9 year old, a 6 year old and 3 year old. I started my parenting career with the attitude that when I said no, I would have discussions with my children as to why I was saying no. This way they would develop into well-adjusted adults who would think rationally about their behavior (all you more experienced parents are allowed to laugh at this point).

I inadvertently turned my oldest into a never ending stream of arguments. I found that my logic was no match for her relentless barrages of “you never,” “so unfair,” “you let him do it,” etc. My logic never got in. So, what did I do? I turned into my Dad! I then defaulted to one of my least fond memories of my father by stating, “Because I said so and I’m your father.” It works and now we are all happier. Well, at least I am.

As I thought more about this, I realized that I disliked my father’s use of the phrase because he used it for far too long. I was probably 18 and out of the house when he stopped. He should have switched to logic at some point, no?

My point is, your employees are not your children. Ok, maybe they are if it is a family owned business… but you know what I mean.

Small business owners need to provide an explanation when they say no. Although all the power may reside in one person, the tenets of good portfolio management still apply. This means that small business owners must have good portfolio management skills including knowing when and how to say no. Mastering the art of saying no is a critical skill.

A challenge I’ve seen is that there aren’t a whole bunch of resources out there targeted to help small business leaders master the art of saying “no” or to build skills in portfolio management. Most books on the art of saying no are fluffy self-help type books (not that there is anything wrong with that).

The Power of a Positive No by William Ury is good. What have you seen?

A few more resources from my team are:

Can Your SMB Benefit From Portfolio Management?

5 of the Best Project Portfolio Management Software According to Reviews

Open-source Project Portfolio Management Applications

How We Keep Customers Happy By Telling Them “No”

As always, comments are welcome. Share what you have experienced.

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Anthony J. Bradley
13 years at Gartner
30 years in IT

Anthony J. Bradley is a Group Vice President in Gartner Research. In this role he leads global teams of analysts who research the emerging technologies and trends that are changing today's world and shaping the future. Mr. Bradley's group strives to provide technology product and service leaders (Tech CEOs, General Managers, Chief Product Officers, Practice Leads, Product Managers and Product Marketers) with unique, high-value research and indispensable advice on leveraging emerging technologies and trends to create and deliver highly successful products and services. Information technology now impacts pretty much every business function in all companies, all industries, and all geographies. Technology providers are critical to the technology and business innovation that will define the world of tomorrow. Innovation depends on technology providers. By helping them, we help the world.

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