Managing Your Team’s Capacity: An Engineering Manager’s Guide to Saying No

Written by Divine Odazie

October 8, 2021

Saying no is not an easy thing to do. It’s much easier to say yes, take on yet another project, work on the user request, and juggle between projects to meet a deadline. 

But for an engineer who manages other engineers, saying no is a crucial skill to have. Saying no to someone will inevitably cause them some amount of disappointment. But It’s possible to minimize that disappointment by being clear about why you can’t do it and being honest about your limits and that of your team.

In this article, we will cover:

Why you should say “no”

You probably can relate to this scenario — a marketing team requests a change or a new feature from an engineering manager based on user feedback. And Instead of the engineering manager clearly stating “that the change or new feature isn’t a priority for his team,” he goes on to say, “Okay, we’ll look into it.”

And a few months later, marketing came to check in on the feature the engineering manager said his team was “looking into” and learned it was an empty promise. 

Navigating such scenarios could be challenging as the user feedback could be valid. Still, it may not be a high priority.

The missed expectation and frustration on the marketing team would have been averted by the engineering manager just saying “No.” 

The engineering manager saying no isn’t shutting down ideas, being bossy, or neglecting the user feedback, but sticking to what’s important and clearing away obstacles to avoid filling his team’s capacity.

How you can say “no”

Saying no isn’t easy, especially when saying no to good ideas, opinions, and thoughts like the “user feedback” the marketing team brought in the scenario you saw. 

This article —10 Reasons Why You Might Find It Hard To Say No shares some fundamental reasons people find it hard to say no even when saying no is logical. 

And the reason why software engineers tend to find it hard is because we are naturally very collaborative, eager-to-please people. If you’re like that, you need to curb it as the consequences are more significant.

Whether innate or not, there is a good approach you can take to be more clear when saying no to opportunities, ideas, opinions, whether good or bad, that may affect the capacity and effectiveness of your teams. 

The step by step process of saying no:

Pause to understand

Ambiguity is the worst thing in management because it creates decision debt. People tend to say no to what is not understood; therefore, you should seek to understand before you say no.

To checkmate decision debt, make sure the idea is very clear to you.

A great way to do this is by saying to the stakeholder who brought the request:

 “Let’s take a step back and map out what needs to be done. My team can’t commit to anything without a clear understanding of the task.”

Pausing to think and understand is a first step to saying no and will assure your decision.

And come to an agreement

You’ve paused to understand; you’ve understood the core idea and opportunity, and you see it is good. But your team can’t work on it anytime soon. It’s not a priority, and if taken on, will affect the team’s effectiveness and output. 

In this case, you should communicate with the stakeholder—communicating that and agreeing on when you will look into it.

Coming to an agreement means you are saying no, not entirely to the idea, but the timing.

How to say “no” to senior management 

You’ve seen how to say no effectively to your peers from other teams and departments. But these tactics might not work as well when dealing with upper management and the people above you. So how do you deal with that?

In this article — Engineering Managers: Managing Down, Managing Up and Across   — we discussed how senior management pressures engineering managers to fill their teams’ capacity. But for engineering teams to be effective, they need slack  — decrease or reduction in intensity, as slack is critical to productive output. 

Your reason for saying “no” might be as you are the one who best understands what’s important for your team and perhaps even the project. But you still have to be aligned with your company’s strategy, goals, and decisions that senior management is in charge of.

Say “no” to senior management by communicating the costs of saying “yes” 

The best way to do this is by sharing the answer to the two questions below directly to the senior management:

Does your team have the bandwidth? 

What will your team give up to take this on? 

When sharing the answers with senior management, you give them clarity on what is happening within your team, and that gives them the option to decide whether you:

“Offload to accommodate the time the team will need to complete their request.”

Or 

“Juggle the request with the current workload.”

The latter may lead to bottlenecks. But you will rest assured you made your points and aligned with senior management.

Conclusion

This article covered how saying no would help you manage your team’s capacity.

Saying “no” would never get easier. But the need to say no should outweigh the difficulty.

By employing the approach we’ve shared in this article, you will strengthen your ability to say no and manage your team’s capacity better, which will positively impact your team’s output in the long term.

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