Here is how to avoid getting a ‘Yes’ for your project, but without the people and other resources you need…

It’s probably one of the worst possible situations to be in. You prepare for days, weeks or months. You make a fabulous project proposal to your leadership team. You get it approved in the meeting. You show up to work the next day and realize that you have to start from scratch again to hire the people and buy the equipment you need to get the project done. It looks like you will have to spend more weeks or months going through new approval processes. What happened?

Well, it happens all the time, unfortunately. It has happened to me. When I made the proposal, I was not clear enough on where the resources would come from to make it successful. I let the leadership team think I would be able to make it happen somehow. A week later I had to start a long series of painful explanations about why the project was behind schedule. Ouch!

Here is how to avoid that situation.

Three categories of initiatives and investments

A good set of initiatives should include at least one proposal about work to be stopped so that you have resources to engage in new work. Prioritization tables can even include work you are already doing and want to reinforce. In larger companies, it is helpful to think about investments in three categories and to position them that way when asking for resources.

Proposal category 1 — New work for existing teams

Sometimes you know who you need to do the work, but they are already busy. You need to secure the necessary resources by proposing to stop specific existing work. Don’t forget to include any training costs that may be needed.

Proposal category 2 — Shared central and local work

The second category includes proposals that combine people or teams that do not normally work together. Let’s take the example of a company that has its headquarters in Singapore and an improvement initiative is being proposed for local implementation in the Philippines. The local team may propose that specific Singapore-based people be assigned to the work for its duration, working with the local people. Central teams usually react well to such proposals, seeing them as good development opportunities for people who do not get out into ‘the field’ very often. Let’s face it, when you are in the field, you generally don’t want the central people showing up ‘to help’. The know this, so when you ask for help, it is a pleasant surprise.

Proposal category 3 — New incubator teams

Truly innovative ideas usually involve new work that differs from what any team currently does. The general format for such proposals would be, for example, “We propose to set up a new customer complaints website and hotline. It will cover these five languages. We need to hire seventeen people and spend $350,000 to put it into place by November of this year. The people will be in our existing call center in Amsterdam where there is sufficient space available. The experience of Acme company shows that this leads to a seven-point customer satisfaction improvement within 18 months. That in turn will improve annual contract renewal rates from 88 to 90% by 18 months from now, worth $3.2 million in annual operating profit. Sign here.”

Of course you can still fail if your implementation timing is not realistic.

Make sure you have realistic implementation timing

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman gives an example of unrealistic implementation timing. He describes his project for the Israeli Ministry of Education to develop and implement a curriculum for teaching judgment and decision-making at high-school level. The project included writing a textbook. After meeting every Friday for a year, his team had written a couple of chapters and had a “detailed outline of the syllabus.” (I have difficulty combining the words “detailed” and “outline” in a single sentence, and this may be a sign of what is about to follow.) Kahneman asked everyone to individually write down an estimate of how long it would take to prepare a final draft of the textbook and submit it to the Ministry. The estimates varied between 18 and 24 months. These estimates turned out to be unrealistic, and the team had a way of knowing this in advance.

He then asked a curriculum expert in the team how long others doing the same type of work had taken. Based on his experience with similar projects, the expert said that others had taken a minimum of seven and a maximum of ten years, and that 40% had failed to deliver anything. Unfortunately, Kahneman’s team, including the expert, considered this to be interesting but irrelevant data, believing it did not apply to them. In the end, they completed the book eight years later. By that time, the Ministry of Education had lost interest in the subject, and their work was never used. The message here is simple. Yes, it is a good idea to ask team members to provide timing estimates. If a team member has already done similar work, their estimate should be the primary basis for your planning, assuming you ensure they base their estimate on real baseline data.

Ensuring you actually have agreement

Early in my career, I sometimes left investment decision meetings mistakenly believing that everyone necessary had agreed to my proposal. Disappointment often followed. I found one reliable method for ensuring true agreement. This method tends to irritate the most senior people and needs to be used only when absolutely necessary. The critical slide in your presentation should be the last one, with the heading, “Here is what saying yes means.” I realize not everyone uses slides for their presentations. Indeed, former HP CEO Léo Apotheker once told me “People who use PowerPoint have no power and no point.” However, even if you use no other slides, this one is essential. If you are in a room with no projector, hand out printed copies.

Going back to the example mentioned in the third proposal category above, the slide would list the people, real estate, and other funding necessary for the project along with the timing and the names of individuals responsible for each point. You then go around the table individually to ask each person to say “yes” or “no”. The first time I did this in one of the HP Software leadership team meetings chaired by Robert Youngjohns, he said “We don’t need to do this. Everyone agrees.” I insisted, and he quickly learned that this was not the case. It is in the nature of some humans to avoid public conflict and disagreement. They hope to manage it outside the meeting room, but it often winds up not being addressed at all. The downside was that my pedantic process irritated the team greatly, and I had to use it sparingly.


I suppose you can boil it down to one word: Prioritize! You need to be able to help your leadership team to do so. Help them to understand what is important, and what falls into the category of ‘other stuff’. These are techniques that have worked for me. Feel free to reply with your own experience below.

[Like quite a few of my blogs, this one has been adapted from a chapter in one of our books. In this case, it came from Customer Experience Strategy – Design and Implementation, which is available on Amazon.]