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I'm working on the tech side of a company, and the business side sometimes asks for things that cannot be done. Yet, I never want to say "XYZ is impossible". Maybe it's possible but it would take 20 years to do, or maybe it's simply not worth my time (as I have 10 other higher-priority tasks to complete).

How do you diplomatically smooth over these issues?

Is inaction or deferring to later dates OK?

  • 12
    Be realistic to them. Tell them the priorities as it stands. If you have an important project you're working on now, make that known. Tell them you can work on it, explain how it would affect the progress on the projects and how it would affect project estimates. Instead of saying just "no," instead explain why it would be unrealistic. – Mike Bailey Jun 15 '12 at 22:39
  • I tend to differentiate between what is impossible and what is impractical or unrealistic. – Paul Dec 2 '14 at 15:54
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Ask questions. Everything you see as being a problem to accomplish, ask for clarification on how would that be done. If you ask enough good questions either they will realize that it is actually impossible or you will realize that in the end it is not that impossible after all.

Inaction or ignoring is not an acceptable action. Giving bogus dates is not either.

  • You're right, I will take this advice; good points. thanks so much! – Adel Jun 15 '12 at 22:43
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    Beware though, there is a line between healthy questioning and being an obstructionist. If you have a healthy reservation about a specific initiative from a business standpoint (cost/benefit, ROI, actual added value) then voice it clearly and be prepared to back your argument up. Then be prepared to do it anyway if your arguments fails to sway your stakeholders. If your reservation is based on "this will take forever" or "I don't want to do this" or "I don't agree with the strategy", blind "why, why, why..." will not make you any friends. – pap Jun 18 '12 at 13:19
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    When the person making the request knows nothing of the domain it can be VERY hard to get them to see that what they are asking for is impossible. It took me hours to shoot down what amounted to A/B testing based on a single observation. – Loren Pechtel Sep 14 '13 at 19:03
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    I'd also add to cost everything. So do X takes Y days. If you think their costing is not realistic, then break that part down further, to point out how it is not feasible without more resources. – Simon O'Doherty Sep 17 '13 at 5:49
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Inaction or giving a date you intend to ignore is pretty much the worst kind of action you can do. You are basically promising what you have no intention of delivering and that will get you fired. And justifiably so. They are making business plans based on what they asked for.

What you do is provide them with an estimate of how long it will take to do. Most of what you think is impossible is possible with enough hours. So tell them how many hours and let them choose whether or not to do it. You may need to ask further questions to do this. That is a good thing as the questions may lead them to realize on their own that what they are asking for is more complicated than they think. Talk about what business problem they are trying to solve with the suggestions, it is often psossible to solve their problem by offering a differnt, less time-consuming solution.

If you truly cannot give an estimate of how long it will take, then write up a document explaining why you cannot (this might be because a techology that would be needed is not invented yet).

Not worth your time is NOT your call. If the business needs something and they are willling to put it as a higher priority than things you want to do, then tough luck. You need to do it first even if you don't want to. However, you give them the list of what you are currently scheduled to do and ask them where the new task falls in the priority list and which tasks they want you to move down in priority. If several stakeholders are involded, let them duke out the priorities among themselves. Make sure you let the stakeholders for the stuff that will be done later know.

  • +1, this is the professional way to go about it. Nothing is impossible, it just takes more time and/or costs more money. It's (usually) not the developers place to decide on priorities so don't. You give estimates and then deliver what business expects. If they say X is prio 1, then every other prio 1 just got bumped to prio 2 - but be clear about consequences of re-prioritizing, i.e. expected task Y will now not be delivered on time. – pap Jun 18 '12 at 13:12
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There are several kinds of "impossible", there's "running IE9 directly on an Apple II, using just two floppies", "fix this bug in Word", and "move this 500,000 line VB6 windows app to the web, by the way we need it next month", "you've said feature X can be done in 2 weeks, do it in 1".

One is truly impossible, one is possible but probably illegal and unrealistically expensive, one has an unrealistic time frame but is otherwise probably doable, and the last is feasible but you may be unwilling to do so under the circumstances.

Your response to these should differ, but should include a common element, the why. Let them either accept the barrier or try to find their own solution to that problem.

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    Let me give an example of such "impossible" - some time ago a previous employer had a situation when the network contractor repeatedly claimed that a particular configuration change that we really needed was impossible. After a lot of frustration it turned out that it was 'impossible given the current gear in that location' - simply putting a particular $1000 device (instead of the planned $100 one) would make it possible. An appropriate answer would be responding with that instead of wasting time with 'impossible' - in that particular case it would be worth even if the cost was much higher. – Peteris Apr 12 '14 at 19:06
  • And many managers have been faced with devs claiming something was impossible just because they didn't want to do it. I remember once when I was an analyst the devs claimed they couldn't sum up the data that was stored in a database for a report. Once someone high enough in the organization pushed back, it magically became possible and took less than a half day. So yeah, people don't buy impossible because they have been lied too so often. – HLGEM Sep 3 '15 at 19:26
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Kinda late to this answer, but thanks to a duff comment/answer it's moved back into the list so I'll give my spin.

I'm assuming you get a lot of these adhoc requests and have no way of pushing them via someone else. So what I'd do is this:

Define a list of off the hip sizes (say t-shirt sizes) and grade them according to do-ability (s means a couple hours up to 5xl which needs billions and NASAs help). You can the respond with something like:

hi {someone}

Thanks for your request, I have a scale for estimating these and my gut feel is this would be {t-shirt size}. If you would like to pursue this further please contact {my manager} who will be able to give you a priority call over my current work.

Thanks {your name}

Don't let them know something is impossible, there is little that actually is if you have the resources, time and money, but often just letting the know that their idea isn't something that can be knocked out (and they need to run the gauntlet of pushing your manager) will be enough to stop it in its tracks, and if not, you haven't let anyone down, you've been instructed it's a higher priority and any argument will be with your manager who is paid to have these fights.

  • there is little that actually is if you have the resources - especially when you consider someone did seriously ask: How big a Story would it be to land on the moon with this pocket calculator level computer? – Juha Untinen Jul 3 '16 at 21:31

protected by Community Jul 4 '16 at 9:57

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