Why can we not simply say “no” to a project?

This question trivializes a significant issue within the drilling universe, and I hope it triggers the reader — at least small amount.

The fact is we can, and do, say no to projects. As a driller, I certainly had any number of projects where, upon arrival, I started to get a sneaking suspicion this would be one of “those” projects. You know, where the client, consultant, owner or construction GC seems to have forgotten that you would arrive that day … and the issues only grow from there. As a project manager, I have also had several projects that seemed great — until the drill rig arrived to the site.

When do we just say no?

This question has more complexity than meets the eye. As a driller, I often failed to understand why “they” would even bid on this project. As a project manager, I started to understand. Then as an operations manager/business unit manager, I firmly understood why I did not always say no, even if I wanted to. The fact is I could not.

As drillers, we have a responsibility to perform the scope of work as designed unless it becomes apparent that scope of work is unachievable (we return to “unachievable” in a moment).

As project managers, we have a responsibility to ensure that the driller is set up for success. We work to remove all potential roadblocks and smooth out all bumps, and to ensure the client has firm, reasonable expectations. We also have a responsibility to help the operations manager ensure a steady flow of work, as our staff needs to stay billable.

As operations managers and business unit managers, we have a responsibility to ensure adequate staffing, and adequate equipment, tooling and materials to complete the projects, and that all of it is actually profitable at the end of the day.

When I evaluate the statements I laid out above, “adequate staffing,” “adequate equipment,” and “billable” are the keywords and phrases — and why we are challenged with saying “no” to a bad project.

Just as a driller does not want to show up and relive the scene I played out earlier in this article, the driller likewise does not want to receive that dreaded text message:

“No work next week, clean the yard for a couple days then take the rest of the week off … you have plenty of PTO, right?”

The reality is that we live and work in a pretty cutthroat employment and project environment. Not all of our clients truly value the commodity of drilling services. Not all companies value the human resources required to execute the scopes of work. Not all managers, drillers, consultants, owners or engineers are having the best day every single day.

In order to ensure that we can retain our staff, we need to keep them billable. I am sure fellow The Driller contributor Brock Yordy will write or record a video at some point about a living wage as it relates to overtime. Often, we have unfair expectations on all sides about overtime to make a living wage, but I will keep this column focused on projects.

The reality is we have slow periods. We have a big project that runs long and we have told people that we cannot be there when they want us there one too many times. We have economic conditions that slow real estate investment, housing starts and basic real estate transactions. We have other economic conditions that slow recurring revenue on energy-related remediation portfolios. When those times come, it is difficult to say no to the one bid opportunity I have even received this week, despite looking at the figures and having 16 different reasons why it is not going to work the way they say it will. Despite all of that, I put a number to it and say, “Well, if we get it we will figure it out later.”

What I have come to learn is a bad project is a bad project, no matter when it happens, no matter how much trust you have in the client, no matter how much trust you have in the driller.

“Later” generally comes once we are slammed again and have no extra people or equipment available. Then that one project I bid on knowing I shouldn’t sits in the back of my head, I just know they will call this week. That is the way it happens. Every. Single. Time. We of course have the option to say no again, but then need to weigh the reputation of bidding on then declining awards after a budget has already been delivered to an owner, and myriad other problems.

What I have come to learn is a bad project is a bad project, no matter when it happens, no matter how much trust you have in the client, no matter how much trust you have in the driller. We need to read the scope of work narrative in detail, review all figures and assumptions, and then provide feedback. I will generally provide a paragraph outlining the problems I have with the scope of work and how we will get it done if awarded the project. I outline these up front, not after the award, not after we encounter problems. And, if the client chooses to push back on those issues, I simply withdraw our proposal. No harm, no foul.

We all need to stand our ground to avoid making small problems into big problems. It will continue to allow us as an industry to elevate ourselves, elevate our skills and return the value acknowledgment where it belongs: the driller making it all happen every day.