No is Positive

“No” is one of the most important yet underused word in our languages. It’s importance cannot be overstated, yet in our culture saying “no” is often considered a negative. Saying “no” is frowned upon, sometimes considered rude, unfriendly or even aggressive - and when you say “no” people get angry. As a result, some people are terrified of saying “no” and their inability to say “no” makes them a danger to themselves and everyone around them. This may sound outrageous to someone who is conditioned to thing that “yes” is helpful, cooperative and positive and “no” is unhelpful, uncooperative and negative; However, like so many things people take for granted once you give this some deep thought it becomes very obvious that “common sense” just isn’t.

The value of “no”

A long time ago I founded a consulting company. I was young and naive and didn’t really bother to think deeply about strategy - I was quickly sucked into daily operations always resolving crises or chasing the next lead. That is, until the harsh reality of consulting business started to hit me in the face. The thing about consulting businesses is that you are always capacity limited - there are only so many consultants and so many hours in a month. This means that every lead you convert into a paying client immediately eats a portion of that capacity effectively limiting your ability to take in more leads. This wouldn’t be too bad if leads were predictable and you could plan ahead, or if lead flow would always contain more high value opportunities than your available capacity - but of course this isn’t the case. In essence, every time you say “yes” to a deal you are saying “no” to the deal around the corner which statistically happens to be better. In a nutshell, it’s the secretary problem on steroids because margins are usually low and every “no” puts cash flow at risk. But if you are not able to calm your nerves and reject deals you are guaranteed to be stuck with shitty deals until your company dies in slow agony. A painful lesson that has been burned into my mind:

Every “yes” is a mindless, implicit “no” to many other more valuable things; Use “yes” sparingly.

In fantasy land, where you can do anything you want all the time and nothing has consequences there would be no reason to ever say “no”. Sadly this is not the universe we live in - in our universe there are limited resources, conflicting goals and consequences to every action. The requests that you receive are always driven by the presumed benefit to the requester even if they claim to have your interests at heart simply because their perspective is different than yours. Even when it comes to their benefit, sometimes people making requests are wrong in their assessment - especially when they expect an unchallenged “yes”, because that encourages neglect of long term analysis.

If you say “yes” to every request you will soon find yourself completely swamped in low value work. What’s worse, is that some of the things you said “yes” to will conflict. The obvious conflict is resources, but because organizations (or any collection of humans for that matter) are characterized by conflicting goals there will also be structural conflicts that cannot be resolved by any addition of resources. Every feature you commit to will block 5 other features, some future and some contemporary - and will make your product more complicated, slower, feature bloated. The same is true for APIs and code; every behavior you add will block future development branches, hurt performance and make your code harder to maintain. If you say “yes” too many times you will end up with no capacity for maintenance or even just thinking, hopelessly working on a system that becomes increasingly complex and harder to work with; Again, slow agonizing death.

At some point I worked in a company where managers were encouraged to support other teams as much as possible. We were literally told to say “yes” to any request that came in unless we had a very good reason to say “no”. The results were catastrophic; most of the teams were working on junk and you couldn’t get anything significant done in the company because although everyone said “yes” all the time nothing actually happened (the solution of management was commando style brutal interventions). The expectation of “yes” from other teams made designers shift as much work as possible to other teams, overcommiting these teams without even realizing because every one of the different designers assumed they would get the capacity; The fact that their teams were subjected to the same abuse somehow failed to raise the alarm and only served to increase their efforts to shove work down other teams' throats, as their teams were constantly overworked but it was easy to assume other teams had capacity! As one of the few managers who refused to succumb to this farce and said “no” on a regular basis, I was not a very popular figure. I did manage to protect the capacity of my team and to shoot down some ill conceived initiatives. I firmly believe my “no” brought the company more value than my “yes”, but in a culture that rewards visible results rather than sensible work I was alone in that belief. Only after I left company did I start to hear from former colleagues that people found in retrospect how right I was to say “no”; Such is the nature of long term consequences.

The danger of “yes men”

In a populist culture that rewards short term “cooperation” saying “no” makes you unpopular. The society we live in not only promote populism but regards “no” as downright offensive. As Marshall Rosenberg pointed out with Non violent communication, society has conditioned us to make demands and blame others when they don’t give us what they want. The violence that ensues means saying “no” is a fit of courage - many people just stop saying “no” entirely and become pleasers. While it might seem easier in the short term, in the long term pleasers are trapped in downward spiral of self abuse increasingly suffering from stress and depression. Their only resort is to blame themselves and others, further aggravating their insecurity. They are also completely undependable because they are always in crisis mode and their priorities shift where the wind blows. When dealing with a pleaser you can never assume a request you make will not be understood as a demand and you could easily find yourself an accomplice of self abuse - or being blamed for the abuse. Pleasers are the equivalent of an unlimited queue in your system - because they will not reject work you have no idea how stressed they are without obtrusive, expensive monitoring and even then you will occasionally get it wrong; Eventually they will blow up.

Saying “no” doesn’t mean not saying “yes”

The most common accusation by populists against the “no” sayers is that they are being unhelpful, “blocking” and uncooperative. This of course is just FUD; It really isn’t about saying “no” but rather about heavily budgeting the “yes”, it’s about investment mindset vs a wasting mindset. It also means context really matters. In some cases, “yes” doesn’t cost much and you can maintain many low cost independent engagements and it makes sense to say “yes” a lot. In practice this is a rare situation, in most cases the ratio of “no” to “yes” is probably closer to 99:1 if not more extreme. My personal rules of thumb for quick triage are:

  1. Are there any possible dependencies or long term interactions?
  2. Can the answer be changed later to “yes”?

If the answer to either question is positive, I default to “no”; I may later devote time to think more deeply about the answer, but my thinking is also budgeted. In any case, you should have your own personal rules of triage; what matters is having a triage process that defaults to a common answer according to the context of the situation.

culture management
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