The power of No

In a sea of endless possibility, discover the power of not doing something

A while ago a business associate and I were discussing a joint venture we had planned to do. Reviewing our various activities over the coming months we decided there was no way we were going to be able to do what we’d talked about until next year, so we said a decisive “no” to doing it now.

And it felt liberating.

Modern business culture rightly encourages positivity, but the unintended consequences can make you feel overloaded. Selective use of negativity can have a positive effect. Here’s how…

The power of yes

Early on in my consulting career I worked with a colleague who had a background in sales training. My relationship with our client was not as good as it could be, and she offered me perhaps the simplest and best consulting advice I’ve ever had. I’d come from a technical and analytic background where options tended to be carefully weighed against agreed criteria and recommendations made. As a result, my answers to client questions in the early stage of their transformation project were of the “it depends” variety. My colleague realised this wasn’t helping them get started on a big change, so she sat me down and said

“When a client asks you if we can do something, what’s your answer?”

Before I could come out with “it depends” she produced a sheet of A4 paper with one word on it in large font:

“The answer is always yes” she said “even if you can think of a thousand reasons why it’s not possible. The client wants help. They want to know what’s possible, so entertain the possibility before dismissing it or even trying to evaluate it.”

It’s a classic sales technique, of course: agree that you can provide what the customer wants even if you can’t figure out how to provide it. It works equally well in change and transformation projects, where people need to try out a new idea to see if it could work. As a consultant part of your role is to help envision this new world not dismiss it out of hand.

The Yes/No Interlude*

Saying Yes to everything is a life and work strategy that means you embrace possibilities and adopt a more positive mindset. But it has its downsides: if everything is possible, then what do you do?

I encounter this all the time with clients I work with, particularly smaller non-profit organisations who invariably have resource or budget challenges that mean that the list of things they would like to do starts to seem un-doable. My lesson from many years ago means that I don’t tell people what they can’t do but I do work through a process that helps them focus on what must be done now, what could be done given budget (and a plan to get it) and what doesn’t really need to be done.

I find that once people say no – or not-yet – to a few things on the seemingly impossible to-do list, the forward plan becomes more manageable.

Embrace the nay-sayer

Any change initiative or ambitious plan will usually flush out the “nay-sayers” in the organisation, those people for whom every silver lining has a cloud, and the fashion for positive thinking means that their views can often get discounted. I have had a lot of experience with IT departments over the years and that’s where a lot of perceived negativity comes from, usually in the form of too-long development timescales or too-high budgets. In these cases, there is a disconnect between the ambition stated by the person who had the idea and the nay-sayers view of reality. I think change efforts need to have nay-sayers on the team to temper any over-optimism but also, when they do come on board, either through compromise or coming round to the argument, they become rock-solid advocates for change.

A couple of questions to see if you’re embracing the power of Yes and No:

  • When faced with a colleague who proposes a radical or different way of looking at things, is your instinctive answer “yes we can” or “no we can’t”?
  • Have you tested out your big idea with a friendly nay-sayer?
  • From the overwhelming list of possibilities, what’s really important, and what’s really important now.

There’s no hard and fast answer to these questions, but addressing them means your change plans are much more likely to succeed.

* If you can remember this then, like me, you spent too much of your childhood watching TV or you and I have similar taste in music

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