Ever too often have I come across a situation where an employee or a vendor wants to say no to something (or they don’t want to say yes), but they just aren’t able to go about it. They beat around the bush, say ‘No’, get a lot of push back, and then somewhere a half-hearted ‘Yes’ or a nod slips out in the middle of the conversation. The manager / customer takes over from there and the employee / vendor has somehow consented although they weren’t fully sure why they just said ‘Yes’. The superior then continues the conversation assuming the half-hearted yes is a full yes and eventually the employee / vendor gets stuck with something they weren’t sure they really wanted in the first place. From there on its a resignation to fate and hope for the best scenario.
Let me take an example. I was once at a client site and we were as usual facing a very crunch deadline. We had UAT for our software coming up in a week and there was a list of over 300 issues open. These were a mix of defects, minor enhancements, ambiguities in functional specifications and nice to have features, which could be classified as change requests, but of course the customer and we weren’t aligned on it. On the face of it, it was very difficult to tell how much of each category was present in the mix because we hadn’t had the time to classify. While a quick and dirty classification had been done by my offshore project manager who was already burning the midnight oil in getting the defects fixed from his team, it was fairly inaccurate and there was obviously no consent with the customer on whats a defect vs whats a CR and what is high priority vs low.
Our customer was very clear. This was the first big release of the software and everything had to be perfect on the day of launch. In their hearts, they also knew that they hadn’t kept to some of their timings (not that they were willing to admit it) and so they had a reasonable role to play in the project getting to this point of delay. Like most Indian software companies, we too were doing our best to keep a happy customer and giving it all we got to deliver the software on time. Now coming back to the situation, given the pressure the customer had on us and the overall heat from different stakeholders within our company and theirs, it was very difficult to say ‘No’ to their demands in this last minute. But saying ‘Yes’ would definitely be a false promise and stretching the development team even more to the point where they would break. We also would run a risk of delivering poor quality by accepting to take on too much
It was very clear to me. We had to say no at this point to meeting their demands but saying ‘No’ would straight away lead to an escalation and a blame game which would create a bigger mess that would be impossible to clean up. We decided to take the approach of not saying ‘No’ but rather saying ‘Yes’ to the right thing. We immediately called an urgent meeting of the key stakeholders, brought them all into a room and explained the situation. While we explained the problem, we ensured all along that we gave an impression that we had a solution with us (even though we were just hoping to arrive at one) so that there was no panic. We gradually led them to look at what we had prioritized for delivery, agreed with them on the items as change requests and gave them the feeling that by fixing all of these key items we would produce a good quality delivery in the next week which also met all of their core needs. There were some spikes in the conversation but at no point we made flat ‘Nos’, rather we negotiated each point calmly until both parties came to a ‘Yes’. Under pressure, if we had not taken the time to dig out the details and gone with a ballpark yes and no to certain items which were more gut feel based, it would have led to bruises and wounds for one or even both parties at a later stage.
My takeaway from this is when someone asks for something particularly if they are in a position superior to yours, one should never answer in a blanket yes or no. If you need to say no, don’t say ‘No’ but rather dig the detail and say ‘Yes’ to the right thing. The hard part is actually in getting to the right thing. But putting in your effort and intelligence there is more valuable, than putting all your hard work in achieving the impossible, while possibly harming your team’s health in the process. I believe this is an essential communication and negotiation skill that everyone must learn to do well in today’s world.