No No No

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Tom

How do you say no to bad ideas?

And how do you justify something you’ve learnt from experience without making the other person feel that you are overriding their idea just by being more opinionated?

At home I have a spunky toddler, so there’s a lot of “No” in my household (No, you can’t have more ice cream. No, you can’t jump off the high chair.) At my workplace, however, it’s far less common. Ambitious employees often jump at every opportunity for impact, even when they’ve already got a full plate, and managers often hold themselves back from shutting down ideas quickly, for fear of coming across as too top-down.

Saying “No” however isn’t just healthy, it’s necessary. The path to success is paved in thousands of tiny No’s. Behind every inspired design is a graveyard of early iterations and averted feature creep. Only through stripping products down to their most essential elements can we focus on doing fewer things better. So, how might we build the skill of saying No?

Before getting to No, it’s important to recognize that good discussions come from having good frameworks. If your work is oriented around goals, with clarity up front on the problem you’re trying to solve and how you will know when it is solved, then all your discussions can be grounded in this framework. This is the foundation that underlies all the following tips, so creating this framework up front can help prevent No from getting personal.

Breaking it down, there are two components: When to say No, and How to say No.

When to say No:

  • There’s a time and place for No. If you’re in an expansive idea-generating phase, like a brainstorming meeting or the early iterations of a project, approach these times with curiosity and openness. Don’t shut down ideas you think will bad before they’ve even had a chance to be born. Sometimes an idea you think is too hard or just plain crazy could turn out to be the idea that moves your team from being iterative to innovative.
  • Don’t say No until you understand the idea you’re saying No to. An idea that seems bad at first, when approached with a bit of curiosity, could lead somewhere else entirely. For example, if someone describes a feature that seems odd to you, asking “why do you think that’s a good idea?” could lead you to understand the concept or notion behind it, which could then lead to promising new executions. A designer’s mind can work in mysterious ways. Before saying No, try fanning the flames of inspiration to see if a creative spark will catch fire.
  • Don’t say No if you don’t have anything to back it up. Every No should come with a reason, and “Because I’m the boss and I said so” is not a reason. If your gut reaction to an idea is “No” but you can’t come up with any concrete evidence to back up your opinion, this may indicate it’s not the right time to say No, and there’s an opportunity to gather more data/feedback to learn something new. The best decisions are made when you fully understand your alternatives.
  • Don’t say No to all the small stuff. Sticking to a top-down plan without any opportunities for the individuals on your team to be generative creates a very limiting work environment. For example, if an engineer on your team has a small fix she’s passionate about doing, she’s able to do it herself, it will be quick (i.e. won’t impact the schedule), and it really doesn’t have much downside, this should be supported. Especially if this improves polish, usability, or squishes a bug. Supporting the passion of your team to identify and execute on opportunities to improve product quality is great for building a culture where everyone feels ownership over the user experience.
  • Say No during focused execution mode. When you’re working towards a deadline, nearing a major milestone or preparing to ship, this is not the time to be coming up with new ideas. Often the way to say No during these times is to simply say “Not yet. To stay focused, let’s ensure we do everything we planned for this milestone, and evaluate all the backlog ideas together after we hit our deadline.” While it’s possible that great ideas could be delayed with this approach, so long as your milestones are re-evaluated frequently enough (e.g. every month) this approach allows you to remain focused, avoiding thrash or scope creep. Plus, when ideas are all evaluated together, it’s far more likely to result in a cohesive experience.

How to say No:

  • No doesn’t have to be negative. The most frustrating way to receive “No” is when it’s delivered as an unproductive judgement, like “No, that is a bad idea.” Here, the recipient doesn’t learn anything new. You can always bring your No back to the goals, what course of action would be the strongest path towards the goals, and why. In this framing, there’s no such thing as a “bad idea”, but instead there are ideas that are more effective and ideas that are less effective at reaching your goals given the required effort/cost, which is a productive conversation everyone can learn from.
  • Make sure you’re saying “No” to the idea, not the person. There’s a world of difference between critiquing an idea vs. disparaging theperson behind it. Saying “No, we shouldn’t do it your way” or “We should do it my way” might be a convenient shorthand, but be mindful to avoid using language that ties a person to their work product, as this can lead to judgement and resentment.
  • Don’t talk about your experience in the abstract, talk about the what’s happening right now. You may be the most seasoned person in the room, but it erodes credibility to say No purely on the basis of your seniority without providing additional rationale, like “No, I have been doing this for 10 years and I know what I’m doing.” Not only are you not sharing specific insights from your supposed expertise, but you’re putting distance between you and your team. In moments when you want to fall back on pattern-matching from your past, it is worth catching yourself and going a layer deeper. What did you try in the past? Why didn’t it work? What about the current situation brings that past situation to mind, and what can you share about what you learned that informs what we should be doing now? This is valuable introspection that will help everyone benefit from your experience.
  • Saying No to leadership isn’t insubordination, it’s your job. One of the hardest times to say “No” is when the bad idea is coming from your manager, or the executives running the company. At the end of the day, unless your company is living in the factory age, you are being paid to create value and have impact, not to simply do what you’re told. There will be times when your marching orders don’t sound right. This is among the most important times to say No. If you follow direction blindly without believing in what you are doing, not only will you produce lower quality work that isn’t coming from your heart, but you’ll be missing an opportunity to help inform the management of a better path. Successful teams are built from cognitive diversity, and no one will have as much context into all the details of your work as you do. Only through bringing together different ideas and viewpoints can there be room for the strongest ideas to emerge.

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