Sunday, 22 April 2012 00:00

The Art Of No

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There I was, in a posh Montreal hotel conference room, two customers on one side of the table, and my client and me on the other. Taped to the back of my laptop lid was a conference-center supplied piece of paper with a hastily scrawled note on it. The entire message consisted of only two letters followed an exclamation mark. The letters were "N" and "O." They sent a succinct message that was hard to ignore as the customer incessantly strove to get a little more functionality brought into the failing project's scope. For every request, I would drop my chin slightly, look over the top of my glasses, tap my right index finger on the top of my laptop, and they would relent. Instead of being a pessimistic curmudgeon, I was bringing realism about the budget and timeline and doing what leaders do—making hard decisions.

The Yes Culture

There are certainly more polite ways to deny a request; however, this project would be millions of dollars over budget even with my incessant perfunctory reply. Everyone knew that we had to make tough decisions or failure—in the form of cancellation—would be laid upon all of us. Therefore, for three days, we jocularly heeded the sign's advice.

We have become soft. We have created a culture that is rife with the positive. Look no further than how we build estimates. Regardless of the task, we plentifully pad our approximations. We carefully define the effort to complete the assignment and then factor in "contingency." An eloquent word for "slop," which is a term from the old-days for extra time inserted into schedules for unknowns and unrelated undertakings. Those were the days before our culture considered multitasking more valuable than focus. I long to return to those days, or at least this prudent philosophy. We would be far more productive. Instead, we push more time into assignments anticipating the boss' email, phone call, or abrupt presence in your cubicle with a new-must-be-done-right-now request for averting some immediate catastrophe. All of us, being the recipient of thousands of these demands, know too well that the world will keep spinning if we refuse the request.

The LoveFest

However, with the superior's appeal comes the LoveFest. You are prepared. Having anticipated your boss' action, you have padded your timeline and, with a comforting smile, you reply, "Yes." Your boss' shoulders drop, he or she exhales a relieved sigh, followed by a faintly auditable "Good" (the great boss says "thank you," but do not get your expectations too high). Everyone is happy as the affirmative report reverberates up the chain of command. A warm, fuzzy feeling over takes people much like a "they lived happily ever after," it nauseates leaders.

The result is that all tasks become tardier simply because of management's inability to prioritize. Prioritization: the one action that provides the ammunition to decline the request. The predictable result of multitasking is always the same—everything becomes late.

No is Good

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Strategy, alignment, communication of goals is not easy. Our Vision To Value white paper talks about focusing your team on the key strategic corporate goals and ensuring everyone in your organization knows the direction.

Refusing to comply with the request can be much more tactful than hanging a negatory note on your cubicle wall. It starts with each one of us denying the opportunity by eliminating pad from our estimates. Eradicating "slop" makes it impossible to use and you can rightfully decline requests with a simple "No, I would, but I am busy getting this task done. If I work on your task, this one will be late. Sorry. However, if you get approval for me to be late on this task, then I can help you." This puts the requestor in the position of validating priorities. Never, assume he or she knows what you are working on and how important it is. Taskmasters have the fiduciary responsibility of validating the reassignment; however, that takes work. Discovering conflicting priorities, places them in a position of saying "no" to the original requestor. My advice: put your current assignments first and if the new request is really that important, your task will be given the grace required. Your ability to deliver on time and as promised will erase any overtones of not being a team player.

Practice Saying No

The advice is easy; however, the words are hard. Leaders must learn to say no. Our culture is so brainwashed to the positive that we have lost the ability to decline requests. Change that by taking a proactive approach and reading the recommendations of an assertiveness coach. The advice is simple—be direct. Just as shown above, the first word should be "No." Being less direct confuses the communication. Inform them of the actions they should take to attain an affirmative answer and ensure they understand the consequences of changing your priorities.

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Opportunity Crimes

At the heart, though, our behavior creates the opportunity for the crime. Talk to anyone in law enforcement they will tell you, "leave your car unlocked and it will get stolen". They call them opportunity crimes. Put extra time in your schedule and it will be used. Put extra money in the budget and it will be spent. By adding pad, you are guilty of creating the opportunity for your boss, or any other criminal in the organization, to steal your time. "Stop Slop" and take a bite out of crime.

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