No at the Expense of Yes
Saying no helps fight public enemy No. 1 — dilution.
It’s planning time. It’s time to define the projects, the resources, and the timelines for next year’s work. Planning is exciting because you get to imagine what could be and make lists of projects you’d like to do. It feels good when the opportunities are meaningful and the project ideas come easily. It’s stressful when the set of projects outstrips our capacity to do them, but that’s how it goes because resources are always limited. The result is we must say no to a lot of important projects.
Saying yes is easy, and it feels good. No, on the other hand, is difficult, but it’s far more important. No helps fight public enemy No. 1—dilution. In our desire to do the right thing, a common failure mode is to say yes to too many projects and dilute them beyond effectiveness. As a result, projects are behind schedule as overworked project teams limp along hobbled by insufficient resources. Where yes starves projects of resources, no concentrates them. The result is projects get done on time. More importantly, teams feel good about the projects and have plenty of energy to start the next one right away. With no, projects aren’t a yearlong series of daily sprints.
Some time ago, I was part of a leadership team hired to develop a new product line with improved function and robustness and significantly reduced cost. The challenge was formidable enough on its own, but it was made more difficult by the launch of the last product, which did not meet customer expectations. As customer complaints stacked up, pressure was immense to divert engineering resources away from development of the new product family. But there was only one engineering team, and it would take all our mental energy to meet the stringent specs of the new product line. It was decision time. It was time to say no.
We decided to say yes to the new product family, and no to our problematic product. Nothing is black and white, and our approach was to triage customer complaints, albeit with an ultra-high yes threshold. Our prime objective was to develop the new product family, and we behaved that way. Even so, we held a standup meeting every day to review field problems and officially say no. If we could knock off a small problem—largely a symbolic gesture—we did, but mostly we said no. To the credit of the team leader and marketing manager, it wasn’t just an internal no. It was an official no to the customer, with an apology and an explanation that we wanted to develop a whole new product line that they’d really love. We angered many customers, and though they didn’t like our decision, most understood it. But, to a customer, they appreciated our honesty and clarity.
To the credit of the team, we did follow through with a great new product line that delighted customers; and to the credit of our customers, they stuck with us. It took years, but some customers even joked with us about those difficult times. I like to think they remembered and valued our honest no.
During your planning, try to prune the trivial many down to the vital few. Here’s an approach that has worked for me: In order of importance, fully staff projects until you run out of resources, and commit to the fully staffed projects. For the remaining resources, temporarily assign them to the fully staffed projects, and move them when the unplanned work comes.
It won’t be easy, but try to judge yourself on what you say no to.