The art of saying “NO”!

From a young age, we have been taught to accept a lot of things from others by convenience or politeness. Then, the more we grow, the more we have to take complex decisions that can impact your personal or your work life. But, there are always some situations where we accept things by default to not damage relationships with others.

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I wanted to post a personal view on how I see the art of “saying no” at work.

When I started in consulting in 2000 with no working experience, the first interactions with the customer were quite ambiguous. It was very hard for me to decline requests coming my way. Most of the time, because I wanted to keep the relationship with my customer intact and because of the very know golden rule that the “customer is always right”, I was accepting a lot of requests without questioning them much. Over the years and by applying diverse techniques learned with some tenured colleagues that were very inspiring, I started to challenge more my customers during meetings. My consulting behavior became even more stronger later once I acquired Project Management and Product Management experience….

I remember well a situation in Paris during an interview with a CIO who wanted to hire a consultant for a project at an insurance company. They wanted to implement a whole suite of tools for their workforce to increase their productivity. I did not know at that time, if this was a good or bad thing of being chosen to conduct this project.

During the first two weeks and after a few interviews with the workforce, I came up with a structured mapping of priorities. The customer (CIO) reviewed my mapping and asked what I will do next. I told him that I needed to make some market research to get an idea of the state of the art at the moment… I had a few benchmark studies in my pocket but this time, the requests were so specific that I did not know where I was going. The next day, I decided to meet with the CIO with a plan that explained that I needed two weeks to come up with a complete analysis and recommendations. He agreed with the approach and let me start. The problem is that he was constantly interrupting me by suggesting new ideas. As I did not want to damage the relationship, I thanked him and added the idea to my list. But, he continued to do so by suggesting some new scope; I then started to challenge him by reminding him about the plan we both committed to. Whatever I said, he insisted to change the scope of the whole market study. Even if I knew he was my customer, I decided to push back and say “no” as that could change the scope of the entire study and then impact the timelines as well. At that time, I was struggling to push back as I did not know how to justify and articulate enough why I said “no”. He was very irritated and stopped talking to me… I ended up with my 2 week analysis and provided my recommendations for his workforce of agents. but then my project ended… I am still remembering this experience and 15 years later… this was a great lesson for me as: you always have to put some boundaries or limits on things – this can be with your partners or customers… but you have to do it smartly with the right justifications.

Photo by Brett Jordan on

After a decade in consulting, I pursued my career on the other side… (meaning on the “customer” side)… For this first role, I was not the guy who was selling service to my customers… but I was the customer and was working with different vendors … That was a challenge for me but I found a way to play some kind of consulting role internally… indeed, my work consisted to implement a content management system for the internal workforce. My internal customers were my colleagues and once again, I was always trying to prioritize requests that were coming my way. Even if I know that the golden rule in product management was not be a pleaser, I constantly was challenged with my stakeholders. Saying “no” is a method and has to be used smartly: you always have to balance between empathy and honesty. As a (product) leader, you must be open and listen to the user pain points but at the same time, you have to be honest if you think that a request is not justified or not aligned with the strategy of your product.

Is it an really an art to say “NO”?

The same way, your requester is asked to provide a problem statement and a business value of their own request, you have to prepare yourself if you need to push back.

The best way to do this is to talk about the impact to other initiatives that are of higher value. You can also frame it in an objective, like that it would ‘take too much team capacity’ or ‘it is going to put us in technical debt’ or ‘it is far to generate revenue’…

You always have to balance between the time that it would take to add a feature versus the revenue increase it would generate… but in order to do that you always have to perfectly understand the company or business unit/department priorities: this can help you also articulate why accepting a request rather another.

If you always justify a “no” well, you will bring people with you and you will really break down the walls of ego. Building consensus around the company’s vision isn’t just for managing customer expectations, but internal expectations as well.

Is it Art? I will say that this is a best practice to adopt. In some complex situations, where the business priorities are constantly changing due to competition environment or like this year with the pandemic that impact many company with reorgs, then it becomes really an ART!

Published by ThinkerSQuid

Founder of The ThinkerSQuid - A blog to learn and share for everyone

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