“How can I get better at saying No?”
I hear this question a lot. Here’s the advice I give…
Make it harder to say Yes.
By that I don’t mean be cagey or stubborn. Don’t drag your feet. Don’t ghost people. Don’t dismiss people’s ideas. This is different. In fact, what I have in mind shows a lot of professional respect.
The Interaction Design Foundation defines a forcing function as follows:
A forcing function is an aspect of a design that prevents the user from taking an action without consciously considering information relevant to that action. It forces conscious attention upon something ("bringing to conciousness") and thus deliberately disrupts the efficient or automatised performance of a task.
You’re in a meeting. You blurt out an idea. Someone says “that’s an awesome idea, we should totally do that!” People nod in agreement. Awash in recency bias, a supportive co-worker chimes in with “it is about time we did something like that!” Frustrated by recent progress, the CEO agrees. “I love it when we can be decisive. Great idea! Now let’s execute!”
Two hours later you’re scratching your head wondering what the hell just happened. It wasn’t a bad idea, but there’s no way it is the best idea. “How did I let this happen,” you mutter to yourself. Saying yes was way too easy. It’s like having half-finished cake in the fridge.
The situation was missing a forcing function. The team needed something to disrupt the flow, and temper the excitement and recency bias.
Consider a different sequence of events.
Imagine if you blurted out your idea, and immediately added it to a list of ten other ideas targeting the same opportunity. “That’s interesting, I’d love to follow up with you on that once you write a one-pager,” says a coworker. “Maybe we can put it on the agenda for our monthly options review?”
Crisis averted. You made it harder to say Yes without being a jerk. The team will view the option very differently in a couple weeks. You’re not giving a reactive No. You are bringing them into the process.
Of course when we take “make it harder to say Yes” to the extreme, we end up with rigid annual planning processes. In theory, because everything has to be approved and vetted, you’re making it harder to say Yes. But I would argue—hear me out on this—that big-bang annual planning actually makes it easier to say Yes (in a way).
Most of the work is a long way off. It is abstract. Teams are filling up their queues to the brim, because it is the one shot they have. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course. That’s doable!
Again, the situation is missing healthy forcing functions. The forcing function that DOES exist—the rigid annual planning process—is not very effective. In fact, it PROMOTES taking action on things without consciously considering information relevant to the action.
So we want to make it harder to say the wrong kind of Yesses, and the wrong kind of Nos. And easier to say the right kind of Yesses, and the right kind of Nos.
What’s an example of the right kind of Yes?
The team ships something and receives valuable feedback. Should they keep going to capitalize on the opportunity? YES. We want to make these Yesses much easier. We don’t want the team burdened by a prior commitment if the work we can do right now is super valuable.
How about the wrong kind of Yes?
Should they jump immediately into the next project because it was easy to say Yes to starting the next project? No. We want fewer of those Yesses.
Tl;dr Instead of focusing on how to tell people no, focus on inviting them into a process which makes saying Yes a bit harder (but leaves people far more confident about their Yesses).