TBM 246: Why Didn't They Say No?
I was working with a leader recently, and they asked me why a team might knowingly commit to work they couldn’t feasibly get done.
Why didn’t they say no?
I penned this little list (not specific to my workplace, but drawing from years of these conversations).
They didn't even have an opportunity to say no. Someone decided to speak yes on their behalf. The person saying Yes hasn't spent more than ten minutes learning about the team's current situation and is basing their yes on "how we did things at Google in 2011 before I became a manager."
When they said no in the past, it felt like they were being hauled into the courthouse and put on the defendant's stand. Saying no involves a deep test of wills, being doubted, and being questioned over every minute detail. It gets tiring, so they just say yes to make people disappear.
It's much easier to say "Yes, and we need more budget" than to say "No"—even if adding money and people has a weak chance of improving outcomes. Of course, someone says, "Um, ok, so here's 20% of that budget. Can you still do everything if you make these tradeoffs?"
Someone has told them that saying No is not an option, probably because it would be too painful and politically damaging to have to defend the team's decision. It is better to say yes and let everything slip a bit than to say No.
FOMO! They might never get a chance to say Yes again!
They've been branded as the problem team. They are worried that saying "No" will tarnish their reputation further. Maybe, somehow, they can pull this off.
Saying no takes confidence. It can be hard to draw the line if your confidence has been beaten down or never lifted up.
They said yes to something, only to find they said yes to two paragraphs someone wrote in five minutes between meetings, missing 90% of the spec and details. And now they're caught in a cycle of someone asking them to read all those details, them reading those details, trying to say no, and then being thanked for "their commitment to the project." Jira tickets have been cut—jokes on them.
Humans are a smorgasbord of cognitive biases, and our optimism runneth over.
When everyone asking you for something says their thing is the top priority and points at The Top Priorities Slide, who are you to judge? Sounds important.
Lack of experience. Only after many years do you realize how much more you can get done when you do less at once. With experience, you know that starting something later can often be the best way to ensure success.
It's an organizational habit. Because everyone always says yes, nothing happens as expected, and the organization is caught in a perpetual act of denial.
No one taught anyone on the team how to negotiate. No one understands queuing theory. No one understands the flaws of chasing high utilization rates.
Saying Yes is a great path to promotion if you can figure out how to make the repercussions of saying yes someone else's responsibility.
Cognitive load! When people are overloaded, they don't think straight. They want to go home, crawl in a ball, and watch Netflix or Cat Videos.
THEY DID SAY NO. But by the time it reached three levels of hierarchy, it was translated as a "Yes, they'll do it, with some small tweaks to scope!"
You can say No and rock the boat during uncertain times. Or say Yes and wait six months for people to realize no one will get more than 50% of the work they committed to done.
YES! More ways to be busy!
Just make this meeting end. YES!
Turn that No-frown upside down and add it to your Yes-stretch-goals. OKRs DONE!
In short: there are many reasons a team might not do the super rational thing and say no to more work.