The Poison of “No”

Posted on May 16, 2013 in Culture Hacking, Start Ups

I have a friend who is a bonafide rocket scientist. He spent years working in rooms guarded by guys with submachine guns, working on things that this to this day he can’t talk about. You’d think working in bunkers on the minutiae involved in designing things that must survive not just our planet but others would be a tiring exercise in fighting what’s possible with technology. You’d be wrong. His single biggest complaint was the politics involved in being able to accomplish great things. The biggest obstacle? “No.”

Why is “No” so dangerous?

“No” as a concept isn’t dangerous. It’s a vital tool to be able to protect your time, your negotiations, and your ability to meet deadlines and goals. However, corporate America is suffering a bout of the “No”s and I see it starting to poison the start up culture as well. No is the friend of the product, where a clear and defined blue print will have a clear and defined outcome. However, “no” in marketing can have disastrous consequences.

No is the enemy of “try it”. No is the enemy of failure. Not failing is the arch nemesis of progress. If you don’t try something you’ll never have to deal with failing at something. In a place where success is defined as keeping your head down and making it to the next pay period, it may be better to say “no” than to risk sticking your neck out on something that might fail. “No” is a symptom of a broken culture, not a cause. It doesn’t just have to be marketing or rocket science. Here’s a post from a Microsoft engineer about how “no” kept their product behind free open source products for years. He says, “You can always find a reason to say “no”, and you have very little incentive to say “yes”.”

How does “no” pervade itself into a culture?

One of the most subtle ways that “no” slips into a culture is when “yes” accompanies more work. The hierarchal structure of many organizations means that we often abstract ourselves away from the thing we’re skilled at. As that happens, the people who replace us may not have the motivation, understanding, or trust from peers to say “yes.” They may also just want to limit the work to what they’ve committed to from the start. While their “no” might crush huge innovation, it also prevents their scope from changing and limits their stress.

Imagine being a junior employee having to present Power Points at your weekly meeting. Everyone wants to hit the goals they set. But what if they have extra bandwidth to try new and innovative things? The last perception many people want to create is someone who set their goals, then struck out on their own. A renegade. A mercenary. Someone who’s not a team player. Someone who wouldn’t be missed come lay off time. As people slog through their slides, the little “No’s” never get mentioned, and the status quo continues.

How can start ups avoid “no” syndrome?

I did some work at a place where despite having a relatively long runway and being well funded, their default answer to most new ideas was “no.” They had abstracted away the meaningful metrics like signups or new users into secondary metrics like links, or page views. If the proposed plan didn’t immediately impact one of these secondary metrics, it got a “no.” This lead to a content strategy that was ultimately detrimental to the quality of the site. Instead of building value, we were only trying to build links. Instead of trying to create things people will link to in the future, we were only creating things people would link to RIGHT NOW. The result was content that nobody was particularly proud of because it didn’t fundamentally align with core values. It wasn’t “no” to avoid work, it was “no” in order to create more immediate results. This is a form of “marketing debt.”

You can avoid the “no syndrome” by reflecting on your own reasons. When you find yourself about to say ‘no’ stop and take a minute. Instead of saying no, ask “why not?” and start from a point of honesty. If you find that “why not” is a reason like “it might ruffle feathers” or “I don’t know if someone will approve this” you’re not doing all you can to be better. If “no” is because you might hurt someone, set back the product, or spend an exorbitant amount of money without creating any value — it might be time to examine what you can do to compromise a little bit. “No” is a powerful tool. Make sure you’re using it to be better.