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The Importance Of “No”

I can vividly remember a time at school where a careers guidance counselor gave a lesson on the importance of saying “yes”. They explained that opportunities come and go, they are like items passing by on a conveyor belt. If you don’t grab them, they’ll be gone, and you might regret passing them by.

In general, this is probably good advice—it’s certainly important to deliberately consider opportunities as they arise—but like all advice, taken to an extreme it may actually cause as much harm as good. Saying “yes” to absolutely everything will probably mean that few things get finished, work days expand and become exhausting, and resentment grows (“why am I the only one working at 9pm?!?”). Perhaps you’ve been there…

As analysts, it’s important that we build rapport and good relationships with our stakeholders. One seemingly easy way of doing this is to say “yes” a lot, after all “yes” is the path of least resistance, and it also implies agreement (which is a way of avoiding conflict). Being the person that always gives positive news is a good way to be liked… at least in the short term.  It’s also quite comforting and comfortable to say “yes”, there’s no need to argue or face hostility.

I recently heard a story from a front line worker who had been seconded into a subject matter expert role. An external consultancy was working on requirements for a major replacement system, and they were there to represent their team’s needs. Every time a requirement was mentioned, the consultant would write it down and say “yep, we can do that” and wouldn’t mention it again. When the system was actually delivered, few (if any) of these requirements had actually been met. We might speculate that there was a contractual scope that had been agreed previously, and some of the requirements that were raised were outside of this scope. Whatever the reason, the outcome was a very frustrated user base who felt they had been completely ignored.

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Avoiding the “mindless yes” trap

Mindlessly saying “yes” like this might buy some short term gains, but it does so at the expense of long term pains. Saying “yes” to every story, feature or requirement without a discussion about necessity, feasibility or priority will quite understandably lead to an expectation of delivery. As the backlog gets bigger and bigger disappoint and trust issues might emerge. It’s easy to imagine a frustrated stakeholder exclaiming “why is nothing I suggest actually being delivered?!  The tough prioritization conversation hasn’t been avoided, it’s just been deferred. When it happens it’ll probably be even more difficult. Or, like in the example I mentioned above, it might just lead to disappointment and disengagement. The complete opposite of what was intended!

It’s often perceived that the only alternative to saying “yes” is a cold, hard, permanent “no”.  However, this is rarely the case. As business analysts we can often say yes, but at a cost! Surely a more ethical thing to do is to make that cost visible?  Here are some possible examples:

  • “That’s certainly a possibility, but it’s outside of the objectives of the program. It’s possible that the world has changed, and we need to revisit the objective though… shall I book a call with the sponsor to revisit this?”
  • “The initial guestimate from the developers is that this is huge. It’s absolutely possible, but it’d delay the first public release by a month, and it’d impact the testing plan which increases cost. What’s your view with that in mind?”
  • “I can absolutely take that task on. I’m already at full capacity, so the impact would be to delay work on my other projects, and slip the deadlines for the BA work. Are you and the other teams OK with this?”

Here we aren’t saying no, we are providing options, and providing information that will help the decision maker choose.  Of course, each of these examples are simplified, and in reality there would be more discussion, and there will be cases where a flat out “no” is appropriate too.

In summary, whilst saying “yes” might make us popular, it may lead to long term over commitment. We shouldn’t be afraid of saying “no”, or even better saying “that’s possible, and here are the consequences”.