The power of No

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Let me tell you a little story about assertiveness as a (digital) project manager. Don’t underestimate the power of No. Although this topic is not really related to Scrum, I would like to share a life lesson that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In my career as a digital project manager, I have always worked in very dynamic environments with complex activities. Especially in the field of digital product development, in combination with human factors, deadlines, schedules, egos and politics. In these environments, flexibility is often the adage. The pursuit of the ‘yes’ prevails. Everything is possible. And if not, a solution is sought, no matter the cost, often at the expense of quality, sustainability or well-being. Assertiveness is often tamed because of the customer-contractor relationship. An answer other than ‘yes’ is seen as rigid and unserviceable.

And then, just then, nothing is more enlightening – or gives so much catharsis to both the giver and the receiver – than giving a simple answer:

“No.”

Is this my newfound toddlerhood? Is my benevolence and positivity finally broken after all these years of project management? Well, no! I argue that saying ‘no’ can also be of service.

The Power of No

The power of words

We have certain emotional associations with the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

The use of ‘yes’ invokes positive feelings. Yes is a confirmation, the opening of a door, new possibilities. Of the beginning of growth. Approval, endorsement, agreement. Sounds very positive, right?

So what about ‘no’, then? Rejection, refusal, denial, impossibility. Decline and stagnation. Quite the opposite from yes.

The Power of No
How about “no”?

We want to stay away from ‘no’ because it summons feelings we do not want to invoke in others. We therefore try, in our benevolence, to strive for a ‘yes’.

Field of tension

And that is often possible. But let me put it in the context of (digital) project management. Project managers find themselves in a complex field of tension between budget, planning, people and internal/external politics. And in the context of digital product development, technology (the possibilities and impossibilities) and its quality and feasibility play a major role. Planning and executing projects requires careful coordination between all these factors.

Nice plan you got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it…

The project management triangle with the variables scope, resources, time and quality is always under pressure. In addition, add human factors such as availability and collaboration. In a time of flexible working hours, flexible work from home and part-time contracts, these are also under pressure and makes project planning more challenging.

In such a complex situation it is often easy to adjust small things. Swap a working day, schedule a meeting a little later, bring a deadline forward a bit, add an extra feature to please stakeholders. It’s often all possible. Some decisions have no effect, some have a little more impact and others can have major consequences. As a digital project manager, you continuously weigh the impact of decisions and try to limit the risks of the project as much as possible.

The ‘unserving yes’

But in our willingness to please and to be flexible, we can also fail. If the ‘yes’ always prevails, it could lead to an unmanageable project. My experience is that poorly ran projects have often become that way because of a longer sum of small, apparently harmless, sub-optimal quirks.

A question is usually asked before an answer such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And before you answer the question, it is good to ask the following questions:

  • What impact does the decision have on the quality of the process or product?
  • Is the impact of the decision acceptable – and are people aware of this?
  • Can the impact be overcome with another intervention? And what effect does this intervention have in turn?

Based on the answers to these questions, you might conclude that the consequences are not acceptable or worth it. Then it is very valid, very acceptable, to answer a question with ‘no’. A ‘yes’ may sound positive, but could have adverse consequence, and would thus be far from being helpful.

In addition, assertiveness for a project manager helps to get rid of the labels ‘miracle worker’ and ‘problem fixer’. We do not dabble in magic. Not everything is possible. This is a reality that can be hard to swallow, especially for people-pleasers.

Moreover, saying ‘yes’ a lot sets a certain precedent and expectation in people. If you solve everything, you hinder people in their own creativity to come up with solutions themselves.

What is the power of No? 

Let’s face it, how much value do you attach to your own standards and well-being if “anything goes”? You make it easier for yourself as a project manager if you have healthy quality standards for both the product and the process.

You will be surprised that people accept ‘no’ a lot better than you think. Don’t underestimate the positive impact and the power of No.

‘No’ is an answer that is usually given deliberately. Not out of rigidity, but out of assertiveness. Because a ‘no’ can be said from a positive and helping mindset. It shows that you stand for your process, for your colleagues, for your principles and for quality.

Of course, answering just ‘no’ as an answer is a bit too harsh. A helpful ‘no’ is always with a form of nuance, such as “No, but…”, or “No, because”. There is a difference between a period and a comma. Or slamming the door shut and leave it ajar.

Closing

As I look back on my fairly long career as a digital project manager (and beginning to look forward to new challenges), I reflect on the lessons I have often learned through trial and error. In healthy human interactions, assertiveness is a helpful mindset to avoid stress. Digital project management is largely human work and you learn this trade almost entirely in practice. I always proclaim, both privately and in the workplace: no is a valid answer.

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