2 Neurones & 1 Camera

Olivier Thereaux

The Art of No

Years ago, when I was part of an improv theatre group, we had to abide strictly by one rule: never say “no”, but rather, always say “yes, and”. The rule was meant to ensure that no-one would kill the flow of improvisation and that everyone’s effort would serve to push the skit further and further forward. The “yes, and” rule has been wonderful guidance for my communication style ever since: whenever I stuck to it, I found that I would resolve conflicts and get teams moving forward much easier.

Fast forward a few years to a new job, a different working context, and I find myself realising that mistakes I see around me are too often due to people’s incapability to say “no”. Being afraid to say no (when it matters) to colleagues, clients, boss, users or subordinates generally leads to one thing: the loss of trust and respect. So here’s a patchwork of situations when saying “no” is actually the right thing to do.

Management is the art of saying “no”

A few years back, I recall becoming fairly upset at my management: I would get myself invited to the directors’ meeting to bring up, again and again, issues which I thought were of the utmost importance. The management would agree with me that the issue was indeed a big problem, and usually proceeded to pat me on the head and encourage me to keep doing my best. Why weren’t they helping me fix a situation they agreed was noxious?

I later learned the mechanics of about any decent manager:

  1. Are you coming to me with a problem but no solution? Go away.
  2. Are you coming to me with a problem and some vague solution you kind of would like to brainstorm about? I’ll reply “no”.
  3. Are you coming to me with a problem, and a set of solutions you’re ready to defend if I challenge you, and ready to improve if I embrace them? Let’s talk

In the words of past W3C colleague Dan Connolly: Management is the art of saying No. The refusal ritual is not just a tool for busy managers to manage their budget, it can actually be a very powerful way to lead and enforce a culture and the organization’s objectives. I recently found one such example in the book Collaboration by Morten Hanser, which devotes a whole chapter to “when not to collaborate”.

Saying no to your boss

Remember saying yes to that one week-end of work, because there was a project to rush out of the door? Remember saying yes to helping that colleague with his or her work, even though it had nothing to do with your own assignments? Remember saying yes to working a little longer that week, because the workload was particularly high?

Either of those taken separately are examples of chivalrous, courageous behaviour, and for some of us, there is absolutely no issue, and we will keep saying yes, yes, yes… until…

Remember ending up in the “hero syndrome” situation, where you burn out because you’ve said yes to too much, because everyone around you started taking you for granted, because you’ve been so good at doing so much that it would be a shame to call for help?

The biggest challenge of my work career – and my whole life, actually – may have been to learn this lesson. To know the freedoms I value, to stand my ground on the compromises I am not ready to make, and to be subtle but clear when I am making an exception. Learning to say no has made me a more respected and liked colleague, not less… and a happier person, too.

Saying no to your users

When you are building a product, the game usually goes like this: you realise that in order to succeed you somehow have to listen to your users/customers. So you listen, and boy do those customers have requests and great ideas. So you start adding all those features, considering any complaint as a life-threatening bug, burning money and time to keep up with the demands. What you usually end up with is an inconsistent, ugly, unusable patchwork of a product (hello, Photoshop!) which customers eventually desert.

The point of course is not to shun everything your customers demand and pretend you know better – it’s about upholding the clear vision you have for the product and, as the 37signals folk would say, Make each feature prove itself and show that it’s a survivor.

I like what Steve Jobs (himself a terrible dragon of a manager, apparently) has to say about innovation: innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.
And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

For more on this, I very much recommend going through Stephanie’s slideset on “Defying the Itch to Stitch”, where she explains how a great product is not about outdoing the competition, but about creating an original vision for your product.

Saying no to your clients

Likewise, in an agency or freelance context, most of us are often terrified of saying no to clients, in fear that they might just get someone else to work with them, someone more accommodating.

That may happen if you behave like an asshole, or keep saying “no” without ever making a convincing case for it, or bringing valuable alternatives.

But as my experience shows without a doubt: only juniors and amateurs always say yes; the expert will think things through, sometimes agree, sometimes say no and suggest a better alternative, and earn respect in the process.


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