No is a very tricky word. I often talk about agile teams needing to “just say No” to various things. For example:

  • If their Product Owner expects them to deliver more than their capacity
  • If their Boss asked them to deliver faster and it would violate their Definition of Done agreements
  • If a Team Member continues to “go it alone” and refuses to collaborate as a team

Then I’m looking for the team to say No. Whenever I bring this up in classes or presentations, I always get pushback. Always. Usually its not based on the situation, but to the word. It seems No is a word that nobody likes using in the workplace.

There’s a wonderful video by Henrik Kniberg where he explores the role of the Scrum Product Owner. In it he makes the point that the most important word that a Product Owner can use is No. That it’s incredibly easy to say – Yes to every request. To pretend that things are always feasible or easy. But that No is important. No implies that trade-off decisions need to be made on the part of the customer or the organizations leadership. That the word leads to thinking, discussion, and decision-making.

I highly recommend the video as an introduction to the Product Owner role, but also to Scrum in general.

But, getting back to NO

The inspiration for this article came from a blog post by Joanne Perold entitled - Doing No Better.

In the post she explores aspects of – No. Its one of the first treatments I’ve seen around this powerful word. The wraps up the post with the following—

In essence, there are many ways to say No, and we need to find the most useful way to do that. We as development teams and Product Owners need to use the information that we have. We need to have valuable conversations about what is possible and what is not. And we need to use that information effectively to address the fears and concerns of the business and our customers.

No is a very final statement, finding useful ways to say, not right now or is this the most valuable thing we should be doing is a more effective way of having this conversation.

So, Joanne is extending our conversational use of no, she’s added the notion of—

  • No, not right now

I’ve also heard folks use terminology replacements for No as well, like—

  • Yes, but
  • Yes, and
  • No, but

In fact, very many of my coaching partners don’t like using No or But. Instead preferring the power of the inclusive AND. I think what they’re implying is using this language to instantiate a conversation, which often a very final “No” doesn’t do very well.

A Quick Story

But, I’m starting to think that yes and no are the wrong words, or the wrong responses, particularly if you’re trying to initiate a conversation.

For example, let’s say you’re having some issues with your car. Your brakes have been acting up as well as your steering is a bit wobbly. You go into your local mechanic. One that you’ve been using for quite some time, so you have a relationship with and you trust them.

She tells you that she has some bad news. You need new tires, new front brakes, rotors, a frond-end alignment, and front struts. The entire repair will cost you about $2,500. She asks you if you want the repair or not…Yes or No?

Well, you don’t have $2,500 freely available. But you’re convinced that you have to get something done. So instead of saying Yes or No, you start a discussion.

In fact, your mechanic shows some empathy and instead of giving you the large quote, starts giving you options. She says that doing the brakes and struts first might make good sense. It would be roughly half the cost AND these are the things that have safety implications for your driving.

She then says that in a month or two, you could come back to get new tires and the alignment. She assures you that your existing tires will be safe in the interim.

You ask some additional questions around the cost of the brakes and why the rotors need replacing. You also do some fact-finding about the tires, and it turns out that the struts and lack of alignment ruined the tires earlier than their predicted lifespan.

At the end of the conversation you feel comfortable with some knowledge of the repairs, the why behind them, and how to sequence them over time to fit your budget. Then you say Yes to the first set of repairs.

So what does this contrived story have to do with saying Yes or No?

The RIGHT Conversations

I think I’ve been suggesting the wrong conversations to my students and clients for all of these years. Sure, at times you might have to (or need to) say a close-ended No. However, it should be the rare exception. For that matter, I think a quick and thoughtless Yes is rarely a good response.

Instead, stakeholders and teams should be less binary. We should be having conversations that include:

  • More empathy
  • More shared understanding
  • More options
  • Realistic level of effort and cost details
  • Budget and constraints
  • Quality and safety implications
  • Exposing trade-offs
  • Inclusive of innovative ideas
  • Exploring goals & needs
  • Courageously tell the TRUTH

And this is a 360-degree discussion. It’s open-ended and intended to drive a win-win result. I’d call it a negotiation, but that’s not the right intent. Perhaps exploratory collaboration does a better job of establishing the intent.

Wrapping Up

So I want to ask you a question. Was this article useful or not? Yes or No?

I sure hope your answer has changed as a result.

Stay agile my friends,