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  • Susan Snedaker

Leveraging the Value of NO

Every team has one or two people who always start off with NO. They are often the people who like rules and process, order and detail. They often irk those who are not that way – the creative types or the driven-to-achieve types - who see the NO folks as brick walls.

Similarly, the NO folks are irked by the creative and driven people who, in their view, often rush ahead implementing an idea without sufficient analysis or preparation.

None of these work styles is inherently good or bad, right or wrong. They each have value on a team and a good leader learns to leverage all these styles to benefit the team and the organization.

This article focuses specifically on the challenges that can come from team members who start off with NO. They articulate all the ways the idea is wrong, all the things that won’t work and why this is a ridiculous notion in the first place. As a leader, it’s important to learn the best way to get these folks to contribute to the solution instead of just identifying and remaining entrenched in the problems.

I Knew This Would Happen….

How many times have you found your team in the midst of a project trying to address a problem when someone from the corner of the room said I knew this would happen? It’s frustrating to hear those words at that moment, but it should be a clue that someone perhaps accurately predicted the problem would occur and they either failed to speak up or leaders failed to ask or listen or both.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Breaking Down the Barriers to Innovation” (HBR, November/December 2019, pp. 92-101,, the authors discuss various methods for improving innovation on teams. One of the techniques they discuss that I’ve used with success with teams is conducting a "pre-mortem."

Post-Mortems or Pre-Mortems

We’ve all been involved in post-mortems (some call them after-action-reviews) to figure out what went wrong and to gather lessons learned. But fixing a problem after it’s occurred is pure waste. Fixing any problem is always more expensive, more timely and more inconvenient than avoiding it in the first place.

Instead, consider conductign a pre-mortem (or before-action-review) and work to identify everything that could likely go wrong and develop mitigation plans for those. Assigning “pro” and “con” sides of the issues and having people discuss will allow those who are convinced the whole thing will be a dismal failure to speak up. They can exercise their NO fully – but they’re not allowed to get stuck there. After NO, they need to help figure out what would counter or avoid that issue.

Engage with NO

Engaging those who see a problem around every corner and under every rock is important because it helps them remain engaged in the process and the process is improved from their poking and prodding. However, it takes a skilled leader to ensure the conversation moves from NO to a solution.

Pre-Mortem Ideas

If you want to take a stab at this before your next big (or small) project, make sure you let the team know that you’ll be holding this type of meeting and ask them to come prepared with their concerns (their NO items) as well as potential solutions to those problems.

Also set the expectation that every concern should be brought up – that leaving the meeting without expressing it and later saying “I told you so” is unacceptable.

Also consider assigning the “pro” and “con” arguments to people who hold the opposite view. Make it fun and non-judgmental. You’ll probably be surprised by how many brilliant solutions pop up and how many potential disasters can be avoided. It won’t guarantee project success, but it certainly prevents the problems that are foreseeable.

Every time I’ve facilitated a meeting like this, I’m truly astounded at the outcomes. The results are broader and deeper and more profound that I would have ever predicted. And, the project outcomes are far more successful as a result.

So, appreciate what each work style brings to the table and harness the power of NO to drive your projects forward.

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