The word “no,” like the word “failure,” has many different meanings. Saying no can be a mark of maturity in some cases and naiveté in others. IT has a legacy of being The Department of No. More recently, IT has been told that if they say no more than three times, someone will lose their job. Neither position is appropriate because every context is unique.
Fifty Shades of No
If you are involved in a business or personal partnership, you have to be able to say no sometimes or the relationship doesn’t stand much of a chance. On the other hand, saying no all the time can give you a bad reputation, and cause those higher up to revoke your right to say no, also a bad outcome.
But what does no really mean? In IT, it’s too easy to hear no as “Never.” Listen more closely and you’re more likely to hear IT saying, “No, I can’t get that done tomorrow, but I can get it done next quarter” or “No, I can’t do that for free, it’s going to cost $200,000” or even “No, our architecture won’t allow that, at least right now.” It’s key to understand not just what is being asked for, but more importantly why, so you can partner on determining how and when.
In my company, we recently put together a new online customer acquisition experience and did a great job in delivering what was asked. When the experience launched and the business wanted to optimize it, though, the project money was spent. Rather than saying no in this case, we realized that IT had to make an investment to optimize the experience. This was an opportunity to change company mindset about IT and make them realize that, “Hey, IT cares about what we’re doing.” We knew that if close rates went up, so would their bonuses.
The Downside of Yes
There’s a saying that if you have a ‘yes man’ on your team one of you is redundant. This applies to your partners as well. Playing the no card can be a losing game, especially if you’re seen as the opposite of agile, but yessing everyone to death can be even worse. It’s an easy way to make yourself popular in IT, but I like to use the analogy of raising a child. If you tell your child yes to everything and justify that you’re helping them exercise their free will, how are you helping them when they’re 18 and decide to steal a stranger’s car because they were never told no to anything?
In IT, saying yes to every business request can very easily lead to an IT environment a few years down the road that is so overly customized, with so many features, that it is a prohibitively expensive nightmare to maintain, much less to grow and evolve.
If you work in a “department of no,” I recommend using a partnership mindset. This means you want to convey at every meeting with the businesses, “Look, we want the same end goal that you want. We want to ensure that you make your sales and get your costs down, but here are the issues with what you’re saying; here’s why we’ve got to do it differently.”
Our IT group recently was asked to develop a system that would guarantee very tight service windows with customers. Once we drew out that this was a process problem that technology couldn’t solve, with lots of logical flaws, it only took a few minutes for the business to say, “Yeah, that doesn't make sense. Let’s do this a different way.” So we were saying no with a solid understanding of the business need, and did it in a business context everyone understood.
Sven Gerjets is Senior Vice President of Information Technology at DIRECTV and is responsible for delivering the full lifecycle of IT business value at DIRECTV starting with business solution definition through delivery into production. Gerjets leads a 1,000+ person globally distributed IT organization responsible for development, test, project management and business analysis.
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