June 07, 2009

Should we all be saying 'no' more often?

Educators have a reputation for generally saying 'yes' to doing things they are asked to carry out. The expectation is that if a peer or more senior member of staff asks or tells, the teacher does. It's not a healthy place to be. We need to say no more often.

To be honest, I hate saying no, most of the time. Yet, in my current job: of the 400 or so ideas I've seen in the last six months, only about 4% have resulted in a development of that idea.

Everyone else got a 'no'.

Most have had the heave-ho within minutes or days, some have had an instant yes, but there's a troublesome group in the middle, about 30% of ideas at a guess, that need looked at in more detail before being sure if they're worth taking forward. This group of ideas need at least a day's worth of thinking done by the company proposing the idea and a day or more of my time. It's only when we do the figures, work out the business case, see the approach action-by-action, explore the legal and compliance risks, that we realise the idea is a dodo. All that "for nothing".

What I wonder, sometimes, is whether it's worth just pushing back on anything that is not a clear 'yes' at the first sighting. Those "might work" ideas nearly always fail to get through the hurdle of being 'spec-ed' out, yet involve a disproportionate amount of thinking to get them to a point where we can ever know if they're likely to work.

However, there's always that grumble that maybe, just maybe, one might be saying 'no' to the best idea since sliced bread.

Seth Godin suggests we're indeed better off saying no more often to pick out the obvious gems the moment they appear:

You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can't bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.

Saying no to loud people gives you the resources to say yes to important opportunities.

What do you think - are we right to say 'yes' to the "might work" ideas to see if we can discover a hidden gem, or are we better to concentrate only on those 4% we feel instantly happy with?


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Unless you're 96% sure that your judgment in infallible, it is wrong to dismiss the "maybes" straight away.

Perhaps the "maybes" could be given some level of feedback and an opportunity to resubmit the idea based on that, or invited to a development day where a whole bunch of "maybe" companies are brought together to work on the ideas following a "Crossover" type format. This would provide a rapid development of ideas, without taking up a huge amount of your time directly.

To take the Simon Cowell approach, don't go straight from auditions to live final -- make more of the boot camp stage.

Not a bad idea, if we're able to get people to agree to share their ideas more publicly. One worth thinking about for summer, though, before we hit the next big run on ideas.

Saying no quickly and cleanly in a positive way helps everyone move on.

It allows you to focus on getting good at the things you're interested and others to find the people who's help them get their stuff done.

It's a key way of building the right teams too, because being a reluctant team member is worse that saying no.

Because I often work with charities and do some volunteer social media support you also have to get good at saying no to people asking you to work for free. Sometimes it might help to explain where your voluntary effort does go, so that the people asking understand that you've thought this through and it's not a random stuff off.

There's a few different issues combined here, it seems: when you say no, how you say no, and what your wider motives and responsibilities are.

If your experience shows you that almost all of the "maybe" ideas don't make the final cut, you are justified in saying no earlier. You have hard evidence that there's little loss (a small number of projects that would have made it through) and a big gain (less time spent by everyone on review.) If you don't have that hard evidence, then that decision is not so clear-cut.

But even if you do say no earlier, there can still be a lot of effort involved if you feel the need to give constructive feedback. There's a big difference here between providing feedback to unsuccessful tenderers for a cleaning contract (for example) and unsuccessful proposals for innovation projects. With the latter, you probably have some greater sense of responsibility and you want to help people to pitch better, more well-thought-out ideas in future. That can be hard work - sometimes, the poorer the initial proposal, the harder it can be to provide constructive feedback.

If you don't feel that sense of responsibility - if you are just interested in the best ideas - you can say "no" and walk away.

Having been on both sides of this (bidding and reviewing) I have appreciated the times I've had constructive feedback on a failed proposal (or even a successful ones - they still aren't perfect.) It's helped me do better the next time. But I also know that it's time consuming as a reviewer to explain your reasoning, even harder to make suggestions for improvement.

I am not going to equivocate on this at all. I am going to adopt the approach and begin saying no clearly, definitively, and with no guilt. I teach 3rd grade in a school that is coming unglued. One of the main causes of the dysfunction at my school is the never ending parade of demands on teachers and students. We are constantly asking our students to simultaneously hurry up and take their time. We undermine the concept of persistence by having to constantly abandon projects. Teach people to do one thing well rather than many things poorly. This is a philosophy many schools would do well to adopt.

A more public no, could mean someone else saying yes.

I bet you learn something - as do the creators - every time you take the time to look in more detail, even to come to a "no".

And I'm sure you're starting to see patterns of what eventually sinks the proposals that you can you now start to ask/look at nearer the front of the process.

I have always hated saying "no" too but I wish I had thought about it much earlier. I love the way you ponder about "important" things earlier! Keep it up! I don't think, however, it's so much a matter of concentrating only on those you feel instantly happier with (those 4%) but saying no will let you become more effective in what you do if you use a large slice of that "gained" time to think, plan, and reflect on what's important to your mission in life, both personal and professionally. Saying no can give you that vital time. Seize it!

Yes, push back on all the no's but to all the maybe's, put the onus back on the ones doing the pitch to make it an instant yes next time.It sounds like they haven't quite done their work properly and you shouldn't be spending your time making up for that.

It's probably the teacher in you with that responsibility to bring all of them along...
Don't think business is quite like that though is it?

You've developed an instinct and that's what you get the big bucks for. Trust it.

Well, part of 4iP and Channel 4's core aim is to find and nurture new talent, so when it's a maybe from that end of the spectrum I believe we should spend *a little* more time helping them along. Normally, though, if they're hungry enough (which you hope they are) you don't have to work too hard at that.

I'm still amazed at people who we offer support to not pulling their finger out to get moving and developing. Seems even the big(ish) bucks we're offering them isn't enough to motivate them to fill in a few forms well. :-s

Not at all. I'm a learning support teacher and see this all the time.I allocate my teaching time so kind of need to be making these kinds of decisions about resource allocation all the time.

I'd sooner bet on the success of a properly motivated average student than an un-motivated or ill prepared one with raw, god -given talent.

When I find I am caring more than my student about his project, paper, or exam, then I know it's time to back off.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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