just-say-noDid you ever feel that some of the things you are asked to do by your business partners just don’t make sense?  That they won’t deliver value that truly justifies their cost?  I find this to be a common issue.  And it’s not just the questionable value associated with some of these requests.

Low value demand:

  • Carries with it an opportunity cost – resources working on clarifying and satisfying low value demand are not available to stimulate and satisfy higher value activities.
  • Fosters a ‘master-servant’ and ‘order-taker’ relationship between business and IT which in turn limits that relationship’s ability to grow into a more strategic and value-creating partnership.
  • Order-taking behavior misses out on important opportunities to raise business-IT savvy – to raise business awareness of information and IT possibilities for value creation, or to raise IT awareness of where and how the business can leverage information and technology in important or significant ways.
  • Typically backfires on IT by creating an undercurrent sense that ‘IT costs too much and delivers too little’.
  • Creates the feeling that the person taking the order adds only cost, not value, to the business-IT relationship, often leading to a vicious cycle of weak relationship managers not receiving the training and development they need to be more effective.

I think there are all sorts of historical reasons why we get into this bind, mostly associated with low business-IT maturity on which I’ve commented substantially over the last 15 months or so.  But I believe the economic downturn presents a wonderful opportunity for the IT professional to get back in front of, and in control of business demand.

Saying ‘No’ by Saying ‘Yes’

As nonsensical as this sounds, there are ways of saying ‘no’ that don’t sound like ‘no’ and can lead to a far more constructive conversation and a more productive outcome.  I’ve worked with The Second City improvisation group in client workshops, where they taught us the simple skill of re-framing a  ‘No” into a “Yes, and…”  With a little practice and the right mindset, you can take a low value request (e.g., please produce a report that shows sales trends by sales person by region over the last 6 months) and turn it into something with a lower cost-to-serve, higher business value, and an improved customer experience.  “That sounds like a useful report, and my guess is that in the current economic climate, you’re going to be needing all sorts of analyses to help drive sales performance improvement.  Given that, perhaps it would be more useful to you if we created a data warehouse with all the current and historical sales data, and showed you how to use the report-writing tools to create just about any report you are going to need.  Let me show you an example of how easy that is, and how empowering it can be – you’ll be a company hero for your understanding of the sales data, and your insight into what it means!”

Now, my example is, of course, trivial, but hopefully provides a sense of what can be done.  Saying ‘no’ is typically seen as non-constructive, lacking service orientation, obstructionist and generally annoying.  Rejecting a bad idea by smoothly and collaboratively turning it into a good idea is seen as constructive, service oriented, and satisfying.

Think back over times when you’ve had to say ‘no.”  Think about those times when you finessed the situation, using your best zen instincts that led to a positive outcome?  Compare those examples to the times where you were less elegant in how you handled the situation.  Could you have offered a better alternative?  Could you have better explained your rationale?  Could you have made the requester feel better about the outcome?  Finally, look for opportunities to practice and use this skill.  To quote Standford Professor Paul Romer, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste!”