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The World of No

Are all "no's" created equal?
Sep | 12 | 2012

Sep | 12 | 2012

Without question, my least favorite word in the English language is no. I’d tell James Lipton as much if asked on the sometimes pretentious show Inside The Actors’ Studio. Now, there’s a reason that I qualify that statement with “usually.” In this post, I’ll tell you why not all “no’s” are created equal.

Appropriate No’s

Sometimes, no is the only legitimate response to a question. Consider the following:

  • It’s alright to steal music, right?
  • Are you going to miss Rush on this tour? (Hells no!)
  • Will you shoot par today?
  • Did you sleep past 5 am today?

These are examples of “appropriate no’s.” In each case, no is the only answer.

But alas, dear reader, there are other kinds of no’s.

Contemplative No’s

Let’s say that I propose a solution to a problem on a consulting gig that seems to make sense–at least to me. The decision maker listens to me and considers the idea. After careful thought, though, she decides against it and tells me why my idea won’t fly. She thanks me for the effort and appreciates my enthusiasm.

I’ve come across reflexive no’s many times in my career.

Contemplative no’s don’t bother me much. After all, I’m a consultant with no real authority. It’s their world; I’m just playing rent. They know what’s best. My advice is always theirs to take or leave.

Reflexive No’s

Again, let’s say that I’m trying to solve a problem. Maybe I’m trying to do something productive or try to make one of my partners, publishers, or clients money. Here are a few specific examples:

  • While working with one of my publishers, I have routinely proposed what I considered to be good ideas to promote our book. These include greater use of social media, book signings, other events, and book reviews.
  • When confronting an issue on a new system implementation, I’d figure out a “work-around” that would in no uncertain terms  solve the problem.
  • Often I’ve dealt with wholly inefficient business processes and suggested reasonable alternatives to expedite things.

In each case, the decision maker didn’t bother to fully consider my ideas, often barely listening to my suggestions. The response was almost always something along the lines of “that’s not how we do things around here.” I call these “reflexive no’s” and I’ve come across them many times in my career.

And these bother me the most because those who give me “the reflexive no” just don’t try. They don’t care. They’re apathetic. They don’t want to learn or experiment. These people are stuck in their comfort zones and, as my friend Scott Berkun has written many times, this is exactly how mediocrity persists. That mentality stifles innovation and, ultimately, success.

Feedback: What do you think about the Word of No?

Am I just stubborn, cranky, and cantankerous? Does the reflexive no bother you as much as it does me?

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  1. Monis Iqbal

    nice categorization of No’s, easy to understand and agreeable.

  2. Jill Wanless

    I couldn’t agree more Phil! I would go so far as to say I HATE Reflexive No’s! These decision makers are more than just a roadblock, they are saboteurs and should not be in any position where they have decision making authority!
    See?  You are not stubborn, cranky, or nearly as cantankerousas I am…

  3. Terri Rylander

    Thought-provoking! Jill – I think you’re on to something, but unfortunately, those we are asking of are usually the ones IN those positions! I’m thinking laziness and ego are also factors.



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