Agile doesn't work, because we can't say No!

Agile doesn't work, because we can't say No!

“We can’t say no!” is a fundamental problem many people are facing in the context of Agile. While this is an issue that can occur on specific occasions or in specific scenarios, it’s usually something that occurs on multiple organizational levels at once. Here are a few examples:

  • At a company level, we can’t say no to a customer, even if their request does not fit into our portfolio or strategy.
  • At a team level, we can’t say no to late additions by the Product Owner, even though it means that we will not deliver on time.
  • At an individual level, we can’t say no to accumulating technical debt, even though we decided multiple times to not do that anymore.
  • At the personal level, we can’t say no to working overtime. Again.

If anything, Agile seems to solidify this problem. One of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto reads:

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.
The Agile Manifesto

So Agile discourages us from saying no, making a bad situation worse.

Anatomy of a No

In his book The Power of a Positive No, William Ury describes the relationship between Yes and No: No is Yes! Yes is No! If, by not being able to say No, we say Yes to something, we still say No to something else at the same time.

  • At the company level, we are saying Yes to the new customer, but No to a clear cut portfolio and strategy.
  • At the team level, we say Yes to the scope additions, but No to delivering this feature and others on time.
  • At the individual level, we say Yes to delivering earlier, but we say No to a maintainable code base.
  • At the personal level, if we say Yes to overtime, we say No to our personal well-being, or that of our families.

This already hints at a fundamental part of the problem: We often have a good understanding of what we don’t want, but a poor understanding of what we do want. It’s hard for us to say and sustain a No, because our vision of what we want to say Yes to instead is blurry at best.

Additionally, we often fall into the trap of a false dichotomy: We can say Yes to one thing while saying No to another - we can say Yes to changing requirements while saying No to technical debt at the same time. It’s not always “Either I win and you lose, or you win and I lose”.

Finding your Yes

In order to say No, we need to work on our Yes. This is often surprisingly difficult: If you ask a team what they do want to achieve beside developing features, differences start to surface.

Finding the common team vision is important. It’s basically the answer to the question: What are we here for? Why do we do what we are doing? Even an answer as simple as “We want to satisfy the customer” gives us a sense of direction, as it generates questions like: “Do we really sustainably satisfy our customers by providing workarounds and piling up technical debt?”

Ultimately, the team needs to agree that their vision is reason enough for them to say No.

Preparing to say No

Now that we know why we want to say No, we have to prepare for it. Let’s face it: There will be pushback. It’s highly unlikely that simply because we have a better understanding about our own motives, that the other party will accept our No. This means that we need to prepare to take a punch, and roll with it.

We start by improving our own mental game. Ex-FBI Negotiator Chris Voss writes in his book “Never split the Difference” that you should never be needy for a deal. If we depend so much on the other person agreeing to our No, then we have already lost the discussion before it even started. That won’t do - we need options, in case our No won’t be accepted.

Finding options to improve our mental game

It’s probably best to define what an option is by looking at its counterpart: The commitment. A commitment is something we have to do, no matter what, because we are committed to it. Similarly, we can commit to not doing something. An option, on the other hand, is something we have not yet committed on doing or not doing - we just haven’t decided yet.

The crucial point when dealing with options and commitment is that in many cases, we have control over turning options into commitments - and very often, we commit to something way too early.

According to “Commitment”, these are the characteristics of options:

  • Options have value.
  • Options expire.
  • Never commit early unless you know why.

Olav Maassen, Chris Matts, Chris Geary, “Commitment”

What we want to do is to find out which of our commitments are actually unattractive options in disguise. Once we found them, we will focus on identifying and improving their value, to set them up as a possible Plan B in case our No won’t be respected. Finally, the expiration date of the options that we identify gives us a guide- or timeline for the upcoming negotiations around our No.

Often, we are quick to commit on doing or not doing something without treating it as an option. For example, we might dismiss telling our boss about the conflict - we don’t want to go telling on people, we don’t want to look bad, so we prematurely commit to not doing that, instead of treating this possibility as what it is: an option.

Likewise, an option that most of us always have to get out of conflict situations is quitting the job! Most of the time, we commit on not doing that because we fear the change, we value the safety of our current situation and we feel that quitting the job because of a conflict seems a bit like an overreaction.

The first step towards finding viable options is to overcome the mental barrier that seems to tell us that if we simply think about doing something, it means that we have to do it. Instead, we are simply evaluating our options!

Evaluating our options

Evaluating our options means reflecting on the value and cost each option brings us. The value of quitting our job, for example, is obviously that we get out of the situation where people disrespect our boundaries. It might also bring more money and different responsibilities, at the cost of work (to get the new job) and uncertainty.

Thinking about the value of this option raises further issues and questions:

  • Getting out of the situation, if others won’t accept our no, is our real goal here. So what other options do we have to get there? Maybe we can switch departments instead of changing jobs?
  • The notion that a job change brings more money and different responsibilities sounds a bit like wishful thinking. What options do we have to find out what we can expect in reality? Maybe we can check the job market in the area?

The crucial part is that we actively identify where we have a choice, even if initially we do not want to go down that road. Then we work on improving the options - making them better until they become a viable road to go down if our No will not be accepted.

That way, we can even take seemingly drastic options, such as quitting our job, and turn them into something better, like the option of applying internally to a new position.

Options usually come with an end date. For example, while evaluating our options, we found an internal job opening - but at some point, that position will be filled and this option expired. This expiration date gives us guidance on the possible next steps: It tells us when we should take the decision whether our Plan A, our No, has been successful or not.

Finding the power to say No

The goal of evaluating our options is to have one or more of them under our belts, should our No not be accepted. We are trying to draw a line in the sand here, so we have to be prepared in case the other will cross it.

The options provide us with a sense of security, since we now have something to fall back to if push comes to shove. The next step is to prepare emotionally for the No.

Our first enemy in saying no is not the other, but ourselves. Very often we sabotage our own no - for instance, because we often think that we don’t have the right to say No, especially when it means saying No to someone we value, or someone who has power over us, like our boss. But whether or not we have the right to say No is something we already decided in the previous step - so we need to find out how we say No to the other. Let’s focus on that next.

Saying No

The foundation of our No is respect for the other. We want them to understand and support our No, and if we want to be respected, it follows that we have to respect the other as well.

Respecting the other means that we keep our emotions under control. We are drawing a line in the sand, we have our arguments on our side, and we think these are sufficient - there is no need to get emotional. We risk that things devolve into a shouting match if we let our emotions take control over us. This is why we open the discussion respectfully and positively, we don’t go in there with guns blazing.

The first part of actually delivering our No is to try to understand the other.

It’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “I don’t understand them, I have told them so many times which problems their behavior causes for our team!” But if you do not understand the other, shouldn’t you stop telling and start listening to them?

The situation is like this: We have the arguments all on our side, they are well thought through, and we think that it’s best that we say No. The other party will hear our arguments, understand them and change their mind. However, this is exactly the same situation the other party is in, and we might find that they have better arguments than ours, things which we simply did not fully see or understand. We have to be open to the possibility that we have been wrong and might need to reconsider our position. If that’s the kind of behavior we expect from the other, at the very least we can express it ourselves.

Once we have sufficiently well understood the other party and their point of view, we explain our own situation, our reasoning and our thought process behind it. This makes it easier for them to accept our No - because the hardest No to swallow is usually the one we don’t understand.

Our actual No follows naturally out of that explanation. While we deliver our No, we make it very clear that we are saying No, and we make clear whether it’s a “No, not ever”, a “No, not now” or even a “Maybe yes”. Otherwise, we run into the risk that the Confirmation Bias gets hold of the other, and they don’t fully understand our position.

Sustaining the No

We have brought our arguments, and delivered our No. Maybe they already accepted that. If so, that’s great! But if not, the part which many people fear the most will begin. But we are well-prepared for that: We know what we are fighting for and why, we won’t get emotional, we have drawn the line in the sand and we stand by it. We don’t attack, but we don’t yield either. Sustaining the respect for the other person is vital at this stage: you disagree professionally, but not personally, so you have to show to the other that you are merely rejecting their position and not them as a person.

What helps keeping our cool during the discussion is to identify tactics others might be using on us, such as threats, guilt trips or more. If we are telling us, silently, what is currently going on, the tactics lose their power. We can respond to each tactic by reiterating our standpoint, and our repetition underscores the fact that they, too, are repeating the same request all over, only with different words.

If A, then B

A powerful way of getting your No to stick is to embed the situation into a bigger context, and educate about consequences, should your No be violated. We are not threatening, instead we are pointing out the reality as we see it. For example, we can reflect on the company’s Mission Statement and core values and point out how our No contributes to those. Or we could point out the strategy and how our No fits into them.

Many, if not most, company mission statements focus on serving all customers, making them equally happy by delivering high value to them. Your No tries to serve just that!

Additionally, pointing out that saying Yes to the other person and their request means saying No to strategic customers or stakeholders is often very insightful and something that in many cases, the persons you are discussing with are simply not aware of.

If we still can’t come to an agreement, it’s time to for Plan B. We don’t use it as a threat - instead we point out to the other that since agreeing to them is not an option for us, we might need to commit to other options in order to protect our interests. If A, then B. We are ready to use our options, and we will, if we can’t get it our way.

Following up on the No

We made it! By now, either we are going down the road towards our Plan B, or the other party has agreed to our No. Now it’s time to follow up on the No. We show appreciation for the other person’s decision to support us. And we support them, too! It’s rare that a person works completely alone, which means that the person we just said No to needs to go back to other people, maybe a customer, maybe their boss, or their team, and discuss our No with them. So we support where we can to make sure that the other party can sustain our No.

Depending on how it went, the relationship to the other party might be a bit strained by now. So we need to actively work on that relationship: We are colleagues, after all, and our conflict was professional, not personal, so we have to continue building and expanding our relationship. Depending on the context, it’s not unlikely that we will end up in a similar situation with the same person in the future, so we need to make sure that we maintain a great working relationship.

Saying No while still saying Yes

It’s time to come back to Agility. Agile practices and frameworks such as Kanban and Scrum successfully marry the idea of saying Yes to changing requirements with the idea of saying Yes to delivering software with a high quality at a sustainable pace.

Scrum, for example, introduces the concept of a Sprint, a fixed, preferably short time box. The key idea is that a customer can change their mind whenever they want to, the Product Owner can put the backlog upside down as they please, as long as items are not in the sprint. This acknowledges Humphrey’s Law: The user will never know what they want until after the system is in production (maybe not even then). It keeps the development team producing features at a sustainable, predictable pace while retaining the flexibility needed for changes in the overall plans.

The idea of Validated Learning, which is not exclusive to Agility, tells us that we should frequently inspect what we are doing, adapt accordingly and validate that our experiments are yielding better results. Repeatedly not being able to say No is something that at some point will come up during one of the inspect/adapt mechanisms of Agile - for instance, during a Scrum Retrospective.

The key challenge is to overcome this by effectively saying No, which is a skill that can be learned and grown as any other skill. Mastering it will greatly enhance your way of working, with or without Agile.

This post originally appeared on agiledoesntwork.com and has now been re-published here.