It's OK to say no

Saying No Is Critical Too

In Personal Strategies & Goal, Leadership, Execution, Strategy Insights, Anecdotes by Steve Sliwa

Many people think that being a leader or manager means figuring out what to say yes to or what to encourage. In reality, it is almost equally and sometimes more important to actively determine what not to do because resources are valuable. If you have people doing tasks they should not be doing or wasting time and energy in the wrong direction, it can drain the organization. A leader must figure out what these are and choose not to do them. This strategy applies to individuals as well as at all levels of an organization.

Inbox Strategies

When I was selected as the President of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, I signed up for a class on how to be a university president. During one exercise, they broke us up into groups and assigned us an inbox with various tasks. We had one hour to decide what to do about the items. After that, they brought in an experienced university president. We walked through the inbox together to see his strategy for tackling the items so that we could compare our approach.

He made it clear that trying to respond to or have some positive action for each message is an immense drain of energy. Part of the job is to figure out what not to do. He also stressed not touching things more than once and delegating when appropriate.

Personally, I do several things. First, I make a fast decision on the definite “no”s. Then, I delegate and reduce things as quickly as possible without touching them more than once. A somewhat unique strategy I use is to select a few topics that I put into a pocket-veto area. I fully expect these to be a no, but I put them into purgatory because I want to mull the decision over in the background instead of making a quick decision. The determination is no, unless I actively pull it back out. I find that I only resurrect about 10%, and the remaining ones eventually end up dumped. But I like having the option to pull things out of purgatory.

Focus on What Not to Do

What you do not do as a leader and manager is critical for what happens in the organization. If one focuses on only the positive things, then people end up wasting energy in areas you wish they would not. I create a list of things not to do and make it transparent to the organization. If I “catch” someone doing something on that list, I stop the activity and reinforce that we are not going to focus on that. “Well, this initiative seems good.” “Yes, but as a group, we decided not to do this, so put your time and energy someplace else.” That stresses the prioritization.

As an individual, one can only keep so many items at the top of your list. When people propose things, I tell them that if the task does not make it into my top 25, then it is hard to say yes. “Hey, that sounds interesting, but it’s not a top 25 thing for me.” I want them to understand that there are already many tasks on my list, and I do not need additional items. If something goes on the list, then something else must come off. One has to be comfortable saying, “No.” Of course, I don’t tell them about my purgatory list.

Anecdote for Individuals

When I was promoted at NASA, we were working on a project to reduce paperwork, and guess how I was supposed to report our progress? Yes, with paperwork, e.g., paperwork-reduction paperwork! The funny thing was that the executives did not see the incongruity in the situation.

I delayed filling out the paperwork because I was busy as a new manager with multiple responsibilities. My boss’ boss’ administrative assistant called me, asking for the paperwork-reduction paperwork. One can see how hilarious this seems. I said that I did not have it, and she told me to complete it because it was late. “Okay.” A few days later, the technical assistant called requesting the same paperwork-reduction paperwork. Chuckling to myself almost to the point of muting the phone, I told him that I would try to get to it.

However, they taught me a lesson. The senior executive called me directly, “Steve, I can’t believe this. You are failing as a manager because you’re not doing your paperwork-reduction paperwork.” I had a great relationship with this individual, who happened to be one of my mentors. “You realize you are asking me for paperwork on reducing paperwork. Do you see the oxymoronic aspect of this?” “Well, yeah, but you have to get it done. What are you working on that’s more important?”

At the time, I was working extremely hard on two things – a major procurement and a hiring initiative. The procurement was about $400K, and anything above $250K had to go through a full procurement process, which included publishing a large document with samples, collecting proposals from across the industry, and creating an evaluation committee with criteria. This process was relatively intense and time-consuming. For the hiring plan, I had to find the candidates, put them in the queue and get them approved in the system, interview them, and start the paperwork.

“But Steve, there’s a hiring freeze right now. And for the procurement, you’re only slightly above $250K, so just do it for that amount. That way, you won’t have to do the extra work.” I told him that seemed like a reasonable approach so that I could complete the paperwork-reduction paperwork, but it was essential for the vision that I moved forward. “But still, I want that paperwork.” I waited another week but ultimately completed it.

In the long run, the two initiatives ended up launching my career even further at NASA. It may seem silly to work on a hiring plan during a hiring freeze, but as it turned out, it was lifted the first week in September. My division had two open personnel slots, and because of the legwork I had already put in, I hired two people instantly. These Ph.D.s were through the system in a matter of days, and they agreed to join the research division I led. Due to budget problems, NASA announced the hiring freeze was back on as of October 1. If teams had open positions, they had to fill them in the next two weeks.

The way NASA budgeting worked at that time was your budget consisted of slots for headcounts and dollars for incremental projects. Slots for researchers were one of the most valuable commodities you could have. Even if a division had more money, they could not increase the number of slots. We had to have slots approved to be able to add additional people to complete projects.

Just after the announcement of the new hiring freeze, two managers from other parts of NASA approached me. They said they were in big trouble because it was going to take about two months to get new hires through the approval process. They each had three slots to fill and wanted to know if I could help.

With one of the managers, I told him, “I have six candidates who are approved and ready to go. All they need is an offer, and if they accept, the process could be completed in a week. Of those, two or three of them might be willing to work in your division, and they have broad enough skills.” He agreed, and I sent their resumes. He said that he wanted to hire them, but the paperwork was filled out for the wrong area. I would have to transfer it over.

“I might be willing to do that, but what can you do for me?” The manager asked me to just do it. “I’d be interested, but I notice that if you don’t complete this hiring, then you’ll lose your slots. And then you’re back to ground zero, correct?” He agreed. “Isn’t it true that every year they re-allocate the slots with no real view of the past?” Another agreement. “I have an idea for how we can both win. I’ll send two of these candidates that you really like if you give me one of your slots.” He didn’t think that was fair. “I’m talking with another division, and they seem to think it’s agreeable.” At his utter disbelief, I explained that this is the way the system works. Ultimately, it worked out. Two divisions each gave me a slot. My team ended up with four hires instead of the original two, which made a significant impact for our group. Those people continue to do great after all these years. Focusing on the hiring plan instead of completing the paperwork-reduction paperwork paid off.

Procurements ranging from $250K to $10M use the same process. Unbelievably, not many R&D projects in controls theory were going on at the time. We had syndicates led by Lockheed Martin that included some universities and small companies because that is the way we set it up. We also had proposals from Boeing, Rockwell, and Northrop. We hit the jackpot with outstanding proposals. Even though I only had $400K lined up under this procurement, we approved three of the venders. And the rest of the directorate did not have ways to do projects, but I wrote it broadly enough so that other people could use it.

Like with the hiring slots, I used this to my advantage. “I’ll let you use my procurement if you allocate some percentage of your dollars to my projects.” Of course, they readily agreed because the overhead would be too costly to close their own deals, not to mention the time involved. The project was approved for $10M, and it was such an effective procurement that it received special permission to add 50% to it for a two-year extension. It ended up being one of the major funding protocols for that part of NASA.

These two initiatives – excellent talent for our division and a procurement vehicle for multiple divisions – put me in line for another promotion … because I said no to immediately writing the paperwork-reduction paperwork.

Anecdotes for Organizations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is notorious for taking their time to provide approval. After being in the aviation business for many years at Embry-Riddle and the drone company Insitu, I have extensive experience with them.

I watched friends lose businesses because they could not get FAA approval for their inventions. The process took too long, even though their products were completely logical, had no real risk, and a good thing to do. The FAA simply does not feel the need to rush to do anything, and that causes problems. 

This was reinforced at Insitu when an oil company invited us to use a drone to scan for whales off the coast of Alaska. This particular area had radar records for the previous six months, and only one airplane had been there. The FAA, however, would not approve the use of a drone in that sector. As it turns out, the location was far out to sea in international waters and under 5,500 feet. This meant that the space was uncontrolled. But that was not good enough for them. They went to the oil company and said that if they approved the drone project, even though it was outside FAA space and technically approved, they would consider that risky behavior. If that were the case, then they would have to audit all their 115 aviation assets to identify other poor judgments and safety issues. The FAA was so nervous that this little inconsequential project would move drone usage up faster in commercial airspace that they could not allow it.

One the one hand, one wants to sue or expose the FAA, but at the same time, companies must work with them and receive their approval for so many things. That is the difficulty of working with the FAA.

One of my rules at Insitu, at the time, was that we did not work with the FAA because it ate up too much of our time. We had a research project with them where we donated equipment and let their research lab play with it. I used to say that I dedicated about 1% of my time to them. I would humorously indicated that by January 15 or so of any given year, I was finished for the year! It was time to pursue other things. During that time from 2004 to 2011, Insitu was not pursuing border patrols, pipelines, or farming, which are common uses for drones. Everyone was trying to do it, and the FAA was trying to stop it all. 

Around the same time, we had a similar issue with the Coast Guard. Early on, we tried to do a project with them. It soon became apparent, however, that they and their parent organization, now called Homeland Security, were so disorganized that trying to get any low-hanging fruit out of those organizations would be a waste of our time. I deliberately stopped all our marketing activities in those areas so that we could concentrate on ones that would yield more. Since my departure, the situation with the Coast Guard has improved. Five or six years after I left, Insitu implemented a nice program with them.

The FAA is beginning to look at opening up some issues, but my general rule was “Go where the FAA isn’t.” Along those lines, we opened a subsidiary in Australia, which has a much friendlier civil aviation organization than the FAA. Because there are fewer people in Australia and it is less crowded, more opportunities exist for performing drone experiments in civilian airspace.

Google now has drone programs and single-operator aircraft, and early in the process, I talked to them about some of their programs. I suggested that the best thing to do was to consider New Zealand or Australia for their experimentation. And that is what they are doing. They can experiment and roll their drones out without FAA restrictions.

These are but a few examples. It all boils down to figuring out the critical things to do and prioritizing them. Firm “no”s need to be in place for both organizations and individuals. In my post, Most New Initiatives Fail, I talk about performing experiments to see when projects fail, cutting them off at that point. Saying no to these projects frees up resources to accomplish the tasks necessary to succeed.

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