Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
What’s in a word?
The right word at the right time can make all the difference between a successful negotiation with an amicable agreement and collaborative banter, or a bitter and twisted tête-à-tête with an entrenched stand-off, raised hackles and, at best, fog-horn diplomacy. But what is the ‘right word’; unfortunately, it depends on the time and place and people’s personality but one thing is almost certain, if it begins with “n” it is oftentimes not considered to be right and many consider it to be downright wrong.
In English-speaking Project Management circles, it’s “No”, but Na, Ni, and Non, or even Nein and Nyeht also qualify. “No” by definition is a ‘negative answer’. As a two-letter word it can be surprisingly efficient in conveying a distinct message that something can’t be done, or won’t be done but it’s also incredibly effective in starting arguments to the contrary. Saying “no”, despite its obvious directness, is rarely appreciated and brings out emotiveness and sensitivities in those that see ‘negativity’ rather than the real message.
Despite the overtone of the message the negative undertone prevails. In polite, self-satisficing circles with back-slapping self-appreciation and membership of some inner sanctum ‘positives’ are required. This prevailing club mentality with a predilection to protecting reputations, resting on one’s laurels and promoting past success requires ‘positiveness’ and avoiding any self-criticism. Even a hint of negativity is seen as sacrilege and the ‘naysayer’ who would dare go against the flow and upset any applecart is summarily black-balled or deemed persona non grata.
“No” tends to annoy or even anger a project’s political masters who see every cloud as being silver rather than merely having the possibility of a silver lining. These politicos require positive deals, positive growth, positive profits and no-negativity; even blaming others can be seen as a positive. However, and while positivity promotes optimism, which is commendable, projects can be fraught with risk and the need for change, both unplanned and planned as well as wanted and unwanted.
For many project managers any risks that manifest themselves or changes that are needed meet with knee-jerk denial and exclamations of “No!”. As heads are held in hands, they seek out the hoped-for mitigation plan and budget contingency for this foreseeable risk but find, and again another ‘n’ words, nothing or even nada. Unplanned scope can bring an even greater workload and reinforces the realisation that deadlines are very much alive and resources are indeed finite and inelastic rather than elastic and infinite. Saying “No” to the fact that projects can and do go wrong may seem a most appropriate exclamation and it can be difficult to be sanguine in the face of potential adversity that risks and project politics can bring.
“Yes” conveys a positive message and can be an easy way out of a challenging situation but an unequivocal ‘yes’ can have negative implications. If one takes a Newtonian view and that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction then saying ‘yes’ when a ‘no’ is required results in an imbalance. However, if a lever is used then this imbalance may be managed towards some equilibrium. If this resultant is not managed then, rather than snatching potential victory from the jaws of defeat, the resultant negativity may merely fuel the fire of failure.
If a risk ambushes your project then denying this reality may be a waste of time and effort; at least in the hindsight that the future eventually brings. Acceptance and moving on in a positive manner will occur in some form or another; but dwelling on the consequences and blaming others is negativity and, unfortunately, negativity begets negativity. For the project team who would prefer to argue the present and put off to the future that which can be done today is far from being positive and procrastination becomes personified.
However, the effort taken in denying things, attempting to blame others and seeking a silver-bullet of an excuse to miraculously solve their problem is sometimes seen as a form of positiveness albeit somewhat perverse. The consequential plethora of letters, reports, contractual notifications, and adversarial meetings may give the impression of working towards a positive outcome but is this merely well disguised negativity?
No Nos…But Buts?
Saying “yes” without reservation may keep one party happy and upset the other but as they say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” and somebody somewhere ultimately pays for positivity when there is an element of negativity. Statements such as “it’s not our job”, “not in our scope”, or “it’s not in our price” or even “it’s not our fault” from one party reek of negativity and the immediate reaction from the other is, typically, “it is!”, “it is!”, “it is!” or “it is!”. The result can be, at best, a prolonged but determinable argument or, at worst, a relentless and interminable exchange of opinionated contradiction.
When confronted with the temptation to deny any liability and say a flat “no” it’s better to think first rather than play the reactionary denial card, slam doors shut, and dig-in for the expected siege. Check your requirements, scope, risk register and any contract’s fine print then say “of course we have the capability” or some equally positive but non-committal opening gambit. Seek to promote a positive and inquisitorial discussion on ‘how’ any changes, variations or risks may be addressed, ‘why’ they are needed, and ‘who’ may be best positioned to address them and broach the ‘whens’ and ‘wheres’; followed by who could be required to pay.
As Stephen Covey advocated “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood” and once a situation is understood it may be addressed pragmatically rather than emotively; any door is at least ajar. The “no” may become a “no…but” or even a “yes…but” and some form of middle ground based upon understanding may be found to the mutual benefit of all; at least in a sensible and rational relationship.
Two negatives, both mathematically and literally, make a positive. But, when we have an adamant naysayer’s “No” coupled against another with an equally adamant desire to hear “Yes” we have a negative situation and nobody really benefits.
A resounding “yes” may compromise a project’s budget and the ability of a team to perform effectively within any mandated timelines, but an unequivocal ‘no’ may adversely affect a project’s overall aim and outcome. By taking a Kipling approach and considering the what, why, when, how, where, and who of any situation that situation may be understood and a positive way forward found.
As Juliet once mused “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but in the real world where power and politics are coupled with egos and belligerent people, any assumptions as to understanding and reasonableness can be unsurmountable risks. In these situations when a politically correct “Yes” is expected but one must say “No”, then avoid pungency and at least try for sweetness.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.