Notes on enginering leadership and software development.

You Should Really Say "No" More Often

Saying "no" unlocks much more for your team and your company than saying "yes" to every project and ask. Here's how that usually works.

You're leading a team, and you're very good at building bridges and working with other teams. Sometimes you help your team get a feature over the finish line and write a little bit of code. Sometimes you help an account manager, and fix an edge case bug for that a customer reported.

These little asks add up, and together they eat up more and more of your time. A couple of hours every week at first, but then you find yourself in five customer meetings in a single week, and you've promised to ship a few little improvements to three different people in CS. What happened?

On a 1:1 with your peer engineering manager, you talk about how your engineers are not quite engaged with the company beyond just writing and shipping code, and how you ought to work on that. Well, congratulations, because what you thought of as "leading by example" is actually doing the opposite.

The part that everyone knows about

Let's get the basics out of the way. When you say "yes" to one thing, you're saying "no" to everything else that you could've done in that time.

If you agree to many small asks from others, you're implicitly not spending the time thinking strategically about the core of your own work and growth. Thinking strategically takes time. Doing lots of one-off tasks also takes time. You'll get many asks and nudges as your work becomes more visible in the company, that's a given. You will not get many nudges to think strategically from your boss in a startup — they're likely busy doing one-off asks from others, and didn't make time to think about your growth.

So, saying "no" to small asks from others makes it possible for you to make time and think about the work that is important to you strategically.

Saying "no" helps your team grow and learn

When an account manager asks you to implement an edge case in a feature for a specific customer, what if instead of saying "sure, I can do that by Thursday" you started a thread with one of your engineers, and asked them to work on it?

Weaving one-off asks into your team work cycles solves several problems at once:

  • You can coach an engineer in thinking about the time trade-off, and tactically solving a problem for a customer, and building a stronger relationship with an account manager. That helps engineers understand why solving a problem for a customer or a prospect is important, or why we should say nope to that ask, and hence understand the company values and strategy better.
  • You make this work visible to others — including other engineers and your product manager. After a few sprints or cycles, you should be able to reserve some resource for the work that will come up with less resistance, and get a bit more slack for folks on your team.

At first, delegating work to your team that way will take more time than it would take to do it yourself. But the time you invest in coaching your team compounds. After the first few delegated tasks, you won't need to coach and explain the task to your engs as much, you will have good visibility into the work, and you'll have your time back.

My good mentor always told me: anyone can build a feature on their own. Try coding it up without using your hands.

Saying "no" helps others do more with less

Some habits take years to build, but the habit of asking for someone's help if you know they will deliver, forms dangerously quickly. If your work is visible, you show up, and you care a tiny bit too much about helping others, then you'll have a line of folks asking for your help often.

In some situations, people will relay an ask to you without even stopping to think if they can solve it themselves, or if it needs to be done at all:

  • Hey, can you quickly pull in a report from our BI tool? It looks scary, and I'm not sure how to use that no-code report builder myself — sure, you can do it in 30 minutes. It would take 2 hours to teach the person to build the report on their own. But you can record that session, and ask others to watch it, and then they can build their typical reports on their own. There — you just took your time back, and taught the whole team how to solve a typical ask with a quicker turnaround.
  • Hey, can you build a custom report that has data from both of these reports, but in the BI tool, so I can export a spreadsheet? — sure, but what if you just take the two report spreadsheets, copy all the sheets from one to the other, and make a new summary sheet that glues them together on your own? Time for some excel-fu, haha! Of course, it's easier to ask yxsou than to do some work on their own. But it's perfectly fine to say no.

Saying "no" shows your team that it's okay and healthy to do so

Your team is looking up to you, seeks every subtle signal on what you expect from them. They take both strong signal from what you say and write, but they notice what you do even more.

  • If you want folks on your team to take care of themselves and take time off regularly, but you never take time off yourself — you're showing them a wrong example.
  • If you want folks on your team to not burn out at work, but you regularly work through the night and then tell everyone how you didn't have enough sleep and how you're tired and exhausted — well, that doesn't help. Even if you're doing that to shield them from extra work. The power balance on the team likely makes them feel that hardcore work is expected.
  • If you want your teams to stay focused on their main goal for the month or the quarter, but they see you constantly being torn between twenty different little things — that will send a message that aside from their main goal, they're expected to say yes to everything, and saying no to extra work or an ask is not okay.

Learning to say no and to make time to stop and think strategically is one of the most important skills for a people leader.

Especially if you're a manager of managers in your current role — do make sure that your managers are not burning themselves out with endless one-off asks from others. In a way, this makes your job easier — you can coach your managers to take care of themselves and their time, and to think strategically. Then you set a goal for them to coach their team in the same way.

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Originally published on Aug 5th 2023.