Give Your Team a Way to Say No

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Using broad strokes, there are two ways to generate more output from your business.

  1. You can hire more people.
  2. You can increase the capacity of your current team.

The latter obviously allows you to get more done without ramp up time for new teammates, overhead of more salaries, or communication challenges that accompany a growing team.

The challenge though is figuring out how. How exactly do you enable your existing team to get more done (without working overtime or burning out)?

There are many strategies for gaining efficiency, but today, let’s talk about one. Give your team the opportunity to say no.

How Often Does This Happen?

Let’s walk through a scenario that might sound familiar.

It’s Monday, and you finish up with your team’s standup. Everyone comes away with a prioritized set of tasks they’re hoping to ship by the end of the week.

Yet, when Friday comes, half of the work (or more) remains unshipped. When you dig in to find out why, you find out one person on your team was pulled into fixing a product bug, another person got invited to a 2-hour brainstorming session, which sidetracked their week. This list goes on…

Although we all enter the week with a perfect plan and a list of prioritized tasks, we inevitably get sidetracked into other work.

Why Do We Get Sidetracked?

Why does this happen? A few reasons:

  • We want to help our colleagues. So, when they come to us with a problem, we want to help!
  • It’s easy to pass off work, particularly in Slack. It’s easy to “pass the monkey” to someone else and drop additional work on their plate without realizing it.
  • We’re not clear on how we should prioritize tasks. When new work inevitably floats our way, it goes straight to the top of the list. After all, it seemed important to the requester.

The list goes on. The underlying takeaway is that unplanned work will inevitably float towards your team for a host of reasons, and without a plan in place, it can sidetrack you from your main objectives.

What’s Required to Say No?

The key to combating this situation is giving your team strategies for saying no without feeling like they’re letting a colleague down. There are a few key parts.

Have clear objectives.

If no one is sure where the ship is headed, any destination sounds great. Without a set of clear objectives, the team will drift towards working on the “loudest” issues, which isn’t always the right choice.

Clarify how you receive work.

If anyone within your organization can drop work on your team through Slack DMs, pings in a random channel, emails, mentions in a GitHub repo, Jira tickets, etc, you have too many inflows.

One of the first things we did when I led a previous team at Automattic was narrow the list of sources for incoming work. When pinged in Slack, we could politely direct the requester to a lightweight, preferred method for passing work our way. This put a small hurdle in their path, but it helped to cut down on the complexity for our team and keep us aligned.

Develop clear processes.

Regardless of whether you run one-week sprints or quarterly efforts, make it clear to your team (and to the rest of the organization) how and when you plan out your work. This helps teams know when their request could be prioritized. It also gives your team a set cadence for firming up all of the loose items on their plates. You can also clearly outline how to bubble up the inevitable tasks that pop up mid-week and feel worth prioritizing.

Build structure around focus time.

We’re often diligent about requesting when teammates are present and online (weekly meetings, 1:1s, etc). We’re often not as diligent about giving them focused space during the week (i.e. Stay off Slack Tuesday/Thursday mornings from 8AM-12PM). Without purposeful effort, this focused time often falls by the wayside.

Saying No (And Still Being Helpful)

The desired end result is a situation where we can still be helpful to other teammates around the organization while also functioning at our best as a team. The strategies above help us achieve that goal.

Instead of saying “No, I don’t have time to help with that,” we end with a variation that’s much more considerate and helpful.

This week, I’m focused on [top objective], and I don’t think I’ll have bandwidth to tackle this additional work. I’d encourage you to [way to receive work] with specific notes. We’ll review it on [clear processes around planning] and prioritize it for next week. If it becomes urgent in the meantime, please [clear processes to bubble up].

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