Finding the Cure to “Yes”

By: Agile Velocity | Feb 03, 2014 |  Article,  Product Owner

Yes letters made out of No'sIn this article, we’ll explore the motivation for saying “yes”, understand the damage it can cause, and identify what it takes to be able to say “no”. Agile can help you build a culture focused on frequent delivery of value to customers. In the 12 Principles behind the Agile Manifesto, you’ll find it right at the top of their list.

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

It’s a statement that’s easy to say, but hard for many organizations to emulate. They find themselves wondering how to assign value. Without understanding value, it’s difficult to make decisions. What should you build now? What should you build later? What shouldn’t you ever build?

Wouldn’t it just be easier to say “yes” to all of those incoming customer requests? This is a reality for many organizations whose customer sales drive development of their software products.  But it doesn’t have to be, there’s a better way. The simplest solution is to just say “no”.

Why Do We Say “Yes”?

Why do we say yes to so many things? Why do we take on more than we can handle? Why do we make promises we can’t keep? Most of the time we feel that there’s no choice. It’s an all or nothing zero-sum game. But the damage that occurs when we say yes to something without delivering the goods is real and lasting. There are many reasons why we say “yes”. Here are the most frequent:

Fear of Damaging a Relationship
Customers have lots of ideas. Whether your customers are internal or external it’s important to keep them happy.  No one wants to be responsible for damaging a customer relationship. The bigger the customer the more pressure we feel to deliver their requests.  Likewise, demanding personalities also add pressure.

Fear of Not Getting the Work
One of the most common reasons we say yes is because we believe that if we don’t, then we won’t make a sale for new business (e.g. new customer or new business with an existing customer). There are many variations. See if any of these sound familiar:

  • The customer creates an RFP that seems to contain everything, including the “kitchen sink”, and solicits bids. You know there’s a lot of competition and you have no prior relationship with the customer. You’re worried that saying no to anything will cost you the deal so you say yes to all of it.
  • An organization within your company has allocated budget to finally start a project that’s been talked about for years. The reason it hadn’t been started before now was because it’s risky and costly so you assure them that you can do the work in a reasonable amount of time. In this case, “sale” can be translated into allocated budget.
  • You see an opportunity to provide some additional value to your customer (i.e. up sell), but they have some additional needs they would like met as part of the deal

Fear of Letting Down Management
Ever been given aggressive and improbable goals by your boss with a mandate to just “get it done”. Regardless of your relationship with your boss, you never want to let them down. Often when these situations arise, our response is heroic and we work longer hours and more days to try to get the job done.

Not Enough Knowledge
Sometimes we just don’t understand the work and effort well enough to say “no”, so we say “yes”, but what we really mean is “maybe”. In one instance, it may be the case of a team being approached with the work and remaining optimistic despite lacking the information needed to feel confident in their decision. In other cases, it could be that one person was responsible for estimating the effort for a large project that others will be responsible to deliver, without consulting them.

Is It Wrong to Say “Yes”?

Is it wrong to keep customer relationships intact? Is it wrong to get additional sales to help drive the business? Is it wrong take advantage of opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise get? Is it wrong to work hard and push yourselves to achieve more? Is it wrong to take changes?

The short answer is “no”, but you have to be responsible as well. Saying “yes” to everything is like uncontrolled credit spending.  It is short-sighted. You have all of these great opportunities you’ve purchased, but you find yourself in a growing amount of debt and eventually you’ll have to pay it off. You also might not like how you pay for it.

Consider the following potential side effects of “biting off more than you can chew”.

Cultural Impact

  • Increased tension among all of the people that work in your organization. Worry runs rampant and knowingly or unknowingly people feel less secure in their jobs.
  • Those in positions of authority and responsibility are trying to tightly control the situation down to every last detail.  People that work with them feel micromanaged and a lack of trust.
  • Some buckle down and work with a sense of urgency. Others become disengaged and checked out. They become unhappy with the situation and feel no sense of control.

Business Impact

  • The time comes to explain to your customer why you cannot deliver what you promised. Understanding that based on your promises they made their own.
  • When you stop meeting your customer needs they start looking for other options. At a minimum, they will be more skeptical in future deals and your position to negotiate and sell will be compromised.

If these impacts resonate with you, you’re not alone. But don’t worry there’s another way.

The Path to “No”


Saying “no” sounds easy, but when and how do you do it. Here are some things to consider:
Trust with Customers – it’s hard to say “no” to a customer when you haven’t proven that you’re reliable; whether you just won a bid for work with a new customer or have had some performance issues with existing customers, it’s hard to say “no” unless they trust you
Transparency – information is important to you and your customers; even “bad” news can be helpful to customers when it’s provided early enough; be honest with what you know and what you don’t; expose risks that you have and what you’re doing about them;  communicate regularly on progress and have something to show your customer
Frequency of Delivery – frequency of delivery can also build trust with customers; customers that have to wait for long periods of time will ask for more than they really need making it more difficult to say yes; deliver sooner and your customers may postpone some of their requests because they know you can respond quickly
Product Vision – it’s important to demonstrate to customers that you have ideas that can help them and those are priority; find something they will get excited about and they might be willing to wait for things they’ve already requested
User Community – creating a community across customers can help put their problems in perspective; it provides a forum where people feel heard and can share ideas with peers; it also allows people to share ideas and gain perspective;  maybe your customers will find some common ground allowing you to say “yes” to a shared need (less) and “no” to many customized requests (more)


It’s no coincidence that many of the items that help you say “no” are related to Agile principles and sound product management. Companies that adopt these principles can build the confidence to say “no” and drive out fear in their organization. The effect can be powerful producing better products, stronger customer relationships, and a better environment for employees.

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