Don’t Make Your Team Say No To You

Leaders are often visionary “idea people”. The difference between success and failure is how good these leaders are at training their teams to say No. Idea People often forget they are disrupting their own teams by voicing their ideas. If leaders don’t learn and practice skills for controlling the flow of ideas, their teams will fail.

When I was building home networking for Windows at Microsoft, I learned getting a team to a focused plan, and getting the team members to stick to the plan, was hard. I also learned a tool like the 5Ps could really help.

In retrospect, I also learned I had made it much harder than it needed to be. I’m an idea guy. Ideas come to me a mile a minute. At that point in my career, I didn’t realize how disruptive it was that I was spouting these ideas while the team was executing the current plan. In my head, I was just talking about potentialities for the future; by telling the team about all the cool things we could do in the future, I was showing “vision”.

What I found out later, after talking to people who had been on that team, was they viewed me as a “randomizer” they needed to control. In other words, the team spent time and energy MANAGING THE MANAGER. I forced them, regularly, to say “No” to ME.

If you are a leader, and an idea person, you need to figure out a way to “vent” your ideas that has NO impact on your team. Here are some tactics I’ve used and seen others use that might help you do this.

Use the “Mountains To Climb” Metaphor

Charlie on top of OddessyA team of mountain climbers sees a series of mountains in a mountain range. They aspire to climb them all. But they knew they can only successfully climb one mountain at a time. As they climb the first mountain they can see the other mountains in the range. The view inspires them. As they approach the summit, gaining altitude, the view of the other peaks gets even more beautiful. This motivates them even more to complete the current climb.

A product team sees a long-term vision for the business and starts marching towards it. If it is just one monolithic vision they will likely fail to accomplish it. To succeed the leadership should break the vision down into 3 or 4 smaller components, and say “Think of each of these as a mountain in a mountain range. Our goal is to conquer the entire range (that’s our vision). We’ve picked this mountain here as the first to climb. We can climb the others once we’ve summited this one.”

Of course, prioritization is critical here (which component of the vision is the one that should be tackled first?). Great leaders are great at driving this prioritization.

Early on, help your team understand this metaphor, and use it consistently. Whenever you catch yourself saying “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we…” or “I’ve got an idea!”, go ahead and share the idea, but couch it with “Of course, this is part of our next mountain climb, not the current one.”

Put Future Planning Events in the Schedule

The “Plan” part of the 5 Ps is a top-down schedule. It starts with the end-date (the top) and works backward to today. A great tactic for allowing potentially disruptive ideas to be aired, but not be disruptive is to ensure that the plan explicitly has a place for “Future Planning Events” where you get the team together to organize thoughts about the future.

For example, I’ve scheduled a two-hour “Future Planning” meeting about six weeks into a ten-week project. At the start of the project, I told the team “Anytime you have a new idea that does not fit within the principles and priorities of our current project, write them down. Know that on March 14th we have a planning event scheduled where, as a team, we’ll discuss them all.”

Then, whenever I had a new idea up during the project, I would do the following:

  • Ask me “How does this idea fit within the principles & priorities for the current project?”. If you’ve done a good job getting buy-in on the principles & priorities the answer should be clear. 90% of the time, if there’s any ambiguity the answer will be “it does not fit.”
  • If it didn’t fit, I’d tell myself “Great idea. Add it to the list of ideas we’re going to discuss at the planning event on March 14th.”
  • If it did fit, double-check that it fits. It likely doesn’t.

This technique provides a nice pressure relief valve. Of course, this is valuable to the other “idea-people” on the team as well (anyone can bring the ideas they’ve bottled up to the Future Planning meeting). I’ve found it works well, but only if you have good buy-in on the project’s principles & priorities.

Define Principles and Live Them

A project’s principles (or tenets) define how the team acts during the project. A well-functioning team knows the principles and lives them day-to-day. They are non-negotiable rules for behavior.

There exist projects where “peanut buttering” makes sense; where doing a lot of little things “just good enough” is the path to success. I, personally, don’t like to be associated with projects like that, but there are valid reasons for them.

In every project I’ve been involved in, where I was proud of the result, the team lived by a principle of “doing a few things really, really well”. To this end, I push for the following to be a core principle of the endeavor:

We will do a few things and do them very, very well; we are better off not having a feature or capability than doing it poorly. There are always future versions.

Getting a team to buy into this principle will require you, as the leader, to also buy into it. If you are living this principle, then every time YOU have a new idea you will, naturally, by default, ask yourself the question “Does this idea help us do the few things we’ve already decided to do better?”.  If the answer is no, then put the idea aside.

The secret to great leadership is being able to focus on what is important and ignore what is not important. Great leaders are excellent at training their teams to stick to decisions; to say No when they should be focused on executing a plan. Oftentimes, a leader is also an “idea person”. Dysfunctional teams often refer to this kind of leader as a “Randomizer” or “Complexifier“.

Hopefully, this post will help you avoid being a randomizer. Don’t be the manager that the team has to manage.

Please share your thoughts below.

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  1. Kevin Davis says:

    I similarly think of myself as an “idea guy” and I’m sure team mates have felt randomized by things I’ve brought up.

    As we try to transition from long term releases focused on fewer, bigger goals to quicker iteration, I’m curious to think of how I might address this.

    What do you think of a consistent period of time dedicated to things out of scope for the current sprint / milestone? Reading a piece by Richard Hamming last night, he seemed to dedicate lunch and Friday afternoons to broader thinking. (

    1. Kevin, I’m not sure the time frame matters. You can (and should) have a set of well defined, and bought-into, principles & priorities for any sized project. At the end of the day, the real trick is being hard-core about those principles & priorities.

      The idea of dedicating lunch on Friday’s to broader thinking is an excellent one. Just make sure that everyone involved is regularly reminded of why it is being done.

  2. Years ago, I used to say that when someone was promoted to “architect” it meant that they were too valuable to fire, but too disruptive to allow near a team which is actually building stuff. The analogy still has merit :).

    1. So true Larry! So true.

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