The Power of Yes and No

There is much power in Yes! Finding a way to Yes! is finding a pathway to life-changing experiences, to entrepreneurial successes, valuable friendships, and even to love. Yes! is powerful.

This post, however is about the enormous power of No!, as a positive and life-changing force. In fact, the older I get, the more I recognize and appreciate the importance of No! to help guide my life, and focus on excellence. Even though there are many examples, I want to focus this discussion on the power of No! in time-management, and in driving culture change.

When I started my job at NASA I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of time pressure from tag-ups, meet-and-greets, councils, and other meetings that filled my schedule. With my family still in Michigan, I decided to come to work super early and I left very late – and all I did is meet, often for 12+ hours per day. Some of these meetings were useful and necessary, and others seemed repetitive even after 2-3 weeks, with little value and purpose, but I attended all of them.

I did so until I noticed that I started falling behind on my work, that I caught myself making important decisions without enough consideration, and frankly that I did not think deeply enough. I started to feel miserable. I felt like I was “trampled by ants”, as my friend Tony England once called it (this is the man who figured out how to turn CO2 into O2 during the Apollo 13 crisis – you saw the movie). I was completely focused on small and often unimportant activities and I was living entirely reactively – and I hated it. To do my job well, I needed to manage my time proactively and learn how to use the power of No!

One day, I talked about this quandary to my administrative assistant who bravely filled in my schedule with lots of people urging her they needed to meet with me. In a discussion one morning, she told me apologetically that she can only accommodate between 15-20% of all meeting requests. I walked away from this like someone had hit me in the face. Here I was working 12+ hours mostly in meetings, and I was not even fulfilling a quarter of all requests!

After a brief moment of desperation I realized the liberating aspect of that number: no matter how many hours I spent in meeting, even with no sleep at all, there was no chance to fulfill the external demand put on me by these requests. I finally felt empowered to use the power of No! to change how I spent my day and how I constrained when I schedule meetings. I have been sticking to such hard limits since then.

For example, each day, no meeting can be scheduled before 8 am and after 5 pm without approval from me, and exceptions are rare. Furthermore, I want 2 hours of unallocated time to work actions between 8 am and 5 pm blocked on my schedule. Again, these times cannot be over-written without my approval. These constraints give me time to prepare and think through priorities and this time allows me to work proactively.

I recognize that everyone is different. I suspect that some can do more meetings and function just fine. But, this is “my marathon speed” – the way I can get work done, the way I can think, make good and thoughtful decisions and be happy – in the long run.

There is much liberating power in No! when it comes to schedule management. Use it – don’t get trampled by ants!

We rightly talk about culture change as being enabled by a new shared vision, strong values, and a team that is encouraged and empowered to make that vision a new reality. However, I believe that it takes both the power of Yes! and the power of No! to create such a major culture change. Let me explain.

I have observed many leaders who build new organizations or improve already existing organizations using the power of Yes!. Great leaders use the power or Yes!, and explain the importance of a worthy future that does not yet exist. They get the best from the team to define this new vision. Great leaders and their teams spend a lot of time and focus to talk about this new future and the underlying driving values as they gain momentum. Without that, the change in momentum is often weak and it fizzles out at every obstacle that is encountered. The power of Yes! is magical.

But, here is something really important I only learned in the past couple of years: The power of Yes! – setting a new vision and driving momentum toward it is only one critical ingredient of lasting culture change. The other one is the power of No!

As we start building this new culture, we will find behaviors and actions in our organizations that are no longer desirable or no longer acceptable. So what do we do when they pop to the surface and keep pulling us back? – with the power of No!

I believe that only if we have the courage to address and even cut bad and mis-aligned elements out of our organization do we build lasting change. Even though patience is often a virtue, we cannot be too patient addressing outdated thought-patterns, negative thinking, and sometimes toxic behaviors and power dynamics that hold us back from progress. We need to address them with the power of No!

Having guided multiple organizations through culture change and having observed many more, I am convinced that utilizing the power of No! is as important as utilizing the power of Yes! to achieve lasting success. If we are not willing to use the power of No!, we confuse our own teams about how serious we are about the intended change, and how committed we are to building the new future!

Only when we are ready to cut the mooring line that ties the ship to the shore will the ship sail towards a new destination. Putting up the sails and ringing the bell is not enough.

As we move into this near year, may we all understand better the powers of Yes! and No! in our lives, and may we get ever-more wisdom about how and when to use these powers.