I once rode herd over a gaggle of young engineers, all bright and talented and creative. It was a real pleasure, though unfortunately offset by an executive who was by no means an engineer. He didn’t let that stop him from thinking he was one, however, and a conflict erupted over a particular design program. The engineering team’s recommended program plan was functional, painstakingly modeled, and incrementally better than what had come before. The executive’s plan was sexy and marketable—and against the laws of physics.

Upper management asked us if the sexy path was technically feasible. We said, loudly, “No.”

That was one of my biggest professional mistakes.

We were overruled, the sexy design went forward and failed, and huge amounts of time and money were squandered. Everybody lost.

Where did we go wrong? We goaded our decision-maker into stubbornness; we failed to engage his practical thought processes; we didn’t explore any middle ground; and we failed to think of a long way around to the goal.

Stubborn vs. stupid
While it’s true that individuals occasionally rise to the executive ranks through birthright or political connections or some reason other than ability, most executive decision makers really aren’t stupid, though they may often seem to be to those in the trenches. When executives make bad decisions, they’re often motivated not by executive stupidity but executive stubbornness. This is a set of muscles you’ll find well developed in most vice presidents, and rightly so: stubbornness is often a virtue in business. Effective executives must be able to push through an agenda against resistance.

Let them tell themselves “No”
Your job, then, is to avoid triggering their “stubborn” muscles by having your decision-makers flex their brains instead. If I charge in with “It can’t be done,” the “stubborn” muscles instinctively flex. If I go in with “I want to get this done, but I need your advice in deciding which is the best way,” their brains engage.

Put simply, you should never, ever tell them “no.” Let them tell themselves. This is not as hard as it sounds. When you go before the bosses, emphasize your shared desire to accomplish your mutual goal, and make it clear you’re on their side. Raise your technical issue by asking them if they think it’s the best route to the goal. Let them make the decision. Show them you’ve done your homework.

Suppose management decides it needs a company-wide Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementation in six months. Partner corporations insist on it. You go before management and make it clear that your priority—implementation on their schedule—is fraught with problems. Your most conservative manpower estimates tell you that this will consume virtually all discretionary project resources for the next six months, and you’ll still come up more than 12,000 hours short. The cost of the contract help you’ll need to make it happen is in excess of $700,000. And even then, there are a hundred potential bottlenecks you’ll encounter as you wade through the user community, forcing conversions of procedures on an impossible schedule.

Then offer an alternative. Technically, you can have the new platform in place by year’s end, with all the database modifications and portals completed and tested. Analysis and tasking will be ready for application system revisions to begin in the late fall and continue into next year’s second quarter. So you’ll be thoroughly committed by the end of the year, with the new platform in place (but not yet live), for a mere $325,000 in additional resources. And, of course, your protracted implementation schedule will cause the department heads far less stress. Add more pressure due to the fact that partner companies probably won’t relax schedules to allow for conversion time, and it’ll become clear to your bosses that they should give you some leeway on going live.

You’ve thrown them a bone—the ability to report to partner corporations that the new platform is in place— and offered them a path to less financial pressure and less in-house strife. Nine times out of ten, the deal is done.

Sometimes “No” is “Yes, but…”
Sometimes the point of compromise is strictly time-related. You can give management what it wants, but not today.

Back in the days when the desktop was still a toy with promise, I was one of an army of COBOL programmers seated before old-fashioned video display terminals. When upper management learned that these new PCs could run spreadsheets and might eventually replace typewriters, PCs began appearing alongside VDTs throughout our corporate headquarters. Once the vice president in charge of our department learned about “terminal emulation,” it was quickly obvious that the VDTs had to go, and we needed to have a PC on every desk.

This was correct, of course. It describes the world we have today. In 1984, however, it was much easier said than done.

My manager did his homework, put together several scenarios, and made his case. He told upper management, “Yes—in about 36 months.” He described what would happen if we went forward with the plan at the time, what it would cost, how work patterns would change (not for the better), and what would happen if we made the move in phases that allowed the technology to catch up. He then asked the decision-makers to decide.

Three years later, a fiber-optic TCP/IP backbone was installed, and there was a PC with mainframe access on every desk.

Some people learn the hard way
There is the occasional hopeless situation. Sometimes executives simply can’t or won’t hear what you’re saying, no matter how clearly or loudly you say it. When that happens, there’s only one thing to do: stand firm, and allow the decision-makers to learn the hard way. Let them turn elsewhere, implement an inadequate solution, and pay the price. Resist saying, “I told you so.”

Michael Doane and Jon Reed, authors of the SAP Consultant Handbook, give an amusing example. Asked by a client to provide a consultant for the implementation of a new SAP module—call it X Module—they were given a hard requirement: that the consultant have a year’s experience with the module.

But the module was only released six months ago, they pointed out.

Even so, we want a consultant with a year’s experience, the client insisted.

The module has only been in existence six months, they clarified. There isn’t a person on the planet that has a year’s experience with it.

“Well,” said the client, “we’ll just keep looking around.”

What can you do?
Strive for the middle ground. If compromise doesn’t work, then sometimes you have to let them wipe the egg off their face. Just don’t hand them the towel.

Just say no

How do you tell the person in the corner office “No”? Drop us an e-mail or post a comment below.