Say “No” and Succeed

by Ian Dapot

Collaboration within creative teams requires enthusiasm, optimism, and an openness to joining others in developing new ideas. A critical step in any collaborative effort is cultivating the appearance of willingness to engage in creative work with others. However, this first step is where many collaborative endeavors break down before they ever really begin.

After working hard to successfully present themselves as good potential partners, many would-be collaborators fear the implications of saying “no.” How might that response affect the likelihood of future invitations? As a result many deliver a soft or ambiguous “yes” when the best word for collaboration might be just the opposite.

For collaborative teams to work effectively there needs to be clear understanding about the level of participation and responsibilities of each member. Clear communication is the basis of that understanding, and ambiguity on these fronts can affect relationships, deadlines, and outcomes. While it may initially seem like a risky move, in the proper context a definitive “no” may be more conducive to effective collaboration than it first appears. An appropriately delivered “no” sends a clear signal about capacity to engage at a given moment, and can help establish trust between partners to give honest appraisals of the situation at hand.

Senior team members and those with multiple project or administrative commitments may be inclined to vague terms of collaboration. While complex or unpredictable scheduling demands may require a certain degree of flexibility in planning (for example working an unspecified 6 hours a week on a project), that same flexibility may ultimately make them a liability to the success of teams because it doesn’t reflect the ebb and flow of others’ productivity. As an alternative it may be more productive for these senior members to commit to engaging the team at specific time and date, or to produce a specific deliverable at a defined moment. In both cases other team members are able to anticipate and prepare for working together to maximize team productivity.

Even designers with fewer commitments may be prone to answering invitations with a different type of “soft yes” for a different set of reasons. In environments where willingness carries social currency designers looking to make a positive impression may be inclined to accept a request they don’t have the ability accommodate. Enthusiasm or desire to elevate standing within the workplace can encourage commitment to responsibilities they don’t fully understand and actually jeopardize their standing as a result. In such cases it’s helpful to consider whether the learning curve for these members can be accommodated within the project timeframe, or if other team members have complementary skills to provide support and ensure success if needed.

Of course the working conditions and existing relationships between collaborators will have an impact on the the success of the engagement and the need for clear terms of collaboration. Open or less structured environments, and new working relationships have a greater need for defined terms of participation and explicit agreements. In structured or hierarchical environments, with more defined roles and relationships, the need is greater for collaborative invitations—especially those from senior members—to be positioned as “opt in” and not a as a benchmark for opportunities in the future.

There is a way to say no in any langauge


Many would-be collaborators fear the implications of saying “no.”

Quick Tips
1. Craft invitations ahead of time, make requests and invitations as explicit as possible, rather than asking whether someone would like to “work together” or “help on a project” ask for “help with finishing “x”, by “y date”.

2. Looking to make a good impression but stretched for time? Say “no, thanks” and provide an alternative, suggest a colleague who may have more availability or is better suited to the job and develop a reputation as a knowledgeable resource and team player in another way.

3. Fielding lots of requests for participation? Offer low volume participation in higher definition and stick to your agreements, or say, “no, I’m sorry I have other commitments” as early as you can and give teams time to find or create other solutions.

Dig Deeper!
1. The Corporate Executive Board writes about the Technology-Collaboration Disconnect and behavioral/social factors at Bloomberg Businessweek.


2. Evan Rosen at BusinessWeek says collaboration needs more than technology.

3. Get the guide to knowing and understanding your clients’ needs.