Oh sure, we’ve read the books about the power of saying no.
Saying No is the key to success in any management role.
Which would be fine if it wasn’t so darn tough. Marketing is hard enough without trampling on the feelings of our colleagues. And to be so definitive about innovation, well is that really ever wise?
So I tell my team that No should be reserved for the absolute last resort. Clients come to us for a way forward, and an energetic and passionate commitment to making the best of what’s been done.
But for those of us who still struggle with the two letter negative, here’s five ways to navigate the No conversation:
Search for information: before you close off any avenue of inquiry are you sure you have gathered all the relevant data? There are two forms of data available to every marketer: facts and emotions. Just because the company has not done something before does not mean it will not try something new. And just because the last team failed does not mean you can’t organize the data to energize a new round of experimentation and creation.
How fixed is the situation? You can think of any marketing conversation as a kind of negotiation. And great negotiators caution us to avoid getting stuck on any point and constantly expand the conversation in search of variables that can be used to move participants past fixed points. What does next week mean? Monday or Friday? Do we really need a product name to develop an elevator speech? Can we make that decisions after we test the idea? Beware of rolling out a no before you have considered all the angles at play.
What do prospects have to say? Innovators, by their very nature, must learn to discount criticism and customer feedback: When Henry Ford asked his customers what they wanted, they said a faster horse (he didn’t, but still innovators say this with depressing frequency). The first lesson of Moore’s famous Market Adoption (Chasm) theory is that members of the early market are few and far between and don’t conform to the patterns of the majority. Innovators lean hard on the experience of the early market to identify opportunities. But they also learn not to listen to most people. Nevertheless, many marketing logjam can be cleared with a small dose of feedback from early customers.
What about rivals? Many a marketer plans with faulty assumptions about the competition. It rarely makes sense to assume rivals will not match an innovation or worse, are not thinking along similar lines as your team. One of the first principles of Sun Tsu’s Art of War is keep your enemy close, by which he meant understand how your rival thinks. Still, I am often surprised by how reluctant my clients are to model the reaction of rivals. A favored technique is to ask client teams to imagine they are their rivals and attack their plans from that perspective. It is a rare team that does not learn from open and clear contemplation of competitive threat.
When there is no way out of No, ask us. Well this may be an awesome time to roll out the agency. Third parties can often say No in a way that internal teams will support. Indeed, one of the great advantages of a smart agency is its ability to Marshall what it knows about a project to drive consensus and drive forward in the most profitable avenue. We can say the things you can’t. And that can be very helpful.
Of course you may well be one of the few executives who have no trouble saving No. Who revel in your power to inspire and lead the rest of us to the promised land. Good for you. But for the rest of us cowards, there is still hope.