Tis a far better thing to qualify the “yes” than to expand the “no”

Yesterday a.m. I got a frantic call from a campus VIP. She was freaking because she had contacted two of my staff about arranging a videoconference with only 2 days’ notice and, according to her, they had said “No we can’t do that.” (As an aside, let me say that the reasons for the short notice were excellent–we had a high profile event that we couldn’t anticipate). She called me and I said “Yes, we can definitely do this, but I’m not sure how yet, let me call around and get back to you.”  We then called around and have made it happen. When I talked to the staff, they reported that what they’d said was “No, we can’t do that here but we’ll talk to people and see what’s possible.” Essentially, they said exactly what I said but the first word was “no” and that was all that was heard.

When people contact us, it’s often because they have a problem. When we say “no” first, then they tend to get more upset, even if the next few words are supportive, e.g. “no, not like that but like this.” We need to practice saying “yes though this way,” or–if it’s really not feasible, something like, “interesting, we would be challenged for x, y, or z reasons.”

6 Responses to “Tis a far better thing to qualify the “yes” than to expand the “no””

  1. essprit said:

    Mar 26, 09 at 3:40 am

    I have thought about this difference a lot in my first weeks in a new job. And what I’ve found is that I have a lot of work to do with some staff so a) they’ll see the value of the approach you recommend (which is what I want them to do), b) they can get better at doing this, and c) not automatically portray this strategy as a copout or an inability to say no to anything. (some folks are pretty good at this already, but as a group we need to improve). We’re also going to start practicing a little bit in the “what happens when we get urgent request X in domain Y and we need to come up with Z on a dime”.

  2. rufusb said:

    Mar 26, 09 at 7:41 am

    What if you really can’t do something. What should you say then?

  3. admin said:

    Mar 26, 09 at 2:12 pm

    Nothing is easy, is it, essprit? Also, the staff might not feel comfortable volunteering possibilities. Sometimes they’ve been discouraged from “thinking out of the box.”

    Rufus: I’m not sure what such a request would look like. I’ve had requests like “I need a terabyte of disk space tomorrow” which we couldn’t –on the face of it– accommodate, but when I asked for more information, I realized that we could meet the need because it was possible to phase the data delivery over a few months… Almost every request I’ve had we’ve been able to accommodate in some fashion. When the proposal violated security practices, we figured another, more secure (and less convenient) way. And this was ok–the need was still met. Today I got a request to host faculty elections in three weeks. I don’t think we can do this in this way. But what we can do is purchase access to a 3rd-party election hosting service over the next two weeks and plan to host them ourselves in the future…

  4. rufusb said:

    Mar 27, 09 at 7:26 am

    I assume you have control over all aspects of your IT infrastructure or, more precisely, can affect change expeditiously. I myself cannot. I am dependent upon other entities to provide some services and am at their mercy. So, when a user requests something I cannot do I have to say “I cannot do” and that’s it.

  5. Bendy said:

    Mar 27, 09 at 7:55 am

    > which we couldn’t –on the face of it– accommodate,
    > but when I asked for more information, I realized that we could

    This wisest bit of insight I gleaned from working with Admin. That, or “it’s never worth it for the food”.

    With respect to IT requests, I think people pump more half-informed jargon into their requests than IT Pros spout back in reponse. (I’m not saying IT Pros spout less jargon, only that we’re somewhat better informed.)

    We all like to sound up on the game. And it feels like being technically specific (“I need 1 TB for a meeting at 1PM”) is more helpful than being vague (“I’ve got a collaboration coming up where we need to share a lot of data”). But the opposite is often true.

  6. admin said:

    Mar 27, 09 at 5:01 pm

    Yes, it really is never worth it for the food. 🙂 thanks!

    Rufus, my answer is based more on experiences when I didn’t have complete control over the infrastructure…. I’ve been asked for things like keys to network closets, root passwords, separate email systems, etc. many of which (even if they’d been good ideas) I literally could not provide. But in all cases we were able to provide something that addressed the situation in some way….

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