We Need To Learn The Power Of No Within Innovation

Saying no is a vital part of any successful innovation


The word innovation has some connotations for those not working in it. Think bean bag littered floors, hacky sacks, synergy, blue sky thinking, moonshots etc, and that’s the world in which many believe innovation exists. Part of this is the consideration of any idea, regardless of how ridiculous, with the perception being that these companies waste millions on ultimately fruitless and pointless ideas. However, this perception of companies as wasteful dreamers is simply ignoring the power of saying no.

The most innovative companies in the world realize the importance of saying no, not only to poor projects, but across the entire innovation spectrum.

Firstly, it is worth discussing the importance of saying no to ideas that simply aren’t working. For instance, a high profile project that was shut down after it was seen to be unviable is the Google SkyBender program, which aimed to use drones to deliver 5G internet connectivity. The idea behind the project was to use solar powered drones that could run for several days in order to provide a reliable and fast connection. However, after the initial excitement around the project it was found that it simply wasn’t viable, so Google pulled the plug.

This may sound like a negative move, but instead this ‘no’ allowed some of the team to move onto a separate project called Loon, which had the same goal, but used balloons to deliver the connectivity rather than solar drones. It was a more feasible and realistic project that allowed for more or less the same end result. Through saying no to SkyBender, it allowed those working on the project to use their expertise on Loon and Wing (another drone based project), saved the company money on this project, and meant that the other projects were more likely to succeed.

However, it is not only in closing down projects that the power of no comes to the fore.

Often, innovation projects can drag on and the initial great idea becomes watered down as the difficulty of it becomes apparent to those who initially came up with the idea. Corners are then cut and the final project is presented in a way that isn’t necessarily as good as it could potentially be. It is then the responsibility of senior managers to say no to it, that it needs to be done to the best of their abilities rather than rushed through to market. We have seen with Samsung’s abject failure with their fire-starting Note 7 phones and subsequent two separate recalls, that products that are released either too early or without adequate testing can have hugely negative consequences.

It is also the power of no in these kind of situations that allow the truly groundbreaking products to be created. If you consider how the first iPhone was created and the vision that Steve Jobs had for it, he needed to say no to sub-par construction and features until it got to the level that he had originally envisioned. According to Executive Style, Steve Jobs was ‘a "high-maintenance co-worker" who demanded excellence from his staff and was known for his blunt delivery of criticism.’ What set him apart, and something that the power of no demands, is the ability to clearly, concisely, and accurately describe what he wanted. It meant that when people came to him with a product that he knew could be better, he could explain to them why he was rejecting it and exactly what they needed to do to get it to the level he required.

It is not only from managers who need to say no to projects that aren’t at the standard they need to be though, it needs to be used throughout the organization to be truly effective. Those working within teams need to consider the importance of it when asked to undertake a task. Are you saying yes just to please somebody now, only to disappoint them down the road because you’ve agreed to something that is impossible to fulfil? Management expectation is one of the most important elements of innovation and without it projects can quickly fall apart.

When working on a single element of a larger project, for instance, it is easy to say that you will have it completed by a certain time to make sure you are keeping the other teams within the project happy at the time, but it can destroy a project and cause huge frustration when something is over-promised and under-delivered. Instead, it is often the best idea to say that you can’t say whether you can deliver on a project until you know for certain that you can, or to simply say no to one deadline and yes to another, to give the amount of time you know you need to complete the task.

Approaching innovation projects in this way, where saying no to certain things is promoted where appropriate, increases transparency, honesty, and will ultimately lead to a better product and better team harmony.

As yet, we haven’t touched on the single biggest use of no innovation, though, which is simply the ability to say no to existing practices, the way things are currently done, and the processes that we use to achieve something. This is central to the most important innovations - Uber said no to the traditional way of flagging down taxis, Google said no to the way that people searched the internet, and Amazon said no to the way that people shopped online. Without this rejection of the norms, three of the world’s biggest companies wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

Saying no is about finding the things to reject that will have the biggest impact. Tesla are currently saying no to the traditional way of powering cars and they briefly became more valuable than Ford, for instance. It is easy to say yes to everything and is something that many look at as good innovation practice, but it isn’t until you can say no to the right things in the right way that you will begin to see the real positive impacts. 

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