The Culture of No

Today I want to talk about the Culture of No.

The Culture of No comes into play when we explain to a Customer why we can’t help them.

We are almost always polite when we tell a Customer no. We speak in calm, measured tones, with a sympathetic look on our faces, and sometimes a shrug that says “Whaddayagonnado?”

You know what? Customers don’t give a damn why we can’t do something. All they see is that we are an obstacle to getting what they need or want. And what do you do with an obstacle?

You go around it. If they have more aggressive personalities, they might ask to talk to your manager. If they think that you weren’t really listening, or you’re the second or third person that they’ve told their story to, they might even ask to talk to your department head... or, later, your corporate attorney.

Most people don’t have that kind of personality, though. Most people hang up. Then they go somewhere else. Forever. And they tell everyone on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on and on to do the same.

The Culture of No is a trap – for a business, a fatal trap. There’s only one way out: Find a way to say yes.

The Culture of Yes takes more work. You have to offer alternatives – would you prefer this, or this?, Or teach yourself to say “We probably can’t do that, but we can do this – does this work for you?”

The Culture of Yes takes creativity, and flexibility. Which is a good thing, because an inflexible person is often a corpse, and an inflexible business almost always becomes one.

Everybody Knows

Tell me if you've heard this one before: Millennials are self-entitled.

How about this one: Trump supporters are racist.

Or this one: Religious fundamentalists are poorly educated.

Depending upon your own generational, political, or religious bent, you probably feel that 'everybody knows' at least one of these statements. If not, I'm certain that we can find one that resonates, because one of the things that our hyper-pattern-aware species is terrific at is categorization. We evolved to think that when caveman Erg died after eating red berries, all red berries from that point on were suspect, and that when a patch of tall grass rustled right before Erg's wife, Yrt, got dragged off by a saber-tooth, rustling of any kind meant spears up and put the kids in the center of the circle.

'Everybody Knows', besides being one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, is useful when you have little or no control over your environment, or when you simply lack data. The problem with it as an ongoing practice for a species that has Google, tasers, and cookbooks is the same thing that was always the problem: It only applies a certain percentage of the time, and that percentage shrinks as the data set grows. When you're talking about data sets the size of half of the U.S. electorate, a generation that is now almost 50% of the population, or a major religion, the stereotypes 'everybody knows' don't apply to literally millions of people in each of those groups.

As uncomfortable as data-mining makes some people, one of its biggest advantages is that it finally makes it possible to treat each person - each Customer - as an individual. Rather than communicating offers that a given Customer may or may not be interested in via shotgun snail mail coupons, we can gather enough information - in most cases, at little or no cost - to determine exactly what will appeal to each Customer, when, and at what price point. All that it takes is effort... and a complete change to how most organizations approach marketing.

To be heard in an age when our competitors are already probably ahead of us, even how we communicate our messages has to be individualized. How many mailbox ads do you even read before you put them in the trash? Some Customers want to be told things in person, some via email, some by phone, others by text. Deciding to communicate with all Customers in just one way is just as ineffective as making no change: a large percentage will not hear you at all.

Why waste all that time and money? That's like spending all of your money on local television, newspaper, or radio ads to reach Customers who get most of their information and entertainment online.

Remember the 3 fundamentals of keeping Customers:

  • Timeliness
  • Perfection
  • Individualized experience
Customers love to tell us what they want, like us when we listen, and stay when we offer what they need.


In nearly every company that I have been privileged to work for, it has amazed me how little forethought is given to the ripples caused by major decisions - something that I take for granted. At first, I thought that it must be a cultural thing - the best leaders are the most decisive ones, right? But over the years it's become clear that few business people have any idea how to think beyond the immediate consequences of an action. In fact, many find the idea so alien that it makes them physically uncomfortable. In short, they squirm like a worm under a magnifying glass.

Doesn't anyone play chess any more? Or Monopoly?

The formal process of the 5 Why's was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motor Corporation, to find the root cause of product defects. A shortened version (the 3 Why's) was later all the rage for goal-setting and so on, but then seemed to disappear, even though the root idea is the foundation of any successful organization: constant self-examination.

However many you choose, the Why's lead you to the underlying truth of any process, issue, person, goal, and on and on. They require nothing more than a commitment to acting like the average 3-year-old. Here's an example:

  • We need a new CRM program.
  • Why?
  • Because our old CRM program doesn't help us close enough sales.
  • Why?
  • Because our sales reps don't use it.
  • Why?
  • Because we don't hold them accountable for using it.
  • Why?
  • Because we're afraid that, if we hold them accountable, they might leave.
  • Why?
  • Because we don't know how to lead them properly, and it's hard to do, and we're afraid they'll stop liking us if we do.

The wonderful thing about the question 'Why?' is that it can and always should be asked until it meets bone, because doing anything else is throwing up your hands and admitting that you aren't ready to play at the pro level, and probably never will be. 'Why?' forces you to think as much about the Law of Unintended Consequences as it does about motivation (or the lack thereof).

Here's another:

  • We're going to change this process.
  • Why?
  • Because the old process is inefficient.
  • Why?
  • Because no one has time to do it that way any more.
  • Why?
  • Because they are already spending too much time on another process that we recently changed, but which doesn't seem to be working as well as we'd hoped.
  • Why?
  • Probably because we didn't ask ourselves 'Why?' enough times before making that decision.

Besides telling you the truth, another nice thing about 'Why' is that it's inherently private; no one has to hear you talk yourself out of a bad idea. In fact, if you do it right, you're laying the ground work for rejecting other people's bad ideas by figuring out what's wrong with them (and what the real issue is) in advance.

Don't get me wrong - 'Why?' is not about finding excuses to shoot something down. Any change that is truly needed easily stands up to the scrutiny of 'Why?', plus builds its own framework on the way, no matter how departmentally locked-in things start out:

  • We're going to create and launch an expensive new marketing campaign.
  • Why?
  • Because we have a new product.
  • Why?
  • Because our research indicates that there is room and a need for it in the market.
  • Why?
  • Because it will decrease the amount of time that people have to spend cleaning up pet poop.
  • Why?
  • Because our new product instantly turns any pet poop into biodegradable fertilizer.

Really? Spend away! We're all going to be millionaires!

Remember: Business is not a game. There are sharks everywhere, always, and if you don't learn how to see around the next 3 to 5 corners in advance, you end up as fish food.

Shameless Hucksterism

'Work Iz War', the blog, has given birth to 'Work Iz War', the book, now available on Amazon.

Manager or Supervisor?

Give some thought to this:

  • Do you ever suggest-but-not-really-because-it's-more-like-you-insist that one of your direct reports hire someone?
  • Do you ever tell them that you don't want them to hire someone?

If you have ever done either of these, no matter what your direct report's title is, you have turned them into a supervisor.

A supervisor supervises daily work that is defined by someone else. A manager decides what the work is. They also have the power to hire and fire. Take that away, and they're not a manager any more. And the moment their direct reports know that - whether you want to or not - you take on being that team's manager, because they won't bother to go to the supervisor for anything any more. Why should they? You've taken all of that former manager's power away.

If you don't trust a manager to hire or fire people, you have the wrong manager. Fire them. If you don't trust anyone else to hire and fire, you've created a hierarchy with just 2 levels: you, and everyone else. There are some profound ramifications to that:

  • Your managers won't own the success or failure of their team members. Why should they? They didn't even get to decide who those team members are.
  • Your managers' direct reports will come to you whenever they get a 'no' from their manager. Congratulations! Mom said no, so now they go to dad. You've turned your organization into a dysfunctional family, just like you always dreamed about.
  • Turnover: If your managers' direct reports aren't owned by their manager, they won't get what they need. People who don't get what they need leave. And guess what? Managers who find out that they're not really managers leave, too, to go work for organizations where they can be managers. Which is most of them.

The solution: Let go! You hired managers to do what you are either bad at or don't have the bandwidth to do. Let them be managers, for Pete's sake. And if they fail, give them some encouragement and talk it through with them. If they don't improve, replace them. If they do, congratulations - you have an hierarchy that works.