by Leon Rosenshein

The Power Of No

A long time ago I read a story by Eric Frank Russell, And Then There Were None. On the surface it’s a typical re-contact story. There was a great diaspora during which hundreds or thousands of interstellar ships left Earth to start new colonies. Shortly afterward, something happened, and contact was lost with all of them. Now, four hundred years later, the people or Earth are trying to reconnect with those colonies.

Without going in to too much detail, the ship (it’s never named) lands on planet K22g and the ambassador on board tries to find the folks in charge. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to do that. It turns out that the people who colonized the planet are followers of Gandhi approach to society and have turned civil disobedience and barter into their social system. In the story, two phrases that keep coming up and seem to define their society are F:IW and myob. It takes a while for the new arrivals to figure out that they are shorthand for “Freedom: I Won’t” and “mind your own business”. Those two phrases have a pretty strong impact on the more authoritarian, hierarchical, society represented by the ship’s crew.

There are lots of reasons why that social and economic system might not work at scale, and the story uses a bit of hyperbole to make it’s point, but who knows. It could work at small scale, like within a small community. It’s a pretty short story and it’s interesting to think about how such a society might actually work in the larger context.

You might be wondering how this relates to software development. After all, you can’t just tell your boss to “myob” or just say “I won’t” when you get a request. Or at least you can’t do that and expect there to not be any consequences.

It does, however, point out the power of politely saying “No” or “I’m responsible for that, and I think …”, and that’s where the connection is.

Just because someone asks you to do something, it doesn’t mean you should just drop everything and do it. Or try to do it in addition to whatever else you’re trying to do. That doesn’t work. It’s not scalable, it hurts quality. It slows things down and it keeps things from getting done. That doesn’t mean you should just say no and ignore the request. It just means you need to think about it and make sure you understand the impact of fulfilling the request.

Similarly, just saying “myob” when someone makes a request or suggestion isn’t the way to work with others. But you also shouldn’t just blindly take someone’s advice or let them set priorities or importance. You need to understand the “why” behind it. Once you understand the why, you can evaluate the statement and decide if it makes sense, would make things worse, or if there’s a better way to get the desired result. And again, you can’t do everything, so you should have the discussion if it’s the right thing to do.

Really, what they both come down to is realizing you’re responsible for what you do (and don’t do) and that you need to think about the value you’re providing. Not just immediately, but medium and long term as well. Saying “I Won’t”, when it’s appropriate, and with the proper understanding and justification, can give you the freedom to do the things that need to be done.

Saying “myob” or something like “Thanks for the advice. As the person/team responsible for doing X, here are a few things you may not have thought of.” is also very powerful. It can start the conversation around what’s important, what’s not, and why. When everyone understands that, the group makes better decisions together.

I’m not suggesting you respond to every request with “F:IW” or “myob”, but make sure you think about what the end result of giving a respectful version of those responses would be.