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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Leadership Styles: My perspective on how to say no to ideas

Denise McInerny posed the following question on the PASS Election Discussion Board, and I have posted my answer here:

PASS has a lot of passionate and creative people with many good ideas. Like all organizations we have finite resources, which means we can't do everything we want to do.One of the hardest things about being on the Board is saying "no" to a good idea. How would you approach that aspect of the job?

Let me give you an example recently where an email precipitated a huge and very heated community debate - the closure of the MCM program. Although I was not part of the decision-making at all, I was part of the process of the communication around the closure of the MCM Program because I chaired a conference call between Microsoft and the MCM community. For some reason, the Register obtained a copy of it without my knowledge, but it was supposed to be restricted to the MCM community.

In order to understand more about why the decision to close the MCM happened and to facilitate conversation and discussion between the community and Microsoft, I opened a Connect case, which ended up being the highest-voted SQL Server connect case with over a staggering 800 upvotes.
By opening a Connect case, I opened a two-way conversation which, unfortunately, ended up turning sour as people vented a very personal series of criticism on individual community members, which I will not deign to repeat here. Due to this, the Connect case was closed, unfortunately, since the Case was being dragged around by a tiny but extremely vocal minority who felt a Connect case was an appropriate forum to make personal and wholly unfounded criticisms of people who worked at Microsoft, or were attached to the Community in some way.

I then worked with Microsoft in order to host a conference call with the MCM community, whom I deeply respect. Despite the presence of the trolls on the Connect case, it was clear that there were a number of extremely smart engaged people, who had great ideas about the way forward for the MCM program and for MSL in particular. This was in despite of their huge personal disappointment at the closure of the program, which many had spent a lot of money, time and effort in participating.

I chaired the call between the MCM community and Microsoft, collating questions over a number of days and distilling them into a number of common themes due to the repetition of some questions.

Although the call did not produce the outcome that many wanted, it was at least a way forward for facilitating communication between Microsoft and the MCM community in a more formal environment, which reduced the heat of the Connect case which had been hijacked by trolls. It at least gave a voice to the MCM people who really deserved it, and had great questions and comments about the MCM closure decision, and plans for the way forward.

To summarise, this is an example where I've played a part in trying to resolve a very heated community situation, through communication, active participation in the community, and an absolute belief that the good hearts and best minds in the community deserved a hearing, as well as allowing Microsoft to have a say. Incidentally I'd like to thank Tim Sneath and his team for his time for making the time and facilities available to make the communication happen. I also found a way forward to deal with the trolls who were hijacking the normal means of communication i.e. by comments fired to a Connect case.

It was one of these situations where people deserved more than an email, and I think it was right to make it happen. I think that a 'copy and paste' email misses the point somewhat, since it does not seem to echo the idea of listening to the individual(s), or taking them seriously. Getting a somewhat modified template answer just doesn't seem to fit with the energy that people have put into bringing an idea to you.

Saying no can be hard, but if you can clarify 'why not', then it can help to reach a common ground between yourself and the community. Sometimes what you mean is 'not yet'. Communication, and fair communication which isn't one-sided (like an email) isn't the way forward.

In my experience, it is too easy to email, and much harder to pick up the phone or do in-person - but the effort can be worth it. It can come across as disrespectful, even. Also, if it is a bad idea that morphs into a good idea after discussion, it is important to give credit where it is due.

I propose that sometimes picking up the phone, or a proper conference call, might be the way forward. It depends on lots of factors, such as the range of the idea, numbers affected, how the idea generators might take it, and so on.

Whilst it is important not to get dragged around by a vocal minority, sometimes a simple conversation is all that it takes, and in today's connected world, there is no excuse not to do that.
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