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3 Ways to Say 'No' to Your Colleagues

Educating experienced line managers about how customers' preferences are changing, and then helping them make decisions based on that, often requires disagreement

Functional professionals in a big business – those that work in HR, IT, Finance, Procurement, Marketing, and so on – always have to tread a fine line between between being a service and taking orders like a waiter in a restaurant, and being an advisor and helping line managers come to the “right” decision.

Unless they’re incredibly new to their role, line managers will nearly always have a better understanding of customers and the operations of their part of the business than functional staff, which means when they have an urgent request, it’s sometimes better just to take the order and provide the result.

But, at other times, line managers may want to take decisions functional managers know won’t be successful – they may, for example, have an idea for a marketing campaign that a marketer knows from experience won’t be successful, or they may want to procure a piece of technology that an IT professional knows won’t work well with the company’s existing systems. On top of that, line managers can also get understandably caught up in their own goals and not realize how or why their idea, decision, or request may be counter to corporate strategy, or may even undermine progress in another part of the business.

Functional teams have – or at least should have – the requisite knowledge, experience and breadth of view across an organization to be able to push  back on line managers’ requests and help them rethink decisions when they are pursuing the wrong path.

Market Insights and Pushing Back

For market insights teams, whose job it is to help line managers understand their customers and, crucially, help them take better decisions based on that understanding, striking this balance is routine.

In an ideal world, every project request that landed on the market insights desk would be based on work that helped line managers progress towards a strategic business objective and every assumption they made about customers would be one that tallies with Market Insights’ research. But given that not always the reality, the ability to push back on business partners is an invaluable skill.

In fact, if market insights professionals are doing their jobs right, they should be spending a lot of time saying “no.” A Harvard Business Review post called “Nine Practices to Help You Say No” has many tips that are relevant for overextended MI functions. Three stand out in particular.

  1. “Know your no”: Be familiar with your limits and know where you want, and don’t want, to spend your time. One big pharma firm in CEB’s network of market insight teams clarifies the MI team’s focus on questions that will support brand growth to ensure everyone is on the same page about business priorities.

  2. “Explain why”: It’s important to provide a reason for your “no.” The MI team at a manufacturer of large engines, and agricultural and construction machinery collaborates with business partners using a project prioritization scorecard to create transparency and clearly communicate prioritization criteria to them.

  3. “Establish a pre-emptive no”: Sometimes it’s easier to say no before you’re even asked. Especially when it comes to correcting overconfidence or misperceptions, MI needs to be proactive. Some of the more forward-thinking teams “engineer learning moments” that create insecurity among executives about the validity of what they “know,” and then re-build that knowledge.

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