Computer Says YES!

Edited excerpt from the City of Unley Community Team Newsletter (November 2014)

Anyone that’s seen the TV show Very Little Britain will remember one of their most popular skits, featuring banking consultant/travel agent Carol Beer. When approached with a reasonable request from a customer, Carol promptly punches information in her computer, turns back to the customer and replies with a dry, bored “Computer Says No”.

While it is totally hilarious, it is also rather scary when you think how much this parallels real life. Unfortunately it’s also a common perception that people have of Local Government – we hear it all the time: too much bureaucracy, red tape, and risk aversion – aka Computer Says No.

I’m sure all of us can relate to this: when you have been exploring a fabulous idea, looking for a solution to a problem or requesting assistance: only to be told no, without any logical rationale. From personal experience I regularly hear a whole variety of justification why NOT to do something, including “this is the way we’ve always done it”, “we’ve tried it before and it didn’t work”, “the system won’t let me do it”, “it’s too risky”, “what if such and such a person doesn’t like it”, “it’s not my problem”, “the form hasn’t been completed”, and so on. The problem is that, when faced with Computer Says No, most of us either just give up or accept it – it’s simply too hard.   And, it’s the same for our community too. Simply speaking, it’s just not good customer service, nor does it support a positive organisational culture.

So why mention it? It’s because change starts with us. I want us to choose our attitude and adjust our own thinking: working to turn the no’s into YES!

Before you get too excited, I’m not talking about throwing caution to the wind, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and demanding wholesale change.   Naturally there are some sound reasons why ‘no’ exists at times, ranging from legislative compliance and corporate consistency to cost restrictions and resource implications.

Instead, I am encouraging you to think about the obstacles and barriers facing you in undertaking your role, especially in providing excellent customer service and being as efficient and effective as you can be and consider a different approach of getting to yes.

Tips For When “Computer Say No” Happens To You

The best place to start is to define the problem that you are trying to solve (if you haven’t already of course), gather your facts on the topic (ie cost, budget, resourcing, community sentiment/expectations, etc) – everything you need to know before you move forward.

Then be clear about your intentions and what you are prepared to do to be a part of the solution. It’s then time to have a conversation with those who can help you get to yes. This preparation all comes in handy to clearly build a case for change – it’s a fact that people don’t know what they don’t know, so clearly stating your rationale is a good place to start.

From there, perseverance is key: be open to consider new information which may change your thinking and/or approach, be willing to explore the options, understand the consequences, broker in support from those you report to advocate and influence the decision, and accept that change generally takes time and rarely happens overnight. And again, because it is so important – persevere.

Also, sometimes these things can get personal, so the tip to avoid/overcome this is to remember focus on the problem not the person and seek to understand what the core issues are, using a good blend of empathy, mixed with eyes on the prize.

With this constructive approach, you’ll find that what starts as a firm no, can end up as a win/win and has the added a bonus of building trust and understanding.

Tips When It’s Your Computer Saying No

I also want you to think about the service you offer and when you are in No mode. This takes practice, especially to catch yourself doing it, as our response is often a reaction.

When faced with this, some questions you might wish to ask yourself are:

  • Is it really a no and why?
  • Have I taken the time to understand the problem from the other person’s perspective?
  • Are there negotiables and non negotiables and why?
  • What are risks of saying yes and can they be mitigated?
  • Are there risks of saying no, including opportunity costs I need to consider?
  • Is there a work around or another way? Are there alternatives available to reach a smart solution?
  • Can I explain my no response with clear, non-emotive logic and rationale?
  • What would it take to get from no to yes?
  • What am I doing to prevent this and why? Can I do something differently to find a solution or make this happen?

There are so many more and these are just a start, and they demonstrate to the other person, be it an internal or external customer that you have respectfully thought through the problem.

Also, my hottest of hot tips is to become a black belt of the can-do attitude. This is not so much about a straight out yes, but mastering “Yes But…” It’s a willingness to work backwards from the solution/outcome, finding ways to overcome the obstacles. For example: your manager may have a brilliant idea, but there is no budget. Instead of a no response, I’d prefer to say: Yes – let’s explore this together, noting we may need to look at what should stop to let it start or agree to consider it the following year if it is still seen as important. My service promise is a willingness to listen, consider and find out more before proceeding and go from there.

Lastly, I was enthralled to hear that another local council had recently started an internal “Red Tape Register”, where staff could provide comment on areas of perceived inefficiency for review by the CEO’s office. The originator is notified either way of the outcomes; either of changes made or reasons why it exists and even be involved in the solution. AWESOME!!!

I hope you found some inspiration in this article and feel ready to give Computer Says Yes a go. It takes practice, especially if saying or accepting no is a habit, but you will be amply rewarded for your efforts through a sense of satisfaction, the rush that innovation and achievement brings and the strengthening of relationships with your colleagues. Remember everyone can always find reasons why you can’t do something or why it won’t work, but it’s far more rewarding to think of what you can do.

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