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When to say yes and when to say no

Colleen Magner
May, 2015


If you’re anything like me, you are frequently having conversations with your network about what you could work on together. I get a number of requests every month to discuss a particular idea or project or problem, and I struggle to say no because the invitations sound so compelling. There are quite a few coffee shops around our office, and I’m a regular customer of all of them. I find meeting in a busy space over a cup of coffee encourages a more open creative conversation than the familiar workspaces.

Although I have many of these conversations, few lead to the start of a new project. The decision about whether an initiative or project will go ahead often depends on things outside of the conversation – timing, funding, people.

When I meet someone who has contacted Reos for the first time because they want to explore working with us, there’s some ground to cover in the conversation. There is a delicate dance as we both assess if the conditions exist that would make the Reos approach a helpful response. In those initial interactions it’s a bit like dating, or deciding whether to move or start a family. The conversation takes time and many factors have to feel right. Over the many conversations, and the cups of coffee, I’ve learnt the critical factors that will help me filter out the ‘yes’s’ from the ‘no’s’.

The first is, is this person willing and able to stick their neck out and take some risks, and convince others to do so? All of these initiatives start with an acknowledgement that there’s a problem, and that there are not yet obvious solutions. But in my experience, the process of addressing the problematic situation requires the letting go of assumptions (what we think we know about the problem and possible solutions) and the willingness to explore the unknown. Can the person or organisation ask ‘what can we learn from others and ourselves about this problem?’ Can they do that through a structured process with people representing different and often competing interests for a period of time?

The second thing to explore seems almost contradictory to the first. Does the person have a good understanding and experience of the issue at hand? Even though they might be willing to let go of current approaches, these processes require participation from people who are part of the system of exploration. They must be deeply embedded and invested in the issue.

And thirdly, is there enough acknowledgement of this problem by others? Particularly by other organisations/sectors that are necessary to include in finding alternative ways forward. If the current situation is acceptable to most, or people with power are benefiting from the situation, then there’s little chance of changing the situation at a systemic level. Not everyone needs to agree on the particular problem – mostly people see different problems. But is there acknowledgement of a problematic situation?

This assessment sometimes takes time, and isn’t obvious. We’re currently working on a project about land reform. The decision to run this process has slowly evolved over two years of coffee and robust conversation about these subtle, but critical, conditions before we could start to talk about funding, timing and resources. We were jointly able to initiate the project because we had taken the time to explore the willingness by a number of different organisations to try something new, our client’s experience of and investment in the subject, and whether their sense of urgency about the issue was shared by others who hold power and influence. The project is now underway and is more coherent as a result of laying these important foundations. In the long run, it’s important to work out what existing conditions your approach needs before you can say yes or no.

This article is part of a series "Moving Through Tough Terrain".

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