How to Say "No" When Asked for Help

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Collaboration among team members is what makes agile software development both effective and fun. Being part of a team means not only helping others so that the team makes progress but also asking for help when you need it so that you don’t block the team for too long. As simple as this sounds, it can be challenging to ask for and provide help.

We often want to be helpful, so we sometimes say yes to requests, turning a blind eye to the effect that another yes has on our contribution to the team’s goals. Saying yes to too many requests leads to multitasking which, although it might make us feel better, will hurt our performance.

To be effective, we need to limit work in progress and have some slack in our schedule. Remember that 100 percent utiilization doesn’t work for people. The simple way to do this is by addressing requests with a yes or no, but that can be difficult

Admitting that you can’t help is hard. HBR blogger Peter Bregman offers nine practices to help you say no. In particular, it’s key to remember that you’re saying no to the request—not the person. When someone on your team asks for help that will involve more than a trivial amount of effort, consider how the request and what you are currently working on align with the team’s goals. Your choice is often to say no or to put off what you are working on until the team is no longer blocked.

After thinking about how to say no, it’s important to not be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Asking for help is hard because we often fear that we’re taking advantage of people, and we understand the risks of overcommitting. But often people want to help.

In musician Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk, "The Art of Asking," she describes how she transferred what she learned from her time as a living statue into how to ask fans for support—and how she realized that people wanted to help.

Palmer notes that tools (such as Kickstarter) can make asking for and getting help easier. However, tools won’t work unless we learn to communicate with, connect with, and trust each other. Creating an issue in your tracking system can be a way to get help, but asking at your team’s daily standup is much better.

If everyone on your team has a common understanding of your goals and you maintain communication, it’s possible to manage the challenges of how best to help each other without either feeling neglected or taken advantage of. But you can’t take this for granted.

How do you manage requests for help on your projects? How long do you wait before asking for help when you need it? Let me know in the Comment section below.

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.