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The Power of... "No"

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ClientSide News Magazine picture In the localization business, missed deadlines, exploding budgets, and mediocre quality all belong in the same category as root canals and tax audits—you don’t wish such ills even on your worst enemy (either because you’re a nice, decent person or because you’ve learned that evil forces can easily turn against those who invoke them). So how is it possible that seasoned professionals regularly engage in localization projects that they know are bound to suffer from one or more of these ailments?

We’re not talking about rookies, here, who blissfully ask translators to churn out six thousand words per day at four cents a pop (the absurdity of which is lost on them). No, we’re talking about experienced localization professionals—whether they be clients, vendors, managers, or team members—who willingly ignore their personal alarm bells and red flags to endorse doomed projects. Why do they do it?

Although one might argue that the pursuit of a localization career implies a certain taste for suffering, it would be ludicrous to claim that this industry harbors an above-average concentration of masochists. Instead, the answer is that too many localization players are reluctant to use a word that, in spite of its minimal size, carries an amazing amount of power: no.


No one but the project manager is placed more prominently to judge whether a localization project is likely to succeed. Yet, project managers frequently find themselves at the top of the offender list when it comes to over-committing. The root cause for this behavior could be called “superhero syndrome.”

There’s nothing more gratifying for a project manager than to be recognized for successfully delivering a seemingly impossible project under the most adverse conditions. So great is the feeling, it takes an inordinate amount of self control to give up the superhero cape once this feat is accomplished. Why hide your super powers behind civilian clothes when they can be permanently submitted for the admiration of your managers and peers?

The problem with super powers is that they wear out the wielder; they are only meant to be unleashed in exceptional situations. Although admirable in many respects, a continuous do-whatever-it-takes attitude invariably results in a piling up of unreasonable demands and a relentless quest for the breaking point. Regardless of how strong you and your team are, the twelve-hour days, the weekends, and—admit it—the cutting of corners are all bound to strike back with a vengeance; it’s just a matter of time.

Too many project managers forget that their competency is not defined by the amount of relief and gratitude they obtain for answering “yes” to a request. The only path to project management stardom is to always deliver quality, on time and within budget. Project plans that rely on extreme measures and high doses of luck can only reduce your chances of ever achieving this goal; such plans should be rejected.


As a translator, editor, desktop publisher, graphics specialist, tester, or engineer, you might find yourself only remotely concerned with the grand scheme of things. After all, if somebody higher up in the food chain is clueless enough to expect the impossible, it’s their problem not yours.

And to the resounding “no” that you used so effectively in early childhood, you now prefer the slightly rebellious and less risky “whatever” of your teenage years. You know when a request is unreasonable, but you’re eager to prove you’re a good team member.

And who knows, if you keep your nose to the grindstone, things might actually work out this time. Of course, it’s much more likely that reality will strike, and gnashing teeth and pointing fingers will undoubtedly follow. But as always, the dust will settle, and your job—although somewhat frustrating—will be safe.

The truth is, you carry much more responsibility for this situation than you think. The clueless manager won’t get smarter if all you do is acquiesce; neither will you get much attention with a feeble “yes, but…” or “maybe.” The blaming game won’t stop as long as the work is not delivered as planned, which won’t happen if the plan is flawed in the first place. The frustrating job won’t get more interesting if you never put yourself in a position to shine.

Keep in mind that accepting an impossible task is by no means the best way to hang on to a job: a lot more people get fired for not delivering what they promised than for not promising to deliver.


Managers (and clients) sometimes act as if their performance is measured by their ability to coerce vendors, contractors, or staff members into accepting their terms. This attitude fails to recognize that the success of the project depends on the success of every party involved, and that failure, for one, means failure for all, whether directly responsible or not.

The other interesting thing with a management position is that you are not limited to a “yes” or a “no” when confronted with an unreasonable request. You can also choose the sideline and “pass the bucket” to your direct reports, making sure to stress that “my boss really wants this,” and then handing back to your manager a cautious “my team tells me they can do it.” As tempting as it might seem, this approach will neither earn you respect nor job-safety, because ultimately, you remain responsible for the outcome anyway.

The power of “no” grows proportionately with the level of authority. It is your role as a manager or client to use it when necessary to protect your resources and co-workers from guaranteed disaster. Don’t view your food chain. See it, instead, as the privilege to have bigger arguments with your boss.


Finally, if you are a vendor, I’m sure you’ll agree that some of us would be better inspired than to make impossible-to-keep promises to our prospects or clients. Only short-term thinking can lead to the belief that you can build a durable client relation by signing a contract that you pertinently know will experience some “unexpected adjustments” after closing.

As localization vendors, we are the collective keepers of the skills and experience this industry has to offer. When faced with clients or prospects who clearly do not understand the contradictions or deficiencies of their requests, our first role must be to explain and educate, not to acquiesce and take our customers to project hell, with a faint hope of retaining a profit or a client.


It is fair game for managers or clients to push for the fastest and cheapest solutions, just as is it fair game for the solicited individuals, teams, or vendors to protect their margin of error and their ability to deliver successfully. The only effective approach to reconciling these conflicting positions, and maximizing the probability of a project’s success, is negotiation, not capitulation.

In the discussions defining a project plan, there is no shame or offense in saying “no.” Indeed, it is the only effective word to signal your need to negotiate. There is no reason to fear that “no” might end the conversation. On the contrary, when it comes to agreeing on a task to be performed, the real conversation stopper is “yes.” In fact, you should be aware that any word pronounced after “yes” is likely heard by the requestor as “blah.”

On the other hand, “no” is the key to having your concerns and ideas heard and discussed. “No” opens the conversation to debating the pros and cons of possible alternatives, to finding the compromise that puts your concerns to rest and that eventually deserves your “yes.”

Significantly fewer localization projects would go haywire if every person involved traded their “yes, but …” and “maybe” for a resounding “NO!” every time their experience, gut feel, or ethics told them to.

When is the last time you said it?



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