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  • Writer's pictureJohn Clapham

Say No Bingo

Updated: Jul 10

“Say no bingo” is a simple exercise which encourages teams to notice and challenge ways of thinking that limit their performance and potential.

The format works well for team coaching in person and remotely, and for agile retrospectives.

The premise is simple, centering the conversation around common reasons people give for saying ‘no’, particularly to suggestions for continuous improvement and change.

This provides insight into the intangible environment, what people have heard and absorbed from working with the organisation, barely noticeable pervasive phrases which shape decisions and restrict options.

Quite often though, the no’s aren’t immovable and the reasons aren’t as strongly connected to the no as you might think.

A valid reason or a limiting belief?

In coaching Limiting beliefs are ‘rules’ (or very strong preferences) that people hold and act upon, even if doing so is detrimental in some situations. I use the term Organisational Limiting Beliefs to refer to similarly strongly held beliefs about an organisation or team. The distinction is that rather than being personal, organisational limiting beliefs are active in the work environment, dwelling in corporate culture, they are shared by colleagues and quickly influence new starts.

"We have too many meetings" can be a sign of an unchallenged organisational limiting belief. The response is generally a shrug and attendance of the meeting, rather than taking decisive steps to reduce volume, duration or improve effectiveness.

Common examples of beliefs surfaced as a no response include: “No, the regulator won’t let us”. “We can’t hire good people here”, “We don’t have time for testing“, “That’s not agile”.

Hold up, I’ve read 1984, I know where this leads.

There is an important distinction here, this is definitely not about banning words and phrases, or saying ‘yes’ and then doing something different. Candour is still incredibly important.

The idea is to use ‘No’ type responses as a cue for collaborative, exploratory conversion, to look for ways to progress, rather than just accepting and acting as if they are always true. We are also interested in situations where the ‘no’ and the reason given are mis-aligned, in other words the presenting reason is not the actual reason, often it is superimposed or disguised as the opinion of another party, such as a senior person or governance group.

How To Play

Firstly if you, or the group you are working with, are not keen on the term 'limiting beliefs' then exchange it for something more amenable, like ’reasons for no’, or don’t even mention the thinking behind the exercise. Starting the conversation in an inclusive and engaging way is far more important than fancy terms.

Step 1 - Surface

Goal: Create individual lists of common reasons for saying no.

Ask the room to silently write four of the most common phrases for saying “no” or stalling in the organisation.

Each ‘no’ reason should be written on an individual post-it.

  • Stalling counts because it is a kind of ‘long no’, often masking decision avoidance.

  • We are looking for examples of spoken or written reasons, not guesses about what people are thinking.

  • Write what comes, don’t judge or analyse - it’s about what you commonly hear, in fact people might understand and agree with the reason.

  • Keep the space safe, depending on the group it might be prudent to keep refusals anonymous where possible. For instance name a function rather than person.

Step 2: Share

Goal: Share experiences, raise awareness, find common reasons.

invite someone to start by sharing a reason for saying no and give a brief explanation.

Anyone who has a similar reason should shout ‘bingo’, indicating that the reason resonates.

Put the reason in the centre of the table or board, cluster resonating reasons around it, with explanations when useful.

Repeat until all reasons are shared.

  • I wouldn’t recommend delving too much into ‘why’ the reason exists. As solution focus practitioners like to say - it’s better to be expert in the solution than the problem.

This alone is a useful exercise for raising awareness, offering a glimpse into obstacles other team members are facing. Some maybe frustrated by a 'no' while others understand and think it's valid, discussion helps build empathy and appreciation for other teams challenges.

This section also offers insight into how people perceive interactions with colleagues, a hard ‘no’ to some may be considered negotiable by others.

Step 3: Prioritise

Goals: Use time wisely, choose which beliefs to work with

There may be too many beliefs to discuss in this session, so it’s wise to prioritise. There are plenty of options for this, so let the group decide what’s important to them.

One approach is to consider the team’s goals and mark each for:

  • Impact on the team

  • Likelihood - How likely is the response to effect work in future.

  • Autonomy - an indication of the team's ability to influence the area.

For impact consider outcome dimensions such as flow, cost and quality, as well as people aspects like frustration,safety and engagement.

Step 4: Plan

Goal: Create clear next steps for how to improve

By this stage we have an idea of what kind of requests people are being told ‘no’ to, which are most important, and the presenting reasons.

The team should now figure out what to do when these reasons are encountered. The conversations are seldom schedulable, so participants often think more in terms of preparation and toolkits. There are many coaching approaches to this, three I've seen emerge are enquiry, change and exceptions.

Enquiry aims to explore reasons and encourage a more dialogic approach, it starts with noticing the use of a convenient soundbite, and encouraging scrutiny.

Is that always the case?

How do we know that?

When did this last happen?

Narrative change aims to stop defeating reasons circulating. It is a proactive change and communication exercise, similar to company vision and value initiatives. If, when working in government, we are constantly hearing “No, that would be a waste of tax payer’s money” we might encourage more thought by promoting a phrase like “Be sure we are investing taxpayers money wisely”.

Exceptions focuses on what can be learnt by asking the group “When is the answer yes?” For each ‘no’ circumstance look for an instance when there has been a positive, or slightly in the right direction, response. Chances are there is something useful to learn and build upon; Is it about who asks, when or how?

Closing Thoughts

The format suits different duration's from warm-up to workshop, with longer duration's allowing deeper exploration and improved action planning. It provides a nice segue into exploration of narrative and stories told within the organisation, and how you'd like them to be. Like any good coaching prompt there are many productive directions for the conversation and the coach or facilitator should tailor to the group’s relationships, mood and mission. Do let me know if you try it, I welcome any thoughts or suggestions.


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