How Saying “NO” Strengthens Your Strategy

No Written in Spray PaintWe’ve already talked about what a strategic plan is (and isn’t) in our discussion: “strat plan isn’t ‘budget +10%.'” Hopefully now that you’ve got a direction mapped out and a list of initiatives you’re going to pursue, you’re ready for a little tactical strategic advice (yes that phrase is supposed to sound oxymoronic but it’s actually deliberate and accurate).

Repeat after me: “No.”

Try it again. This time with conviction: “NO.”

Strategy is inherently about saying “no.” It’s about the choices we make and the choices we don’t. I’ve seen plenty of strategies completely derailed due to an inability to say “no” to that incremental initiative that’s kind of “on strategy” but not really.

Good strategists are great at leading the thinking (and I believe leading the thinking is so critical to leadership that it has its own entire section in my book One Piece of Paperclick here to get your copy).  As a leader, your job is to lead the thought processes and strategic efforts of your team.  That requires you to invest time in thinking about your strategy.

The more effective you are at saying “no” to non-core work and singularly focusing your team on the end vision you’ve laid out, the higher the likelihood of you achieving your strategic goals. Not saying “no,” on the other hand, leads to dilution of your efforts and strategy by incrementalism (which is rarely effective).

Let’s walk this logical strategic dog, shall we? Take the following points as true:

  • You know where you want to end up and what your overarching strategy is
  • You have a finite amount of resources at your disposal.
  • You’ve defined the 3-5 most critical initiatives to help you achieve your goal.
  • There are a substantial number of “cool” opportunities you could pursue in addition to those 3-5 you’ve already identified.

The last point is where things get hairy.

Our resources are always strapped. Adding work to their plate beyond normal “surges” in workload is self-defeating in the long run because you’ll run your team into the ground. That’s why a focused set of initiatives is critical.

Additionally, in increasingly distributed work networks, having a focused set of initiatives helps ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction thereby increasing your odds of success.

Here’s how things can go horribly awry. Say you have a strategy of offering a premier grocery retailing experience (sort of like Whole Foods). The four major initiatives you’re going to pursue are:

  • Best product offering (i.e., no private label cheap imitation Doritos here… only the best… Spicy Nacho baby!)
  • Superior staff quality (highly trained; outstanding customer service)
  • Be a destination (high quality prepared foods; wine tastings; dining areas)
  • Ambiance (music, lighting, store layout, decorating – all top notch)

Seems like a reasonable list of areas to pursue. Combine all of them successfully and cost effectively and there’s a high likelihood of achieving your strategy (presuming your market segmentation is right to begin with and there’s a market for what you’re selling).

This is where saying “no” comes into play. Billy Jack the technology vendor just pitched you a cool new scanning device for doing inventory. Fletus McGillicuddy in Purchasing has some great supply chain ideas after returning from a lean manufacturing training. Doris Delaney wants to launch a cool new website for delivering coupons to customers. All of these folks have done business cases showing these initiatives are NPV-positive.

What do you do?

“NO.” Not a single one of these is on the core path you’ve laid out above. Their link to any of your major strategic initiatives is specious at best. They all sound great but they will be dilutive to your core efforts. Your choices are:

  • dilute your main initiatives and divert resources to these new ideas
  • crush your team and just add these to their plate (which has the same effect as the previous point)
  • add resources to go pursue them or
  • say “no” and stay focused on the strategy you worked so hard to articulate

I’m choosing “no.” I can’t emphasize enough the need to stay focused and ignore distractions.

Good strategic execution is about making smart choices and decisions. Not saying “no” means you’re either easily distracted, indecisive, or not willing to make the difficult calls. Give “no” a try sometime because by doing so you’re implicitly saying “yes” to the initiatives you’ve already chosen.

– Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC
– Grab a presale copy of my upcoming book One Piece of Paper. CLICK HERE to get yours!

Photo: JUST SAY NO by marc falardeau

5 Responses to “How Saying “NO” Strengthens Your Strategy”

  1. Duane Penzien says:

    Mike, that is a great reminder. There are always people with ideas that don’t fit in your vision trying to dilute your resources and attention. A lot of corporate folks have been conditioned that saying NO is somehow a bad thing, when in reality it can be one of the most powerful tools we have to stay focused on a goal.

    • Christine says:

      Mike, you’ve written this so very concisely. I would only add that “no” is not a reflection that an idea is great or not…as you stated, it is the appropriate response if the ‘idea’ doesn’t meet pre-defined strategic or financial criteria/focus. I run into this issue frequently when optimizing marketing plans which need to generate the greatest impact with the least amount of risk and operational strain. However, with that being said, there’s a careful balance which leadership should also manage; Maintaining focus wihile inspiring continued innovation and passion to deliver a sustainable growth plan. Hence, this is what separates effective leaders from those who are less effective.

  2. Steve Barry says:

    Totally agree. One thing I’d add is that people are generally OK with hearing ‘no’ to their good ideas IF (and only if) they understand the longer term strategy. Which requires a lot of extra communication … but is critical.

  3. I agree to your point. Many a times, not saying no and saying yes to everything, spoils all the yess. Resources and your energy is limited. You try everything and you can mess up everything. You try something, stick to it and finish it well.

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