How Saying ‘No’ Strengthens Your Strategy

By Mike Figliuolo

We’ve already talked about what a strategic plan is (and isn’t) in our discussion: “Strategic Planning: ‘Budget +10 Percent Isn’t a Strategy’.” 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 Paper). 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 three to five most critical initiatives to help you achieve your goal.
  • There are a substantial number of “cool” opportunities you could pursue in addition to those three to five 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 that 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 is the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC — a leadership development firm. An honor graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog, read the full original post here.
Originally published: Sep 20, 2011

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