We live in a culture of “yes.” We don’t want to disappoint our bosses, colleagues, families, or friends, so we say “yes” as often as we can manage. Oftentimes, we say “yes” when we should say “no.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please. In fact, we’re hardwired for it. But when we overcommit ourselves, we spend our time checking things off a list rather than actually creating value.
This problem has ramped up in recent years as likability has become a key determinant in landing jobs and other professional opportunities. But here’s the trouble with having a corporate culture built around likability: When people are afraid to turn down noncritical projects, good ideas get smothered. Without the ability to say “no” to low-level tasks in order to say “yes” to groundbreaking ones, people stop innovating.
This misuse of talent is rampant in large organizations today.
Frequently, when I speak at a company with a strong “yes” culture, I ask the employees to close their eyes and raise their hands if they are currently working on a project that they don’t believe will be successful — something they don’t believe will accomplish its goals. Every time, a majority of the hands go up. Of course, they don’t raise them high: They know it’s not a good idea to express this opinion, but they feel so strongly about it that they feel it necessary to say something.
Every company is in a value race. Not only do you have to create value for your customers, but you also have to do it before someone else does. Doing so requires the ability to say “yes” to truly great ideas — and, more importantly, to say “no” to all those good ideas that just aren’t good enough.
Here’s how to cultivate that mindset in your organization:
1. Establish a value assessment system.
Instead of saying “yes” or “no” to a project, rate all new initiatives on a scale of 1 to 10. Ask each department to create a list of criteria for scoring new opportunities. These might include costs, how many customers will be affected, and how much revenue it will generate. The next time an executive asks the team to change course, it can be measured against these criteria.
I worked with a software development company in which the CEO came up with a new product feature on a weekly basis. His staff was overwhelmed by all the requests and didn’t know how to weigh them against what they were hearing from customers. So they developed a value assessment with the CEO’s input and ran all new requests through the tool. This helped them not only prioritize the value of requests, but also see which feature suggestions were not going to bring enough value to the organization.
Everyone has his or her pet projects or biases toward what matters. A value assessment removes subjectivity from the decision-making process and helps whole teams agree on which projects rank as an eight, nine, or 10 for the department.
2. Pay attention to warning signs.
In 2005, ”Frontline” introduced Americans to the PlayPump. A well-intentioned inventor designed a product to address the fact that many poor Africans have to pump their water by hand, a strenuous and time-consuming process. The inventor created a new kind of pump, one that was powered by children playing on a merry-go-round-like device. People were enamored with the idea and donated millions of dollars to install 4,000 of these merry-go-round pumps in African villages.
Unfortunately, the pumps were a disaster. They were inefficient and difficult for adults to use — and, of course, the adults were the primary operators because the kids got tired of using the equipment after about 15 minutes. In all the hype, no one had spent time observing villagers actually using the solution before they scaled it to thousands of communities. Had they conducted such an early experiment, they would have quickly learned the pivot indicators of the project and had time to make adjustments.
Perhaps you haven’t experienced a catastrophe on PlayPump’s level, but you’ve likely invested time and money on ideas that didn’t work. Just because an idea sounds good or makes you feel inspired doesn’t mean it will translate to the real world.
Pivot indicators help ensure your idea will succeed by tracking metrics that answer two questions: When will we know if this doesn’t work, and how will we know? PlayPump’s downfall lay in its failure to measure by those metrics, leading them to run headfirst toward catastrophe. Had the team waited for an outside study to measure the effectiveness of the system, or even implemented on a smaller scale before installing 4,000 units, those signposts for failure would have been impossible to ignore.
As with PlayPump, most organizations measure only success metrics — numbers that tell them they did well: how much money was raised, how many pumps were installed, or how close they stayed to the budget and timeline. But they usually ignore pivot indicators that could give them important warning signs before they’ve spent all of their resources and lost the time to make adjustments.
3. Celebrate saying “no.”
It’s easy to say “no” to bad projects and ideas, but you open yourself up to big opportunities only if you say “no” to the good ideas that just aren’t good enough.
Steve Jobs prided himself on saying “no.” He knew that to do great things, he needed to focus his attention only on the utmost priorities. As he put it at a conference in 1997, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
His example inspired me to apply rigorous standards in my work and personal life. Using the value assessment system described above, I say “no” to anything below a seven. I don’t waste time on anything that doesn’t create value for my family, my clients, or the causes and charities I care about.
Encourage your departments and individual team members to determine their cutoffs, and observe how that changes the quality of their output. Establishing a process to say “no” to big ideas that aren’t good enough creates the space for truly innovative ideas to grow. And because it can be hard to say “no” — too many teams don’t get credit for deciding what not to pursue — celebrate it. Keep track. Give people credit and kudos not just for the great ideas they greenlit, but also for the middling ideas they passed up.
4. Reward initiative.
If an employee comes up with an interesting, viable concept, let him or her run with it. Uber did just this when a recent hire suggested an idea for a new offering. This manager observed that the company often received requests from event organizers for group codes that attendees could use to book the service. Because this wasn’t a widely promoted feature, someone had to manually set up the codes for each client.
Uber’s leaders encouraged the manager to devise a more streamlined system, going so far as to help him and some colleagues rent an Airbnb property for a weekend to work on the idea. Within a few days, the product was complete and ready for the 50,000 clients who fell under the Uber Business umbrella. This is an example of knowing when to say “yes” to a good idea while saying “no” to entrenched ways of thinking.
The most important skill any leader — any person, really — can learn is how and when to say “no.” When you’re able to confidently walk away from opportunities that don’t generate value, you have the time and the resources to say “yes” to those that matter. These are the ideas that are going to revolutionize your company and change the world.