Michael Porter, the strategy guru from the Harvard Business School, is famously quoted as saying that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”. In the business world, this concept if frequently accepted and infrequently practiced, since while the word “focus” is often used, the word “no” seldom is heard. If you were to see those word clouds hovering over every office building you drove past, you would see the word “focus” prominently featured, as in “we need to focus on the key priorities”, “focus is the key to our success”, “what are the few priorities we’re going to focus on this quarter?” and so forth.
But you’d have a hard time finding the word “no” in that same word cloud.
“No, we can’t take that customer order” is a phrase you seldom hear. “No, you can’t do that project because it doesn’t advance our agreed-upon objectives” is rarely uttered. And yet, these phrases are the essence of focus. You can’t say “focus” if you don’t say “no”.
Greg McKeown wrote a seminal book on this topic, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In it, he defines the path of the “essentialist”, a rare person who is able to pause, reflect, discern, and act congruently with his or her most important objectives.
From Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown
As you can see above, here are some words to describe what the “Essentialist” does:
I heard an idea recently that applies particularly well to those who are in a small business – although it could apply to any size company. The idea is this (I heard this from a financial advisor): on your birthday, fire your worst client.
It’s beautiful in its brutality and simplicity. Can you imagine how many attorneys and financial advisors would extend their life span by giving themselves this birthday present every year?
But the essence of essentialism isn’t venting or re-asserting your pride, although doing so can be cathartic and valuable. The essence of essentialism is making the right choices. To quote (from memory) a great line from Stephen Covey, “it is easier to say ‘no’ when there is a deeper ‘yes’ burning within”.
Just like in gardening, your most noble ambitions and objectives, left untended, will lose nutrients from invasive plants and weeds that gather over time. The garden needs tending (or, to quote a great movie, “there will be growth in the spring”). This requires you set aside time and re-consider. Every planning cycle should include you saying “no” to one thing.
Easy to say, but tough to do.
But herein lies greatness. Being able to stop, view your efforts from an objective distance, and intentionally saying “no” to something that is worthy but is one ring outside the bullseye is what enables people to transform themselves and their business results. Saying “no” shouldn’t be easy. It’s that last “no” – the most difficult one – that changes the game.
I recommend you set aside time in the next five days (put it on your calendar!) and find one or more things to say “no” to.