How being forced to say ‘no’ can help you understand your business

I was having coffee with a CEO (let’s call him James) the other day and he showed me his business’s ‘to-do’ list. It was 35 pages long and each page had about 25 items on it.

That’s, um, 875 activities.

I had a quick flick through the list thinking it would be full of quick little “fix it” type tasks. But it wasn’t.

On the list were ideas for new products, different sales channels, new marketing avenues. It really was quite an amazing inventory of ideas.

James explained that the list was a master list of every idea that had either been dreamt up by him, put forward by staff during the year, or had come out of the annual “what-shall-we-do?” brainstorming session.

I asked James how the management team decided which ideas to pursue.

He admitted that the process was really quite random. Essentially because the ideas all seemed pretty good, if someone wanted to champion a particular idea, and the idea didn’t require a big budget, that idea would get the go-ahead.

He also went on to say that he was a bit frustrated with the idea list on two counts.

Firstly, the list seemed to be getting longer rather than shorter and James was anxious that the business was missing good opportunities by leaving them on the list.

Secondly, the ideas that were being pursued seemed to take too long to get completed.

He asked me if I had any thoughts and, faced with the longest list of ideas I’d ever seen, I did!

I suggested that he start by taking a big fat marker pen to the list and mark each idea with either an “N” for do now, “L” for do later or a big “X” for don’t do at all.

James didn’t like that. He didn’t want to say “no” to anything.

Now, as you and I know, strategy is about saying “no” to things. A great business generates lots of amazing ideas, but whittles them down to a few core ones that will give the business the best chance of getting it where it wants to go.

Usually you would use your strategy to evaluate the ideas. But you can also use your idea list to help develop your strategy.

I wasn’t giving in to James that easily, so we did a deal. He and his team would go
off for a day, with their list and a challenge to identify just three ideas work on now, three to start in a year, 10 to do “sometime” and to put the other 859 ideas on a “no” list.

If James didn’t like the outcome he could pop all the ideas back on the master list and we wouldn’t mention it again!

James asked whether the number of ideas to run with this year should be three or could it really be five or 10. I told him three but in practice it didn’t matter. The point was to (surreptitiously) get the team to think about the criteria they would use to include and exclude ideas.

Sparks flew. The team argued, debated, researched, pondered and, um, tantrumed on the direction of the business.

But at the end of the session they had a much clearer idea of where the business was going, how it was going to get there, and which key ideas it was going to pursue to do it.

James was pretty happy with the outcome. And he acknowledged that Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group was probably right when he said, “I’ve made more money by choosing the right things to say no to than by choosing things to say yes to”.

Julia Bickerstaff’s expertise is in helping businesses grow profitably. She runs two businesses: Butterfly Coaching, a small advisory firm with a unique approach to assisting SMEs with profitable growth; and The Business Bakery, which helps kitchen table tycoons build their best businesses. Julia is the author of “How to Bake a Business”  and was previously a partner at Deloitte. She is a chartered accountant and has a degree in economics from The London School of Economics (London University).

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