Strategy Thinking and Action: The Power of “No!”


Like many people I have been fascinated by the life, contributions and purported capabilities of Steve Jobs. One ability was his discipline around strategy and action – “Saying No most of the time!”

By all reports he had a strong discipline around culling down features in new products to an essential few. Furthermore he was clear about what Apple should not get involved in as much as what it should.

The power of saying no is a critical discipline in strategy and life. Why? Because there is an infinite number of possibilities for pursuit, but we have a small capacity to do maybe one – three very well. So a successful life is more about saying no than saying yes.

We can say No two distinct ways:

  1. “No, No,No!” The often fun “contrarian” approach.
  2. “Yes, Yes, but you know this means ‘No’ to everything else!” This is the, “I will do this but nothing else!”  approach.

I am hard pressed to consider the first approach as strategic as there is little predisposition to find something to move forward on. I recognize that “standing pat” can be a strategic choice, but contrarians seem to rarely say no from that motivation. The second manner of saying no is most often strategic, because it recognizes that going forward means leaving behind.

I stumbled across this insight several years ago when I was helping an executive do a serious round of recruitment for several technical leadership roles. I was commissioned to help him with the interviewing aspects of the task. This included developing the competency interview guides (technical and behavioural) and participating in the interviews.

We were sitting down and discussing the strategy for conducting this important and difficult task and I asked him:

“What do you think is the principle function we have to accomplish in completing the recruitment effort?”

He thought about it and responded: “To find and select the best candidate.”

“I suggest that it is finding ways to eliminate all weaker candidates.” I proposed.

I suggested that “We are looking for n-1 applicants to say no to.”

So we proceeded to entertain this notion as we conducted the interviews and did followup checks and the like. What we both discovered was that it was easier to discern who the weaker candidates were and eliminate them from further consideration (a number of them were exceptionally well suited for other roles and they were placed in them).

This is strategic in the fact that we want to choose something and practical method is to reject as many inferior alternatives as quickly as possible. The implicit assumption here is that a suitable alternative (one we can say yes to) is present in the set of alternatives under consideration.

Over the years I have found that sometimes it is easier to make a “Yes” decision by saying “No!” as many times as I can.

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
This entry was posted in Decison Making, Risk & Uncertainty, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Strategy Thinking and Action: The Power of “No!”

  1. Reinier Geel says:

    I like your work, we could could look at collaboration at some point if you like, have a look at my stuff and let me know…good post BTW

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