Learning the Value of “No”

I’m currently advising a large company that typifies almost every company I know, in one respect.  Everyone is busier than hell.

Last week a 30-something woman framed it perfectly, “We spend most of our days in back-to-back and sometimes double and triple-booked meetings. Then we go home at night or on weekends and try to get the real work done.  And we’re encouraged to have work life balance!”
In many company cultures, being insanely busy is a badge of honor. People don’t stop by a fellow employee’s office and announce that they’ve run out of things to do. That’s not cool.

Nor do you hear people sharing the fact that they’re just coming off 20 minutes of quiet time where they went into their office, closed the door and just sat back and thought for a while—pondered about new ideas, different perspectives or the world’s weirdness.

Why are so many people so busy? Do they really need to be?

Part of the problem is that people are unwilling to admit that they can’t take on another task or project. High performers in particular have rarely said no to another challenge. “Bring it on. I can take anything,” has been their mantra since first grade.

But saying yes to everything means you’ll take on anything, regardless of its value to the customer or shareholder. That’s not good business. Taking on everything might, in fact, be draining value from the organization because the amount of work the project demands may not be creating sufficient returns.  “I’ll do anything (not only great stuff that will save the world but crap that no one gives a damn about).” Bring it on!”

I asked a group of people recently if most of their work would fall into the 8-10 range on a continuum, when they plotted the work they did from 1 (no value) to 10 (high value) just to see where they spent their time.

“Of course not.  It would be all over the place,” one said. Everyone else around the table agreed.
“Why are you doing low value-added work?” I asked.
“Because we aren’t taught to say no,” said one.
“Because our managers say it all has to get done,” another explained.

Isn’t it the responsibility of a leader to make sure your teams are adding as much value as possible—as defined by the customer? Isn’t an important part of leadership to provide tools that enable people sort out what’s really central to organizational success and what’s resource-draining busywork?

Have you, as a leader, invited your team to force rank the value of every piece of work they do based on its value to the customer.  Force ranking means no more than one piece of work can occupy any point on the continuum.

Teach the value of saying no. Champion an effort to get all low and medium-value work off the table—starting today.  All new projects must pass the value test. Pick an arbitrary point on the continuum like 8, for example.  “No work below an 8 will be performed in this department from this day on.”

Mean it!

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