If You Say Yes, You Have to Say No

In a few hun­dred years, when the his­to­ry of our time will be writ­ten from a long-term per­spec­tive, it is like­ly that the most impor­tant event his­to­ri­ans will see is not tech­nol­o­gy, not the Inter­net, not e‑commerce. It is an unprece­dent­ed change in the human con­di­tion. For the first time a rapid­ly grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple have choic­es. Peter F. Druck­er con­cludes this insight with the some­what sober­ing state­ment that most of us are com­plete­ly unpre­pared for this chal­lenge. The more pos­si­bil­i­ties there are, the more dif­fi­cult the deci­sion becomes, because every yes auto­mat­i­cal­ly means many no. That’s why no is not only the most dif­fi­cult word of our time, but also the most impor­tant word to keep the focus on both the per­son­al and the orga­ni­za­tion­al level.

Core Competency Focus

You can do any­thing, but not everything.

David Allen

The num­ber of deci­sions increas­es with the num­ber of pos­si­bil­i­ties. So much so that psy­chol­o­gists coined the term deci­sion fatigue. It seems that peo­ple only have a cer­tain amount of deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er, which is exhaust­ed in the course of the day with every deci­sion. In order to reserve this amount for impor­tant deci­sions, Steve Jobs, for exam­ple, almost always wore a pair of jeans and his icon­ic black turtle­neck sweater. For the same rea­son Barack Oba­ma and Mark Zucker­berg pre­fer not to make choic­es about their out­fit. I like that a lot, even though my wife insists that you can buy T‑shirts in col­ors oth­er than white. 

You can please some of the peo­ple all of the time, you can please all of the peo­ple some of the time, but you can’t please all of the peo­ple all of the time.

John Lydgate

More dif­fi­cult than the col­or of your T‑shirts are deci­sions about your own future or that of your orga­ni­za­tion. Espe­cial­ly because they almost always have to do with oth­er peo­ple. Thus a ratio­nal no always also has an effect on peo­ple’s rela­tion­ships and is eas­i­ly inter­pret­ed as a per­son­al rejec­tion. But to always say yes in order to avoid per­son­al con­flicts is not a solu­tion either, because that way the yes, of course, becomes arbi­trary and devalued.

It seems to be a gen­er­al human trait that we can only say yes with full con­vic­tion when we feel free enough to say no.

Jes­per Juul

Against this back­ground of exu­ber­ant pos­si­bil­i­ties and the result­ing deci­sions, focus is increas­ing­ly becom­ing the core com­pe­ten­cy of our time. And focus begins with a firm yes, fol­lowed by many equal­ly firm and authen­tic no, which reaf­firm the yes and are there­fore at least as important.

The Interplay of Overview and Focus

Steve Jobs knew the val­ue of focus like few oth­ers and the life-sav­ing reduc­tion of Apple’s prod­uct port­fo­lio after his return is leg­endary: A four-field matrix with desk­top and portable on one axis and con­sumer and pro­fes­sion­al on the oth­er. He there­by reduced Apple’s hope­less­ly over­flow­ing port­fo­lio by around 70% to four man­age­able prod­uct lines. Less but bet­ter, as the Ger­man design­er Dieter Rams, high­ly esteemed by Steve Jobs, put it.

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.

Steve Jobs

The effec­tive­ness of agili­ty results from the inter­play of overview and focus. Both with Scrum and with Kan­ban it is a mat­ter of mak­ing deci­sions at short inter­vals regard­ing the next step on the basis of a good overview and then lim­it­ing the Work in Progress (WIP) and thus focussing relent­less­ly. Kan­ban has explic­it WIP lim­its and only when one ele­ment is fin­ished, the next one can be pulled: stop start­ing, start fin­ish­ing. In Scrum, the team focus­es on the scope of the sprint in the sprint plan­ning and then retains this focus until the sprint review.

If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

Greg McK­e­own

For this inter­play to suc­ceed, dis­ci­pline and a prod­uct own­er like Steve Jobs is need­ed, who as CEO of the prod­uct can con­vinc­ing­ly and authen­ti­cal­ly say no (and is allowed to do so). No to many good ideas that don’t fit right now. No to many stake­hold­ers, who all have good rea­sons for their favorite fea­tures and often also a lot of pow­er. And some­times even no to one­self in order not to start too much simultaneously.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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