“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” —Warren Buffett
“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.” —Steve Jobs
Lately, I’ve been thinking about these quotes about the importance of saying no.
The idea that Buffett and Jobs spoke about is one of incredible optimism: that the world is full of good ideas—so many that they can serve as a distraction. It’s easy to misinterpret these quotes by focusing on the ratio of noes to yesses. But that misses a big point: the importance of getting to “no” fast.
It’s not enough to simply decide that a proposal or an initiative isn’t a good fit. Decisions take time. That’s particularly important for leaders of fast-growing startups to remember. The opportunity cost from a lack of focus can simply be too great. The reason you want to get to “no” faster (especially if you are focused on disrupting an industry) is that wasting time is practically an invitation for a competitor to pass you or for an incumbent company to adapt.
The context of Jobs’ quote adds an extremely interesting bit of insight. He was speaking to a conference of Apple developers well before the company’s resurgence. The company had just suffered a series of blows that ultimately led to layoffs. It felt, to Jobs, that Apple was going in 18 different directions. Still, he admitted that killing projects and refocusing his workforce was likely angering the very people he was depending on to rebuild the company.
It’s this concern that should worry nearly any CEO. Employees hate to see their time wasted. Some of them will devote nights, weekends, and holidays to making the company successful. Killing good ideas—whether it’s a new product feature, purchasing a new tool, or targeting a new market target, or anything else—risks alienating creative and talented individuals.
And just so we’re clear, more often than not, the initiatives that employees generate are good. Too often, they’re just not aligned with the vision of the company.
The antidote to this morale-killing poison is communication and collaboration. As a leader, it’s incredibly important for you to share your roadmap and your goals so that your company’s creative energy is harnessed toward initiatives that align.
So how can you get to “no” faster? I have a few ideas:
• Don’t dwell on “maybe.” If you know something isn’t a fit, don’t wait around. Especially in the early years of a startup, make sure everything you and your staff are working on is aligned with the playbook you are working off of. And have faith that a better idea will come along.
• Kill initiatives early. Accelerated decision-making doesn’t mean killing all creative energy. It’s okay to greenlight exploratory research, or to devote time and resources to promising initiatives. But be clear about the high barrier to success, and make sure employees understand that “no” doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve done a bad job.
• Know the benefits and the resources required. You can make a lot of decisions with a quick cost-benefit analysis, weighing the resources needed against the potential reward. If you don’t know the inputs or the potential outcome, don’t bother.
To make the right business decisions, make sure you gut-check your own ideas just as much as you focus on the ideas and projects that employees champion. It’s okay to be wrong. And the benefits of accelerating a “no” extend outside the realm of internal ideas. For startups, there are definitely going to be times when a potential partner isn’t going to be a good fit. Save yourself the trouble and recognize those occasions.
Let’s face it, there are lots of good ideas out there. But we don’t have the time and resources to pursue them all. For business leaders, executing a business plan means recognizing what works for you and what doesn’t.
Lukas Quanstrom is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ontic Technologies, the first protective intelligence software company.