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Just Say No

Every business has constraints, so good managers must have the courage to say no.

The first software company I worked for was called Vertigo Development Group. Named after the CEO’s favorite Hitchcock movie, the founders thought that being a “Group” made us sound bigger than we were. Unfortunately it made us think bigger than we were too. We had one division for servicing corporate clients like Standard and Poor’s and Pitney Bowes — blue chip clients any start up would give their eye teeth for. We had another division making consumer products for managing your money, studying for exams, or planning your career. This was a company of just thirty people — with a million good ideas.

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Everyone wants creativity. It’s become the Holy Grail that companies seek in their employees, in their products and processes. Job interviews endlessly seek to find out: Are you creative? Will hiring you inject new thinking into our company? If people are cheaper in China, and more industrious in India, the thinking goes, then our competitive edge requires constant innovation, driven not by a crisis but by a stream of original thinkers.

Some companies find those original thinkers — and keep them. But then they encounter an unforeseen problem: What to do when there are too many ideas — or even (heaven forbid) too many good ideas? Smart young start ups, like Vertigo, overflow with ideas and opportunities. Because they’re fairly democratic companies, ideas bubble up from everyone: from the CEO to the receptionist, from engineers, marketers, and family members. Very few of the ideas are downright bad. This is a nice problem to have but it is still a problem. Because just as you can die of starvation, you can die from excess too. At Vertigo, we scarcely had the resources to deliver well on one good idea, never mind a dozen. We were spread way too thin.

It’s very hard to tell a bright, eager employee that their brilliant idea is brilliant — but you aren’t going to do it. You fear they will get discouraged, or worse, become disgruntled, cynical, or political. Which is what happened at Vertigo. Instead of saying no, the CEO, with the best will in the world, let a thousand flowers bloom. He thought he was being creative.

It’s a problem endemic, but not exclusive, to start ups. Because every business has constraints. The key to creativity is not to deny them and not to be afraid of them. Constraints are good. Far from limiting ideas, constraints provoke creativity and problem-solving. You just have to be very, very clear about what the constraints are and why. As I discovered when I started running my own companies, what you need is a litmus test.

To command our very limited time and resources, each new initiative had to go through a series of filters. Was this bright idea really consistent with the rest of our strategy? Would it build momentum? Wouldn’t it take more than it delivered? Did it have any demonstrable grounding in market data? How would we know if it had been successful? At first, many employees found this intensely annoying. Why not be creative and just say ‘yes’?

The litmus test helped me because it depersonalized the decision-making, making it less stressful and a lot faster. But even better, over time, as everyone came to understand it, the test considerably sharpened those creative minds eager to contribute bright ideas. Nine times out of 10, if an idea didn’t fly, employees realized it early, before getting too emotionally invested in their own idea. So they’d start again and come up with something better. They understood, from the outset, what could and couldn’t fly — and focused their efforts in areas that might work. A lot of mystique surrounds creativity, but those who’ve worked in industries where creativity is a daily requirement learn that imagination without discipline wastes everyone’s time. On the other hand, creativity with focus builds momentum, which becomes inspiring in itself.

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For leaders, defining and communicating the litmus test is key. If it isn’t well understood, it’s just a source of frustration. If it isn’t adhered to, it may as well not exist at all. But when it’s well articulated, the litmus test gives every manager one tool essential to creativity: the courage to say ‘no.’ Managers usually duck this unpleasant word because they’re afraid. They’re afraid creativity will wither on the vine. They’re afraid that they’re being uncreative. They’re afraid they may just have missed the next big thing. So they lose focus, waste resources and, ultimately, their kindness kills them.

In my last position at Vertigo Development Group, I was put in charge of consumer products. Eventually, I went to the CEO and urged him to close the division. We had a million ideas but no depth. No one inside or outside the business knew what we stood for. No gains in one division helped the other. But so many employees loved the products. He just couldn’t close it.

I later learned that the company’s investors categorized Vertigo as one of the “living dead” — a business with enough creativity to stagger on, but without the discipline ever to take off. The phrase haunted me then and it haunts me still. The company had been so creative, too creative. Without focus it was, eventually, nothing.

What applies to companies applies equally to individuals. At career crossroads, I’ll sit down and think of everything I could possibly do. Then I’ll figure out what the litmus test should be. Then the choices get easier — considerably. Sometimes, to be frank, it’s hard to say ‘no’ to myself (I can be pretty argumentative) but what works for companies works for careers too. The constraints drive focus and focus drives achievements.

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