The Power of “No”: Escape From Overload and Focus on What Matters

One of the most important things a leader can do is to help people stay focused. That means having the courage to say “no.” It also means having the willingness to protect the interests of your organization when people push back.

The Slippery Slope to Overload

People can wear you down by pointing out reasons why the idea can’t work, advocating for initiatives that would be more beneficial, and finding opportunities that could be seized. All of those reasons, initiatives, and opportunities could be important. However, leaders need to weigh the possible benefits against the potential drawback of overextending the organization. It does no good to launch a new system if no one has the time or bandwidth to learn how to use it.

I recently worked with an organization that was running multiple strategic initiatives simultaneously. All were worthy, important programs. When presented to executive leadership, each received an enthusiastic “Yes, let’s do it.” Unfortunately, the impact wasn’t as expected.

Each effort required leadership time for discussion, debate, and analysis. Each required offline work and research. The demands of these efforts left leaders overwhelmed and resentful of the amount of time being taken from operations. Even worse, the overwhelmed leaders were unable to connect the initiatives so they became disjointed and, in some cases, at odds.

The Downside of Options

There are lots of exciting new methodologies, potential silver bullets, expert consultants, and attractive PowerPoint decks to catch people’s attention. But too many toys make it impossible for people to focus. Research shows that, as our number of options increase, our happiness and confidence in our choices decreases. This is a problem in a world where it seems, often, like options are nearly unlimited.

Our job as leaders—of organizations, departments, or teams—is to find the small number of initiatives that truly make a difference. How do we discern the wheat from the chaff, the signal from the noise?

Friends over at the Human Systems Dynamics Institute have many free tools designed to help leaders focus. Our upcoming “What’s Your Problem?” infographic will help you pick the right approach for the type of problem you’re facing.

Regardless of what you choose, remember that tools, initiatives, and methodologies bring value when people focus on them and implement them effectively. The best tool in the world won’t help if it sits on a shelf… or if it has to compete with thirty other tools for people’s attention. Start saying no and watch possibilities emerge.

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