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Saying “Yes” is Crippling Organizations

February 12, 2019

In my experience, the word YES is one of the biggest things holding the organization back from focusing on their desire towards innovation, disruption, agile, or more customer-centric.

The corporate culture of saying YES to everything is taking away the focus and consolidated effort to achieve any one of these aspirations. Every time we say YES to something, we are implicitly saying no to something else. Worse, we spread our focus and effort on all the YESes so thin we do not deliver on anything.

We need to start saying “No”. No will allow us more time for the things we choose to say yes to. Prioritization is a fallacy. When we categorize everything in High, Medium, or Low this should be an indication that our YESes are exceeding our ability to deliver on them. When is the last time you got through all of the high priority things? A prioritization intake model is like wearing stretchy pants to a buffet, we put way too much on our plate. Instead of prioritizing …just say no. If it is still important after we deliver on the previous YESes then we will decide at that time.

Giving an early yes and prioritizing commits your organization to something based on today’s needs. We all know tomorrow will change. Why pre-book a possible future outdated priority? We feel compelled to say yes to everything. Saying yes makes us a good corporate citizen. Yes allows us to build alliances. Yes makes us look good to our boss. This is what we think, but is that true? Today’s oversubscribed yes might be tomorrows “ask for forgiveness.”

The insanity of saying yes to everything leads us to the inevitable surprise to executives that all the projects that started with a green status at the start of the fiscal year are surrounded in red status projects as we approach year-end. Then we repeat the cycle again.

This does not only apply to organizational portfolios, transformations, and initiatives.

On a team front, as a leader:

When I ask the question of ‘What makes a great leader?’, the three most common themes are communicating vision, attracting & growing talent, and understanding their customers. However, when reviewing their ridiculously ugly calendars they spend minimal or no time on any of these themes.

Why is it human nature to feel we need to fill up each moment in our calendars? When our calendars are busy we are not available to our people and teams when a crisis arises. Saying Yes to all these meetings means we are implicitly saying no to spending time with our people, growing our people, and learning from our customers. If we cannot model saying no, how will our people and the team learn to say no?

Saying no does not mean you are not a team player. Saying no does not mean you are being difficult. Saying no allows room for the YESes to succeed.

I would like to leave you with 3 things:

  1. Every time you say yes to something, write down the tradeoffs you made that you now have to implicitly say no to. Does the new culture fun initiative you agreed to help with mean you have to cancel one on ones with your team members or take time away from previous commitments?(from my friend Ryan Ripley)
  2. Do not accept/attend more than two re-occurring meetings a week. Keep track of your actual engaged involvement in these meetings. If low or infrequent — cancel.
  3. Do NOT accept a meeting without a clear purpose, agenda, and what is specifically required from you. How many times do you accept a blank meeting invite? It’s a problem.

Every keystroke is precious so I will end here.

Lead how you would like to be led.


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