The Power of No

The Power of No

It is the ability to choose that makes us human.

– Madeleine L’Engle

A client once asked me, “What’s the biggest, solvable problem that all the companies you work with have in common?” After congratulating her on formulating an absolutely beautiful question, I didn’t hesitate with my answer: They all bite off more than they can chew.

  • Mission statements promise to be the best at delivering everything to everybody.
  • Roadmaps show dozens of new initiatives but no end-of-life plans.
  • Teams commit themselves to 10 to 15 “top priorities” at any given time.

Meanwhile, everyone’s stressed out. It’s back-to-back meetings, late nights, and weekend work. Yet, people have a nagging sense that we just don’t ever stick the landing.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, because we humans just love to say, “Yes.”

“Yes” is filled with possibility—risky, exciting, and generous.

“No” is a grinding halt—conservative, stale, and selfish.

Or is it?

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown makes a solid case that, in business and in our personal lives, the key to success is the ability to “deliberately distinguish the vital few from the trivial many, eliminate the nonessentials, and then remove obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.”

Looking through this lens, suddenly “no” is reframed. Now it is exciting, expansive, and additive, because by stripping away the non-essential, we create space where excellence, innovation, and fulfillment can finally draw breath.

In other words, paradoxically, setting limits sets us free. “No” actually gives birth to “yes.”

In our homes, houses of worship, workplaces, social circles, and even in our own minds, we are absolutely swimming in non-essentials, aren’t we?

  • We stay committed to projects that no longer add value.
  • We attend worthless meetings and create piles of reports that go unread.
  • We continue to engage with long-term customers who aren’t buying anymore.
  • We keep toxic people and one-way friendships in our lives.
  • We fill our closets with things we don’t use and clothes we don’t wear.
  • We engage in gossip, we spend hours watching so-so Netflix series, and we get sucked in to social media posts and echo-chamber political news.

In the words of leadership guru, John Maxwell, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” In fact, if we really pay attention, there are so many opportunities to say “no” that it’s overwhelming.

So, where do we start?

  • Pick three or fewer: In his book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney makes a compelling case that teams with more than three focus areas are doomed to accomplish none of them with excellence. So, guided by your core beliefs and values, make every priority beg for its life and just keep paring back until you’ve landed on just one to three focus areas. As a facilitator, make sure your groups are doing the same.
  • Vote with your feet: If you don’t know the purpose of a meeting, or you don’t have a clear and significant role to play, don’t go. Be polite, but just say “no.” If you lead a team, give them permission to do the same. Meetings are sucking the life and creativity out of our organizations, and these wasted hours are a breeding ground for the “trivial many.”
  • Live by design: If you don’t prioritize your life, the universe will do it for you. Look back at the last few weeks. How did you spend your time, your attention, and your money? Did these expenditures bring you closer to or further from your values? What can you say “no” to in the coming weeks to align more closely with what matters most to you? Now, make a decision before you act, commit, or buy, asking, “Is this decision going to move me toward or away from what is precious to me?”

Derek Sivers, a super-popular TED speaker (see Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy), proposes a new way to choose between competing priorities. He says that “yes” is no longer good enough for him to take on something new. Instead, if it’s not a “HELL, YEAH!” then it’s a “NO!”

Is your current portfolio of priorities filled with “HELL, YEAH!” people, projects, and activities? If not, may you find the courage to choose:

  • Between the trivial many and the vital few.
  • Between the “I have to” activities and the “I choose to” priorities.
  • Between the shackles of the non-essential and that little, two-letter word with the power to set you free.