Sidecar Perspectives: Strategic Planning For Long-Term Results. Sometimes It Starts By Saying "No"

The Sidecar Perspectives series of experience-based business stories is named for the place where I do some of my best reflective thinking - in a motorcycle sidecar on the open road.

In many organizations there is an expectation you will say "yes" more often than "no" if  you want to be seen as someone who is on-board and driving innovation and results.   Saying yes and grasping the opportunity is how things get done - at least that was always my experience.  

It’s hard enough to say no if you’re in a corporate environment, but when you’re working in a highly mission driven organization it just isn’t done.  How can you say “no” when lives are at stake?  Good question!  How could you say no in a situation like that?  I’d like to share a story that significantly changed my perspective on the value and power of “no” vs “yes”.

I was responsible for the strategic planning process of a large, international mission driven organization, and our kick-off event was coming up.  The work we did made a real difference in people’s lives.   Our strategic plans were always ambitious – the needs we were addressing were critical and we rarely if ever said no.   If we’d had a motto it would have been “go for it!”  So I knew the expectation for my kick off message was to deliver something appropriately inspiring and motivating to rally the troops and get them psyched for the next three years.  Fair enough – I was up for it.  (Did I mention I can be the worst offender when it comes to saying "no" to an opportunity?)

As I was putting my thoughts together I couldn’t help but reflect on a story that was a very well-known part of the organization’s history and culture.  It was deep in our roots and told the story of how the organization began.  Our founder was involved in missions in Asia and during his travels he was exposed to a large number of displaced people, especially orphans.  One child in particular caught his attention; a little girl who had been on the streets for some time and was in very bad condition.  He carried her to the home of a local woman he had heard was caring for some orphans, expecting she would take her in.  The woman said “no”.  If she were to share her rice bowl with one more child all would suffer. Offended, our founder asked how she could turn away a child who was clearly in such distress. The woman responded by asking him one life-changing question – how could he turn away the little girl?  Why was this child more her responsibility than his?  Inspired by this woman’s challenge he agreed to become involved in this child’s care and encourage others to send their support as well.  The result; a major international child development organization was born.

And that’s when it hit me!  She said “no” and because she did, millions of children, their families and communities have been helped over the past 50+ years by this organization, as opposed to the one child who would have been helped if she had said yes.

Since then, I’ve tried to use this real life example as a lens through which I assess opportunities and new projects.  Will I actually accomplish more and have a greater impact by saying no as opposed to my usual yes (the curse of people like me who find opportunities infinitely fascinating).  Here’s how I try to think it through:

  • What will have to move to the back burner if I take this on? 
  • Does the new opportunity have more or less impact than work already in motion?
  • Is the new opportunity something better accomplished by someone else?  Can I work on this in a partnership as opposed to being a solo act?  The opportunity may be solid, but I may not actually be the best person to take it on.
  • Am I stressing my team by agreeing to a new opportunity at this time?  Are additional resources available to support the new opportunity?  Even the most talented, committed and ambitious team has limits.  Are you about to burn out good people?
  • Am I saying yes because I think it’s what’s expected of me by my boss, or do I truly believe in the strategic importance of this opportunity?
  • What are the long-term vs short-term benefits of taking on this new project?  If the overall intent of my work is to leave a sustainable legacy, does the new opportunity align with that intent?

Oh yes, and the reaction to my kick-off message at the strategic planning event?  The CEO hated it (initially), staff loved it (although highly committed, they had been through a very rough couple of years of restructuring and aggressive growth), and over time it formed the basis for a dramatic shift to a more pro-active, as opposed to re-active, culture.  All part of the organization's enviable employer brand.

Does the myriad of opportunities and projects you're expected to say "yes" to in your planning process get in the way of accomplishing something more meaningful?  It's not easy, but a well considered "no" really can make a world of difference.

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