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The Lost Art of Choosing No

Life is a series of trade-offs. Helpfully, life has continued to remind me of this fact (thanks life), despite it being something I should know well by now. One way to explain this concept is the Four Burners Theory. Have you heard of it?

Essentially it asks you to envision your life as a stovetop, with the four burners representing your health, work, family, friends respectively. As James Clear writes:

“The Four Burners Theory says that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

I think this concept applies, albeit a bit imperfectly, to organizations as well.

Organizations result from decisions both deliberate and unconscious about what is important, what to focus on. From their product or service, to their market positioning, to how they organize themselves and how they behave each day, these are all choices.

And choosing what to focus on inevitably means that something else is NOT being focused on.

When it comes to a value proposition or strategy, these decisions are typically more explicit: “We do this, not that”. But when it comes to decisions about how to operate, how to manage people, how to behave to one another, the decisions about what to focus on and what NOT to focus on seem less clear, harder to make.

This shows up in two ways that I’ve observed.

The first is not making the decision.

This happens because leaders may bring assumptions with them that these “softer things’ are self-evident, or they assume that they’ll just take care of themselves as long as they hire the right people, or they think that decisions about these things can wait until later.

This leads to unintended consequences.

When we don’t clearly articulate these decisions, even to ourselves, we can often end up at the mercy of what others deem important at this or that moment.

We rotate amongst our four stovetop burners, turning off whichever burner isn’t required right now, only to turn it right back on as another need arises. This is inefficient and exhausting

I read a post from Jeff Vincent this week that started with just such an example. An employee asks about career paths, and because this is such a reasonable, logical request, the company finds itself rushing to address it reactively:

“So his team got to work, wedging another project in. And because they wanted to do a great job, they invested hours researching the subject, interviewing external people, creating slide decks and internal documentation. In the end, they added new processes and required the people managers to go through it. But it never quite fit, and ended up slowly fizzling out”

Choose Everything

A second approach is to choose…everything. Well, sort of.

Organizations that lay claim to a long list of values often do so without thinking them all the way through. Leaders may want to emulate one or more organizations they admire, or they feel that leaving a value off their list means they’re saying it isn’t important.

But if values are intended to actually describe how the people in an organization will behave and make decisions (and to be clear, I think they should), then that long list becomes an impossible promise to fulfill. As Johnathan Nightingale writes in ‘How F*cked Up is Your Management?’:

“Ask yourself the real cost of each value and whether you’re willing to pay it. I’d rather you have fewer values and stand behind them, than to see you list off twenty and slowly whittle them down as you realize how expensive they are. If you think the trade-off for a given value is negligible, you’re not thinking hard enough”

Back at our stovetop, this approach leads us to try to keep all four burners on, lowering their overall temperature to maintain power.

This doesn’t just happen with values. Organizations that over-commit to aggressive timelines for a slate of ambitious projects, while also claiming to prioritize employee development opportunities, work-life balance, and a commitment to social responsibility may find themselves hard pressed to deliver on all (or even some) of these well.

Maintenance Costs

The problem with this approach, whether it’s too many values or too many projects, is that we underestimate the maintenance costs. As Jocelyn Glei explains in her podcast this week, we tend to focus on launching things, forgetting that with each new thing we add comes the ongoing cost (in time and money) of maintaining it.

That brings us back to the stovetop, and to choosing what to say yes to, and what to say no to. Deciding what we’ll optimize for, and what we won’t. Which burners stay on, and which get shut off.

Which is where the metaphor comes up a bit short. Organizations, and the people in them, are complex and varied, and in real life ‘the stovetop’ isn’t a zero-sum game where putting time, money, or energy on one burner results in an automatically proportionate reduction from another.

In my own life, I’ve found that things that fall under the ‘health’ burner (like exercise, meditation, sleep) have an amplifying effect on my capacity in other areas (or burners, if you like). What I spend in time at the gym produces bigger returns in increased productivity, creativity, and connection in my work, family, and friends.

I suspect this is the same in organizations. For example, focusing on diversity and inclusion (beyond being the right thing to do) seems to provide clear benefits in a range of others areas, like creativity and innovation.

Smart organizations figure out novel ways to produce more value and benefit for the organization and its employees without increasing the overall input into the system. But that doesn’t change the fact that trade-offs are a reality of life. And that all of us, individuals and organizations, only have a finite number of yeses, and that each of them demands that we also say no.

When these decisions are made well, they offer us the chance to devote our full attention and effort to succeed in the areas that matter most to us. Vincent says:

A truly impactful decision creates an advantage, but it also comes with a rough edge. A system has to optimize for something, which means something else is left unoptimized for. A shortcoming or flat side of the organization can seem insane or even detrimental to outsiders, but (if well considered) is necessary for that organization to succeed.”

Saying No

It’s hard to say no. It leaves a rock unturned, a path untaken, and it risks disappointing or alienating people we want to like and approve of us. In organizations those people might be our employees, our investors, or our customers.

And we’re under constant pressure, individually and organizationally, to say yes. To check ‘all of the above’.  Isn’t everyone else? How will we keep up? Can’t we just try harder?

I don’t think we can. I think that we’re going to be bad at something, and that we should probably choose what.

Read This Week:

In honour of International Women’s Day I wanted to do something a bit different this week, and share some of my favorite writing and content produced by women. I encourage you to read, subscribe, follow, or listen.

Newsletters, writers, blogs


Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash





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