Our jobs and our lives are too busy. For a whole series of reasons, we have reached a point on this planet in which there is way too much “stuff” to do and not nearly enough time to do it. For example, I read once that the average man works far more hours, spends more time doing house chores, invests more time in his children, and takes on more extra-curricular activities than his father did. How can that be? There are still 24 hours in a day and seven days a week, and we still have to make time for essentials like sleeping, eating, and exercising. Sure… technology has enabled higher speed and capacity and there are fundamentally just more opportunities now than there have ever been. Still… eventually something has to give. We all have some limit of capacity for how much that we can do. At the very least, we have a limit for how much that we can do well.
So what do we do about it? Specifically, in our jobs I will venture to say that nearly all of us are either at or exceeding our ideal capacity. Virtually every minute of every day is accounted for, and we still can’t get it all done. And yet, there is more coming. We are consistently met with additional “opportunities” for new projects, additional meetings, or extra capability building. As our industries get more competitive and the speed of change increases rapidly, the pressure to “do more” and to “be more” compounds exponentially. And in the midst of this, we do want to be successful in our careers. We don’t want to be the one who breaks under the pressure or who fails to keep up with the increasing demands. We also don’t want to be the one who doesn’t take risks or refuses to show agility to exceed expectations. So when at full capacity and presented with a new “opportunity”, it seems like it should be a simple choice: Yes or No? However, this simple answer, while clean and fast, will only compound individual problems while also being bad for business.
Just Say “Yes”? Mangers love “yes men”, and their “can do” attitudes and willingness to do whatever it takes to make things happen. Agility, vigilance, courage, and fearlessness all are words used to describe the person who says “yes” and finds a way to get it all done. These are the “go to” people in an organization, running from meeting to meeting, sending emails at all hours of the night, and filling up annual performance reviews with page upon page of contributions.
However… “yes” comes with a price. 1) To the individual… the rest of their work does not go away so this is an additive exercise. The long hours, family stress, and mental exhaustion will ultimately take a toll on health, family relationships, and job satisfaction. 2) To the teams… I often say that we can sprint or we can run a marathon, but we cannot sustain sprinting a marathon. Too much time spent over capacity will ultimately lead to exhaustion, increased mistakes, and an overriding feeling of insufficiency (“no matter what I do, it is never enough!”) 3) To the company… On the surface, getting more done looks like nothing but positive- the epitome of “doing more with less”. In reality, teams and individuals will be forced to compromise the quality of work in some areas, to acquire less depth of understanding, and to experience delays in critical programs. While there may be more projects, the projects will get smaller and slower, necessitating more and more to compensate and ultimately leading to the vicious cycle that many of us experience today.
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” –Bill Cosby
Just Say “No”?: This two-letter word can be one of the most empowering and decisive that we use. “No, we cannot (or will not) do that” is conclusive, definitive, and deliberate. I have often heard that a person willing to stand up and stop a project provides a far bigger contribution than one who allows himself or herself to limp along working on more things than he/she can handle. These individuals can be seen as decision-makers, bold, vigilant, governing, and commanding. Not as “weak” as the “yes man”, these individuals will lock scope early, and not allow their teams to invest time or energy beyond the base plans.
But at what cost? Missed opportunities? A culture of risk averseness? Stubborn refusal to be agile when actually required? Every “no” shuts down uncertainty… but does it also trade off agility? The truth is, no matter how good that our plans are, how strong our teams perform, or how much time and money we invest on a program, at times we will need to make changes. Competitive activity, market changes, and new ideas and innovations can and should change the priorities of our work. While saying “no” can drive efficiency and rigor, it can also stifle innovation and flexibility. And worse, if “no” becomes the standard answer for new ideas or agile approaches on a team or in an organization, there can be a tremendously detrimental effect to the long-term culture of innovation.
“Ifs and Buts”! In the end, every “Yes” and every “No” comes with a price. There will be some unintended tradeoff to the individuals, to the organization, or to the culture that will ultimately need to be managed. So instead of allowing these tradeoffs to happen and dealing with them retroactively, we should proactively make choices to deliberately decide what tradeoffs that we should make.
Saying “yes” is too easy. In trying not to let anyone down or in trying to pursue everything that is interesting and novel, the lowest resistance path is to just accept the extra work with the faith that you will “figure it out later” in terms of how it will all get done. This ultimately will not work in the long run. Instead we should say “Yes, IF…” Yes, I can take on Project X, IF we stop working on Project Y. Yes, Report A can be done tomorrow, IF Report B can wait until next week. Yes, we can place that study, IF you give me additional money and resources. This still allows for the positive energy in saying “yes” to what will get done, while also making a deliberate choice as to what will not.
Saying “no” is lazy. Many may disagree with me on this one, but hear me out. Absolutely, we must make choices about what not to do so as to allow us to focus on the truly important ones. One of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things”. Even in this quote, however, there is an element of “No, but…” and/or “No, because…”. No, we cannot launch that new project in February, BUT we can get it done in August. No, John does not currently have the capacity to work on Project A, BUT if we delay Project B he will be available. No, we should not innovate in that new area, BECAUSE it is not part of our strategic vision. Again, this isn’t about not making hard choices, but rather about making them completely… either through offering an alternative or for providing a strategic basis for making them. While we want to be decisive and efficient, to survive in an innovative company and particularly to sustain an innovative culture, we must not stifle an organization through unilaterally shutting down new approaches. We must instead have the discipline and the rigor to provide an alternative or at least to provide a real and fair justification.
We truly are living in amazing times, with unprecedented speed, uncertainty, and opportunities. And by all indications, each of these will only increase as we march forward into the future. As we face this future, we have to determine what our key priorities are and make sure that we allow ourselves the time and energy to not only invest in them, but to invest fully. That is not to say that these priorities will not change over time or that tough choices will not need to be made. Rather, we need to be deliberate and proactive about making these choices ourselves or they will be made for us. In essence, there will be tradeoffs, not just in our careers but in our lives as a whole, and we have an opportunity to choose them for ourselves. Saying “Yes” or saying “No” are inadequate… when there are no “ifs” and/or “buts” about it.