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If You Say Yes, You Have to Say No

In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time a rapidly growing number of people have choices. Peter F. Drucker concludes this insight with the somewhat sobering statement that most of us are completely unprepared for this challenge. The more possibilities there are, the more difficult the decision becomes, because every yes automatically means many no. That’s why no is not only the most difficult word of our time, but also the most important word to keep the focus on both the personal and the organizational level.

Core Competency Focus

You can do anything, but not everything.

David Allen

The number of decisions increases with the number of possibilities. So much so that psychologists coined the term decision fatigue. It seems that people only have a certain amount of decision-making power, which is exhausted in the course of the day with every decision. In order to reserve this amount for important decisions, Steve Jobs, for example, almost always wore a pair of jeans and his iconic black turtleneck sweater. For the same reason Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg prefer not to make choices about their outfit. I like that a lot, even though my wife insists that you can buy T-shirts in colors other than white.

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

John Lydgate

More difficult than the color of your T-shirts are decisions about your own future or that of your organization. Especially because they almost always have to do with other people. Thus a rational no always also has an effect on people’s relationships and is easily interpreted as a personal rejection. But to always say yes in order to avoid personal conflicts is not a solution either, because that way the yes, of course, becomes arbitrary and devalued.

It seems to be a general human trait that we can only say yes with full conviction when we feel free enough to say no.

Jesper Juul

Against this background of exuberant possibilities and the resulting decisions, focus is increasingly becoming the core competency of our time. And focus begins with a firm yes, followed by many equally firm and authentic no, which reaffirm the yes and are therefore at least as important.

The Interplay of Overview and Focus

Steve Jobs knew the value of focus like few others and the life-saving reduction of Apple’s product portfolio after his return is legendary: A four-field matrix with desktop and portable on one axis and consumer and professional on the other. He thereby reduced Apple’s hopelessly overflowing portfolio by around 70% to four manageable product lines. Less but better, as the German designer Dieter Rams, highly esteemed by Steve Jobs, put it.

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.

Steve Jobs

The effectiveness of agility results from the interplay of overview and focus. Both with Scrum and with Kanban it is a matter of making decisions at short intervals regarding the next step on the basis of a good overview and then limiting the Work in Progress (WIP) and thus focussing relentlessly. Kanban has explicit WIP limits and only when one element is finished, the next one can be pulled: stop starting, start finishing. In Scrum, the team focuses on the scope of the sprint in the sprint planning and then retains this focus until the sprint review.

If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

Greg McKeown

For this interplay to succeed, discipline and a product owner like Steve Jobs is needed, who as CEO of the product can convincingly and authentically say no (and is allowed to do so). No to many good ideas that don’t fit right now. No to many stakeholders, who all have good reasons for their favorite features and often also a lot of power. And sometimes even no to oneself in order not to start too much simultaneously.

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Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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