Distinction And When To Say No

Originally Posted: September 11, 2016

“I’m going to do it all – and I’m going to do it perfectly.” While few say that out loud, their actions say it for them.

Know anyone who thinks (and acts) that way? I see it all the time, whether in a small business - where doing it all seems a necessity - to teams in giant corporations. The very same people who treat money as a scarce resource are willing to spend their energy doing tasks that provide a low business payoff.

Trying to do too much and trying to do it perfectly will lead you to mediocrity and drain your energy faster than it drains your bank account.

Many years ago, when I was working with Norm Smallwood of Results Based Leadership, he introduced me to the “anti-perfectionism/strategic clarity” model he called “Types of Work.” It changed my life, the way I approach work and how I make trade offs. And in that timeframe, this new awareness guided me to say no to some very exciting global work with – you guessed it – Norm Smallwood.

Norm’s point of view on strategy could be boiled down to this: What you say “no” to defines you more than what you say “yes” to. In other words, being opportunistic causes you to say yes to more things than you can do well. Being strategic means saying no to anything that doesn’t fit your distinctive core business.

Having the backbone to have a strong portfolio of “no’s” develops a stronger business than saying yes just because you can do it.

This is a simple concept that is extraordinarily difficult to actually do. Walking away from work that might be lucrative because it isn’t your core value proposition seems crazy – but let me make the case for why you should do just that. After all, everyone has more to do than they can possibly do well. How great would it be to have a logical way to say “no” when you have more than you can handle?

The logic starts with this premise:

Not all work is created equal.

The work that distinguishes you (and that you get paid for) deserves a different kind of priority and attention than your basic business work.

Trying to do everything well means you do nothing well.
Watch this very short animation to understand the basic idea, and I will see you on the other side:

Here’s the thing: striving for best-in-class-performance is worthwhile only in about 10-20% of the work you do – your distinctive and enabling work.  The other 80% or so needs to be good enough.  This doesn’t mean you buy a house in “slackerville.”  It’s just that extreme excellence in Business Essential work just brings you more work than you should handle – and it’s work you don’t get paid for.  Just remember:  do worse than par and it can cost you your reputation and maybe your business.

Here’s how Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour Work Week said it:  “I’m not against hard work.  I’m against hard work on stupid things.”

Distinctive work is what makes you special.  You want to be unique and distinctive work forms the core of your business or reputation. Why didn’t I do global work with Norm Smallwood all those years ago?  It would have impacted my ability to be effective with my clients AFTER the trips. I need my sleep. Jet lag impacts my ability to be a clear and present coach and facilitator. I was very aware that while doing the global work might look good on my bio, it would negatively impact my ability to perform and would ultimately hurt my goals. So I said no.

Distinctive work is why people choose you or your company. It is worth your time and effort to be crystal clear on what makes you special in the eyes of your clients, customers or employers.

How do you decide where your time, attention and energy go?  What are your guardrails for making sharp trade-offs? Are you clear on the work that makes you distinctive?  Where are you tempted to take on customers or work because of the money instead of it being a fit for your business? What kind of non-strategic projects are you doing?

Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, thinking you can’t do it all, or find yourself agonizing over a simple detail, re-prioritize your work into the three buckets:  Distinctive, Enabling, or Business Essential.

Struggling to say no even though you know you should?  Wondering what’s the difference between Distinctive and Enabling work? Connect via Social or here.

As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn!

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