May 6, 2016
You Are Making Priority Decisions All Wrong

As many CEOs know, there’s no shortage of innovative or disruptive ideas out there. There is, however, a shortage of time and money.


With full plates and busy calendars, CEOs are asking the wrong question when presented with new ideas. Instead of asking “Should we be doing this?” they ask, “Am I capable of taking this on?” Most CEOs will say yes to everything until they’re physically incapable of taking on any more, preventing them from working on the projects that actually matter when they come along.


When Steven Sasson presented his idea for a digital camera to the people at Kodak, leadership was so busy with other priorities that his revolutionary technology was ignored. The company missed a huge opportunity — a misstep that led to its eventual bankruptcy — simply because it didn’t prioritize correctly.


As kind humans, we naturally lean toward saying yes. We want to be helpful, and we secretly believe that agreeing to do something means we’re creating new opportunities. But when we pack our lives full of ideas, tasks, and projects, we actually lose the chance to take on new opportunities. By saying yes to everyone and everything, we find ourselves at maximum capacity when the Steven Sassons in our lives present that million-dollar idea.


Instead, we should be using the word “no” as our catalyst for creating more opportunities. Saying no gives you more time and resources to tackle new ideas, eliminating the “good enough” to focus on the great.


Why CEOs Should Worry About the Kodak Trap


C. Ray Johnson, author of CEO Logic: How to Think and Act Like a Chief Executive,” nails it when he says, “You do not need to do work faster or to eliminate gaps in productivity to make better use of your time. You need to spend more time on the right things.”


When your priorities are in order and you’re comfortable saying no, you eliminate the constant stress that results from operating at full capacity. On the other hand, when you’re busy on a daily basis, you aren’t available to explore revolutionary ideas and valuable opportunities when they arrive on your doorstep.


Staying Focused When Every Idea Is a Good Idea


While it’s easy to understand why saying no is important, understanding what deserves a “no” is a great deal harder. If you’re a CEO wanting to clear your schedule for truly valuable ventures, the following steps are for you:


1. Don’t compromise. 

Imagine you’re at a bar looking to pick up a date. You want to land a perfect 10, a guy or gal with the total package. What comes to mind when you think of a perfect 10?

If you’re looking for someone to date long term, your perfect 10 may look like someone who is successful, well-dressed, and educated. But what if it’s late in the night, and you just need a ride home? What does a perfect 10 look like then? Most likely, it’s someone who can drive and hasn’t had too much to drink.


The point here is that your goal may look different from someone else’s. Before reviewing any potential projects to determine whether you should take them on, decide what you’re trying to achieve — your perfect 10 — and make a decision to reject anything less than a 7 or 8. If you aren’t saying “Absolutely!” then you should be saying “Absolutely not.” That’s the only way you’ll wind up with a 10.


2. Create evaluation criteria. 

Help your team understand what a 10 looks like by setting the criteria that can help them make the determination. Do you care about potential revenue implications? Customer growth? Retention numbers? Potential liability to the company? Pick your top six criteria, and set them for the team.


When new opportunities come about, it will be easy for the team to filter them by running the ideas through these criteria. They will also be able to compare one request for resources against another. This is a really powerful tool for teams to use when they would otherwise be left with a subjective debate on what should be done. 


3. Create a “no zone.” 

Now that you know what you should say yes to, it’s time to create your “no zone.” Warren Buffett calls it the “avoid at all costs” list. These are the items that didn’t make it to your priority list and should be avoided at all costs. Steve Jobs followed a similar philosophy. He understood that by saying no to 1,000 good ideas, he could focus on the game changers.


To gut-check yourself and determine whether you’re protecting your good ideas rather than your great ones, create a reverse résumé. This is a list of all the 6- and 7-level opportunities that you’ve turned down. If your list is empty or short, then you aren’t working on the most valuable projects. Remember, it’s easy to reject bad ideas, but it’s so much more important to turn down good ideas that aren’t good enough. The only way you can create growth opportunities is by having the time and resources to do so.


Mark Zuckerberg followed this method during Facebook’s early days. He knew his top goal — his perfect 10 — was to grow users, so if anyone approached him with an idea that didn’t align with this goal, he’d shoot it down. Only the best and most relevant ideas got the green light.


While I can’t guarantee this method will land you a hot date the next time you hit a bar, I can promise that getting your priorities straight will translate into consistent innovation and real results for your company. Good luck chasing down your perfect 10.


Diana Kander

Diana Kander is a New York Times bestselling author and innovation coach. She serves as a consultant and professional speaker for clients and audiences across the country. 

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