Friday, December 25, 2009

The Power of No

I was given "How the Mighty Fall" by Jim Collins for Christmas. I loved his previous work, "Good to Great," so I started reading even before all of the presents were unwrapped. I was struck by his discussion of the fall of Bank of America in the 1980s. Our preferred narrative for how large institutions fails is that they are overcome by complacency and overtaken by more nimble rivals. While that can certainly happen, that was not the case the BofA. In fact, one might argue that too much change was a factor in their demise.

In my own work, I am struck by how much change and process improvement is shoved our way, with no understanding of its applicability to our environment. We currently have the following improvement programs allegedly in progress simultaneously (I won't spell out the acronyms, I don't want to be sued for your depression): HPO, CMMI, ITIL, LSS, BSC, PMG (offshoot of PMBOK), CAO/IPT, Baldridge.

In fact none of these efforts have produced any measurable results. Maybe if we just subscribed to one, we might make improvements. What really works, however, is understanding the nature of your own business and intelligently improving it. But that is really the hard part. In a mid-size government corporation such as ours, understanding the whole of the company requires constant effort and monitoring by senior executives. By chasing change management to the nth exponent, they have no time left for understanding the nature of our work and performing the key customer relations role that only senior executives can perform. In fact, that is probably the key danger of so much change, it takes the focus off of the paying customer and that can kill the company.

This is why the word "no" is so powerful. Their are always reasons to divert management attention from its primary focus on customer results. "No" is the decision to turn away from all of these non-value added efforts by management. Deciding what one won't work on can be the most important component of success.

For an excellent summary of why I loathe such programs, see Jim Collins' article on the subject of corporate greatness here.


  1. What a wild coincidence! I'm reading that book right now, too!

  2. B-Daddy, "No" is my favorite word because it is invocative of one of my favorite conservative philosophers, Edmund Burke, who was highly suspicious of change and outright hostile to violent change.

    Now, trying to square that with the American Revolution makes my head hurt.

  3. In some ways the American revolutionaries were saying no to new tyrannies being imposed on them, usurping their ancient rights and privileges as Englishman. They were mindful of being suspicious of violent change themselves, hence the following quote from the Declaration:

    "...a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

  4. Great book selection. I read Good to Great and loved it. Ordered it today and can't wait to read it.