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If You Want To Innovate, Learn To Say “No”

2023 September 3
by Greg Satell

Pundits tell us that the world is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It’s the VUCA gospel. Under the banner of  “innovate or die,” massive transformation projects are being kicked off constantly. Executives around the world scramble to reorganize and reinvent their organizations, only to reorganize and reinvent them again.

It gets worse, consider a 2014 report by PwC that revealed 65% of respondents in corporations complained about change fatigue, 44% of employees complained they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% say they don’t agree with it. A more recent study by Gartner in 2020 found that propensity for change fatigue doubled during the pandemic.

Executives, wanting to be seen as dynamic leaders, are launching too many initiatives, very few of which lead to positive impact, while at the same time the rest of the workforce struggles with increasing mental health challenges. The answer is less, not more. We need to focus on fewer initiatives, with more commitment to ensure their success.

Why Change Fails

It’s a familiar story we’ve seen time and time again. An ambitious new leader comes in and launches a transformational initiative. There’s a kickoff meeting and a massive internal communication campaign to rally the troops for the multi-year program. Consultants are hired and employees are told, in no uncertain terms, they must get on board.

Two years later, the leader moves on, having sold another company on the myth of his transformational leadership. Another, equally ambitious executive comes in with their own idea for change. The old initiative is dropped, there is a kickoff meeting, an internal communication campaign, consultants are hired and employees are told to get on board.

Rinse and repeat.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. But let’s face it, there is a tendency to glorify the kickoff more than genuine results. Part of this is cultural and part of it reflects other trends. An excessive adherence to quarterly benchmarks puts too much focus on short term impact. Combine this with a general decline in executive tenure means that leaders often leave before transformation projects can be completed.

All of this comes at a cost. Take a look at the economic data and you will inevitably find that productivity growth is significantly lower than in earlier generations. In the US in particular, the White House has found that competition, across a wide variety of metrics, has declined significantly in the past few decades.

The Power Of No

When people remember Steve Jobs’ tenure at Apple, they remember the products that were launched. Yet arguably, the most important thing he did at Apple was kill products. When he returned to the company in 1997, he found that years of undisciplined management led to a bloated product line. The first thing Jobs did was not to launch new innovations, but to do an extensive review in which he cut 70% of the product line.

“One of Jobs’s great strengths was knowing how to focus.” Walter Isaacson, his biographer, would later write. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he quotes the legendary CEO saying. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”

At one point a frustrated Jobs simply said, “Stop!” He grabbed a magic marker, went to the whiteboard, made a classic two by two matrix with “Consumer” and “Pro” making up the columns and “Desktop” and “Portable”  making up the rows. He then declared that Apple would make four great products, one for each quadrant and that would be it.

He maintained the same discipline throughout his tenure. Over the next decade, he would launch the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. A handful of products was all it took to create the most valuable company in the world. Becoming an innovation-led company is not about launching a lot of ideas, but focusing on the ones that matter and figuring out how to make them work.

The Time To Commit

While we talk about transformation more and more, we seem to be doing it less and less. This is no accident. Change and transformation aren’t about coming up with the idea and doing a fancy kickoff event followed by an extensive communication campaign, it’s about converting those ideas into impactful solutions to problems people care about.

There’s far too much talk and not nearly enough impact. Change should be an inspiration, not one more burden in an otherwise exhausted workplace. It’s time to refocus our efforts on change that matters. In most enterprises, that will mean committing to fewer initiatives, but seeing them through.

To do that effectively, leaders need to learn to say, “no.” Every organization needs to maximize the impact of limited resources and that means we need to make choices. Pursuing one thing means that we need to give up something else. We can’t just spin our wheels and expect to get anywhere, we need to pick a direction and get going.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. Committing to a specific objective means we limit our options. Sticking with a project when things get tough takes courage and resilience. That’s why so few leaders are able to do it consistently. But the evidence is clear. If you want to compete successfully, that’s what you need to do.



Dan Toma is an innovation thought leader and co-author of the award-winning books ‘The Corporate Startup’ (2017) and ‘Innovation Accounting’ (2022). Puzzled by the question ‘Why are innovative products mainly launched by startups?’, together with his colleagues at the London-based consultancy company OUTCOME, he focuses on enterprise innovation transformation. Specifically on the changes blue-chip organizations need to make to allow for new ventures to be built in the corporate setting.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. September 3, 2023

    Hello Greg. Please help me understand how to choose what idea or product should be developed, and what to say “no”? Maybe, in this case, a significant risk of failure.

  2. September 8, 2023

    That’s a great question! The truth is that you never really know, which is why it’s so difficult to focus on a limited number of initiatives. So it’s more a matter of paying attention to what your organization or team can handle and making sure you don’t go beyond that. Less is often more.


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