Monday, March 29, 2010

Saying No By Default

Aut tace aut loquere meliora silencio means "only if the words improve on silence." I first came across this phrase in Fooled By Randomness and it struck me because that described how I lived and how I made decisions. This is how I described it one year ago:
I try and do everything for a reason and I only jump into things after a significant amount of considered thought instead of doing things just for the sake of doing things. I ask myself "how is this going to create value for me?" before I do something. Everything is carefully planned out and I want to eliminate anything that isn't going to contribute positively.
This was probably influenced by being a longtime Apple observer: Apple's brand strategy is to say no most of the time. They only do what will impact their brand positively. Nothing they put out dilutes their brand- they could make TVs or digital cameras that are more intuitive and look better than those out there already, but they don't, and they won't. They go for the big and meaningful things, entering only the markets where they have a clear shot at being the winner, releasing only the products that are going to impact the brand positively. In the Q1 2009 conference call, Tim Cook clearly articulated that philosophy: "We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us."

Brand dilution is something that happens gradually- it starts going downhill and people tend not to notice until it's too late. It's going in to a store whose core competency is selling groceries that now has a cardboard display by the checkout with a bunch of crappy old DVDs selling for $7. This is the kind of thing that dilutes their brand- it doesn't fit at all with what else they are doing. Somebody from the store had the opportunity to put it in and said "sure, why not? We might make some extra revenue on it." In terms of dollar and cents, it probably seemed like a no-lose proposition. Problem is, when building a brand, the question to ask isn't "why not?" it's "why should I?" Cost to your brand can't be measured concretely, but overall I would classify this as a net negative because of the impact on the brand (never mind the fact that no one is going to buy those CDs anyways).

This philosophy is also what Tim Ferriss advocated in this recent post:
Say No By Default
“If I’d listened to customers, I’d have given them a faster horse.”
—HENRY FORD
It’s so easy to say yes. Yes to another feature, yes to an overly optimistic deadline, yes to a mediocre design. Soon, the stack of things you’ve said yes to grows so tall you can’t even see the things you should really be doing.
Start getting into the habit of saying no—even to many of your best ideas. Use the power of no to get your priorities straight. You rarely regret saying no. But you often wind up regretting saying yes.
People avoid saying no because confrontation makes them uncomfortable. But the alternative is even worse. You drag things out, make things complicated, and work on ideas you don’t believe in.
It’s like a relationship: Breaking one up is hard to do, but staying in it just because you’re too chicken to drop the ax is even worse. Deal with the brief discomfort of confrontation up front and avoid the long-term regret.
Don’t believe that “customer is always right” stuff, either. Let’s say you’re a chef. If enough of your customers say your food is too salty or too hot, you change it. But if a few persnickety patrons tell you to add bananas to your lasagna, you’re going to turn them down, and that’s OK. Making a few vocal customers happy isn’t worth it if it ruins the product for everyone else.
ING Direct has built the fastest-growing bank in America by saying no. When customers ask for a credit card, the answer is no. When they ask for an online brokerage, the answer is no. When they ask if they can open an account with a million dollars in it, the answer is no (the bank has a strict deposit maximum). ING wants to keep things simple. That’s why the bank offers just a few savings accounts, certificates of deposit, and mutual funds—and that’s it.
To sum it up, you'll consider something, but it's unlikely that you'll agree to it- like saying, "possibly, but probably no." While I continue to think this philosophy has its merits, I've gradually migrated towards a different kind of decision-making strategy clearly articulated here by Ben Casnocha, Framing Decisions Based On The Cost Of Failure. While saying no is a good strategy for building brands, it's not completely transferable to your personal decision-making process. Exposing yourself to random things can be a great source of new ideas. The issue that I find with the "possibly, but probably no" is that it very easily changes to simply "No" and you start not even considering the ideas because your answer is probably going to be no anyways. That's a problem, because you don't want to shield yourself from new ideas and new experiences that can change the way you see things. When things have a low cost of failure, it's better to say yes and see how it goes instead of automatically saying no. For example, the only reason that I know of Ben Casnocha is because I happened to see his book on the corner of a table at a bookstore. That's it. I wasn't looking for the book and no one pointed me to his blog or book. It was completely random.

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