What value is your “Yes” if you can’t say “No”?

Volume 22 Letter 10

In the movie “Bruce Almighty”, actor Jim Carey gets to be God which, of course, means he must respond to people’s prayers.  At one point he’s so inundated with prayers to win the lottery, travel the world, etc. that rather than weighing the merit of each request he hits “Yes” to all.  Everyone’s prayers are answered!    An exhausted Jim Carey (God) thinks he’ll finally have some peace.   Instead, he finds hell.   People who prayed to win the mega jackpot lottery only won ten dollars because …well everyone prayed to win, so the prize was shared a million ways.   With all prayers answered, everyone was furious and dissatisfied leaving us all to wonder….. What value is your “Yes” if you can’t say “No”?

Most business managers like Bruce/God are pretty good at the day to day stuff.  Bruce didn’t struggle with this.  It was planning for the future that perplexed him, and rightly so.  Every business and every manager that has discretionary resources needs to allocate those resources to positively shape the future of their enterprise.  It’s called a Strategic Plan.  Often presented with rousing rehearsed orations and polished PowerPoints, it’s the wise business leader that looks past the show to see the real strategy; always asking where are the scarce resources of time and money distributed?

By allocating scarce resources to one endeavour you’re defunding others.    Fund the winners, defund the laggards…so easy.  Research indicates that almost all executives struggle with resource allocation decisions.  But notably, a research report from McKinsey1 revealed that across most enterprises allocation of resources rarely changes from year to year.   The same research showed that companies that most actively reallocated resources to high value opportunities, while withdrawing resources from underperformers, ‘significantly outperformed’ their peers.    So what’s stopping us from saying “No” to underperformers and actively supporting winners?   Two things….. Knowhow and Fear.

Key to developing a solid strategy is having the ability to say “No” and explain why.  This is where the tools of strategy are so important.  Tools like Portfolio Analysis, NPV, Segmentation, Positioning Maps, etc. are critical in keeping the strategic planning process objective and transparent helping to determine who gets what so we can create growth and ensure the future viability of the enterprise.  But that alone may not be enough.

It’s scary to defund anyone.  What will happen if I say no to my colleague?    What will the fallout be if I’m on a team that rejects an idea from my boss?  Fear can prevent us from making those tough choices that will ultimately benefit our organization.  Wouldn’t it just be better to treat everyone equally?    Like Bruce Almighty saying “Yes” to every prayer, “Yes” to every project results in a thin distribution of resources irrespective of the quality of opportunities.  The fallout from a ubiquitous ‘yes’ is in an increase in political infighting and bureaucracy and a loss of credibility.  Ultimately, team motivation is bound to tank.   Though counter-intuitive, saying yes to all doesn’t always bring the love.

What can we learn from Bruce Almighty and his inability to say “No”?

  1. Strategic planning means making tough resource allocation decisions.  Apply the tools of strategy listed above to be objective and transparent about why you made your decisions.
  2. Don’t fear rejection.  Objective, transparent decisions will win you more friends in the long run than saying “Yes” to everything.
  3. The greater your ability to objectively  say “No”, the greater the value of your “Yes”.

Developing a business strategy forces leaders to understand what their business is and what it is not.  Saying “No” and withdrawing resources from lesser opportunities is a sign that you know your business.  It’s what separates mere mortals from the gods.  Steve Jobs famous stated “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”  That’s something to keep in mind as you develop your strategy.



  1.  How nimble resource allocation can double your company’s value | McKinsey



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