Prioritizing For Impact

by Barry O'Reilly

Why I Say No To Do More Yes!

I got an email recently from someone who had been to one of my workshops a year and a half ago. He was writing to tell me how much he’d enjoyed it, and how much it had shifted his mindset.

In fact, he was so inspired that he had decided to leave his job because he felt secure and comfortable, but not aligned. He switched to another company where he was now working in a more dynamic environment and said he was the happiest he’d ever been. He wanted to thank me for showing him the tools to take uncertain steps—and to achieve impactful breakthroughs as a result.

That’s the best kind of email I could ever hope to get. I’m super grateful when people reach out because they’ve enjoyed working with me, read my books and blogs, or listened to my podcast or talks, and benefited from trying out the ideas I share.

I love getting to meet and connect with so many people who care about the same vision and values that I care about: working with great people in innovative ways to achieve extraordinary results. It’s truly an honor and a privilege. 

The challenging part is that I also get numerous invitations and requests that can be hard to manage—because it’s impossible to do everything. 

My mission is to help purposeful, technology-led businesses innovate at scale. I also have specific objectives I wish to achieve, and I place strategic bets on how I pursue them. 

So when I get requests, I hold them up against my values, business vision and current mission and objectives to see how they line up. 

Having a strategy for how I invest my time helps me stay focused on what’s important and where I believe I can have the most impact. 

Strategy Is Deciding Where Not To Invest

Good strategy requires leaders who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does. —Richard P. Rumelt, author Good Strategy Bad Strategy

Strategy means saying no to requests, which means sometimes you’re going to upset people. In these cases the best you can do is just be clear and respectful—and that has to be good enough. 

Here are the principles that guide my strategy for deciding where to invest my time. Feel free to adopt them or come up with your own—but either way, I do recommend that you have a systematic way to assess inbounds, invitations, and individuals looking for access to you. It’s vital that you’re able to evaluate how these inputs are likely to affect your output and ultimately the outcomes of your work, life and impact in the world.

How To Prioritize Work

Define Success

I’m rigorous about defining what success means for all the initiatives I invest myself in. This makes it easier to make tough decisions about what to invest my finite time, energy, and availability in.

For example, one of my strategic objectives is to help a million people learn to unlearn in the next twelve months. To help me get there I ran my first Unlearn workshop in virtual reality on October 30. I was able to experiment with the platform and explore a new option for scaling my product to a larger audience. (It was an amazing experience—let me know if you want to attend the next session.)

Another metric I monitor is the percentage of time I spend working from home versus traveling. My objective is to spend 80 percent of my working days based from home

I’m a remote-first business, and leverage technology as a strategic capability to collaborate with clients all over the world. I still travel to kickoff engagements, go and see how my customers truly operate, and build context and relationships to help us both succeed but it also means I turn down requests from organizations that believe I can only be of value if I am onsite all the time—the honest truth is having a diverse and distributed portfolio of client work is a benefit for both of us. 

So if a warm body, sitting outside your office is what you believe is the only way to succeed then I’m not the advisor, consultant or collaborator that you’re looking for.

Work With People With Aligned Values

I believe I create better outcomes by being clear on my values and principles. This extends to partnering with people who share those values and principles—which is one of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned in business. 

Every time I’ve optimized for a financial or short-term incentive, I’ve ended up regretting it. One harsh lesson was working with a client who’s values were obvious at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine. From the initial chemistry calls, and the difficult behaviors I observed, I should stuck to my system and thought better of proceeding. Yet, I tricked myself into believing that the brand, business and financial benefits would be worth it. How wrong was I. 

Anything worth doing is never easy. Times get tough on every initiative. How people respond in those moments is what makes outstanding collaborations. But unaligned values and principles in those moments only brings out the worst in all involved. 

My tip to help you discover aligned values early? Ask your potential collaborator if it’s safe to fail in their organization, including a story of the last time someone did and how it was handle—you will learn a lot from what how they respond.

The values I care most about is working with leaders who strive to find their edge with excellence. As Peter Drucker said, “Change never happens at the center, it happens at the edge”. The edge for me is our knowledge threshold, current skills sets and beliefs. To innovate, grow and gain an edge in the market we need to find, explore and extend our personal edges too. 

Yet while courage is necessary to embrace uncertainty, it also needs strategy. One which creates safety to succeed by designing steps that are safe to fail.

That’s why my mantra is to think big, start small and learn fast. The important part to keep in mind is that we’re not going to stay small forever. Small steps accumulate and compound over time, ultimately growing into much larger transformations. We build our confidence, capability, and courage with each small step into the unknown when we strive for excellence, improvement and get comfortable with being uncomfortable

If you believe in these values—we’ll do amazing work together. If predictable, guaranteed and risk-free results are your expectation—this is not the collaborator you are looking for.

Limit Work In Progress

I’m a big believer in limiting my amount of work in progress. I can’t tackle a hundred initiatives at the same time, as every switch context carries a high cost and cognitive (re)load.

If you do a hundred different things to try to please everybody, you’ll end up getting none of them done, and certainly not to the required level of quality. 

One way I limit my work in progress is to never have more than three clients at a time. Yes I turn clients down because I’ve reached my self-defined work in progress limit.

Believe me, it’s better to turn down short-term revenue than to deliver a lower quality product at the cost of your client’s success. Quality work results in recurring work and deeper relationships with clients. Try it—you’ll be surprised how impactful it is. 

Personal Development

I always pay attention to my own self-development. Learning and unlearning are super important to me, both personally and professionally, so I make sure to invest in my own growth. In fact, another of my objectives is investing 25 percent of my capacity in personal development activities.

This might mean going to conferences as a participant, taking new courses, or getting coached or mentored by others. One lesson I’ve learned is that you should never under-invest in yourself—when you neglect this, your aspirations only get further away. 

Give Back

I like to share my experiences and what I’m working on with the community to help broaden our field and to reflect on what I’ve learned. I do this by creating and sharing content through this blog, my podcast, social media, talks, books and more—the majority of which is free. 

The more I share, the more I seem to get back. I continuously find and am inspired by new collaborators in interesting and varied fields. I don’t engage in these activities for personal gain, but I’m always energized with new ideas from the individuals I meet when doing so.

Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice

I believe—and the research supports—that the highest performing teams are based on psychological safety, diversity, dependability, and impact. And I support this belief through my work.

For example, I don’t speak at conferences or on panels that are all male, lack underrepresented groups, or fail to embrace the values of creating opportunities for all walks of life.

I won’t work with companies that don’t support fair trade, workers’ rights, or action on climate change. And I likewise avoid those who aim to profit from others’ misery, misfortune, or compromised physical or mental health.

I’ve turned down many Fortune 500, startups and founders based on these principles and will continue to. 

So if you’re now wondering if I said “No” to you due to your own social and economic justice, diversity, and inclusion policies, good! I believe being educated and active on these issues is important, and we should all question where our organization stands on these issues.

Collaboration Fit

My Ask Of You

I believe that if you’re going to ask someone for their time, you’ve got to be prepared. Be specific about what you want, and frame it in terms of what will interest and benefit both parties.

Requests like meeting for lunch, coffee or brain-picking doesn’t give any actionable information to help prioritize and make a decision. It’s asking for a high investment without proposing a value-exchange. So don’t be upset when I or someone says ‘No’, or nothing at all.

I always look at requests against my mission, vision, and values to see if there’s alignment. If there’s a fit—as my friend and inspiration for this post Teresa Torres pointed out to me—it should be a “Hell Yeah!”. This is best incentive to connect. 

If you do get a ‘No’, you might feel upset or disappointed. But in my case, it’s not because I don’t like you or want to know you. I simply don’t see a fit with my current mission and objectives, we are going in different directions, or you’re not being clear on which direction you’re going at all. 

Getting to Hell Yeah!

Being clear on my objectives, focusing on values alignment and limiting the amount of work in progress allows me to both learn, unlearn, relearn and breakthrough. That’s my system for facing changing circumstances in the uncertain world around us.

These heuristics allow me to determine whether the initiatives I think are important to me actually are. It makes tough decisions easier, including if I should keep investing in my current strategies or if I need to switch them up.

I want to thank you for being here, following my work and taking an interest in these topics, which is ultimately about making the world a better place. If you do have an idea you think is a win-win, please do reach out. You might get a “No”, a “Not now”—but it could also be a “Hell Yeah!” and next small step for us to achieve extraordinary results, together.

Easy Ways to Connect

I love sharing what I’m learning with my communities and collaborators. And I’ve set up lots of ways you can connect with me for free. I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn, and you can read my blogs and listen to my podcast. All you have to do is invest your time.

And if you want to go deeper, you can:

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the questions I get asked frequently, and links to previous posts on those topics. Enjoy!

How can I get started with hypothesis-driven development?

How to implement Hypothesis-Driven Development

Optimize to Be Wrong, Not Right

How can I get started with outcome-based innovation? 

Your Mission Is To Produce Outcomes, Not Outputs

Value Engineering for Outcome-based Bets

The Most Important Metric You’ll Ever Need 

How can I setup innovation portfolio management? 

Managing The Innovation Portfolio

Explore vs Exploit

How To Lead Product Portfolios (40 mins)

Do you have any case studies I can share in my company? 

https://barryoreilly.com/resources/

What are the most important aspects of leading innovation and transformation initiatives?

10 Principles For Business Transformation

Leading Culture Change Means Changing Yourself Before Others 

Unlearning Business Innovation

How High Performance Organizations Innovate At Scale (45 mins)

What are the most important roles of leadership in driving innovation and transformation? 

Spin The Business Agility Flywheel To Transform Your Company

When Your Startup Can’t Stop Disrupting Itself

Everyone Needs A Coach

Think BIG, Learn Fast, Start Now! (30 mins)

How can I write a book? 

Unlearning To Write A Book

How can I start a consulting business? 

A Retrospective On Entrepreneurship

How can I start being on advisory board for startups? 

AgileCraft, Advising and Atlassian Acquisition

 

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