The clarity of no; the power of yes
Catherine Bachy, Organizational Excellence Partner

The start of a new academic year inspires a flurry of retreat planning and strategy meetings for many units and schools. One of the academic leaders I assisted in strategic meeting design earlier this fall conveyed how important it was for her and her executive team to get very clear about their purpose and goals for the school. We need to know what we are saying yes to and when we can say no. This was music to my ears as she was describing a common experience for many leaders.

Although we may not think of it in quite this way, strategic planning requires the ability to say no as well as the understanding of to what we can we say no. “No” can be necessary to acquire clarity around each powerful “yes” that moves our purpose and goals forward. Unfortunately, it can be easy to find honorable reasons to keep adding just one more priority or project, and this culminates in diluted impact and unsustainable organizations.

A couple of years ago I learned that when the word “priority” came into the English language in the 1400s, it was only used in the singular because it characterized one thing as the most important ― a singular thing taking absolute precedence over all else. That usage is now rare. Clearly the modern human is different, as is the world in which we live. I know I have always thought of priorities in threes or fives. Still, there is wisdom and effectiveness in honing our priorities to meet a clear purpose.

What can you do?

I’d like to recommend a few resources to assist with the discipline of gaining clarity and focus.

In “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” Greg McKeown offers a three-tiered approach for getting clear on what to focus on: 1) explore and evaluate, 2) eliminate, and 3) execute. (Yes, he actually commands us to “eliminate” and “execute.” Ouch!) This may seem drastic, but McKeown’s approach is designed to go against the grain of accomplishing more with less or feeling like we have to do it all.

If you’re more likely to attend a training than pick up a book, take note that my colleague Josina Garnham is offering a new POD class this winter, Find Your Focus: Prioritizing Work and Life. This class uses McKeown’s work and other models to help you learn how to become more strategic in your approach and do the right work at the right time.

Another resource is Patrick Lencioni’s “The Advantage.” This best-seller from the author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” advises leaders to develop a playbook that answers six questions about their organization:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. How do we behave?
  3. What do we do?
  4. How will we succeed?
  5. What is most important, right now?
  6. Who must do what?

It’s reasonable to expect that it would take an executive leadership team a full day in a facilitated strategic meeting (or retreat) to clearly answer these questions. Once the questions are answered to the team’s satisfaction, the responses become a playbook to integrate into communication, decision making and all levels of the organization’s systems. A playbook such as this can become your North Star, guiding you to the essential and away from distractions or causes that, however noble, do not deserve a yes.

Finally, if you are part of an academic unit looking for help planning your next strategic retreat, I’d like to encourage you to contact the Partnership for Organizational Excellence, a supported service. Complete our intake form and we’ll get back to you to schedule your next steps.

Catherine Bachy, M.A, M.Ed., is an organizational excellence partner prioritizing organizational consulting services to serve staff and faculty of academic units.

Autumn 2019 | Return to Issue Home