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August 12, 2015

The Power of No

Dan and his partners run a successful technology startup. They've been growing quickly for several years, but now the bloom is off the rose: growth is slowing; the work is not as fun as it used to be; Dan is getting restive.Being smart business leaders, Dan and his partners came up with a plan to reboot the business by developing a new line of products aimed at larger enterprise clients with complex problems that Dan and his team are uniquely positioned to solve. More clients, money, more interesting work — a brilliant solution.And then nothing happened.

Swimming in the Shallow End

They kept their same old clients, complained about them more and more, and watched their revenue flatline.They were afraid of making the change they said they wanted because they thought it would mean letting go of their current success. So they kept trudging along, growing more dissatisfied by the day.

They were reaping the rewards of misalignment: what they said they wanted and what they were doing were growing further and further apart and in the gap was drudgery, complaining and worry.It reminded me of my last years in corporate life, when I knew I wanted something different and was afraid to make the move to get it — after all, I had a big job and paycheck with a prestigious company; you’d have to be crazy to give that up. But the cost of doing what I no longer believed in was high and in the end I was lucky to leave it.

The Power of No

We talked about the cost of staying in the zone of the known, where things are predictable. We also looked at the cost of moving on: Dan and his partners would have to say goodbye to some long-time customers and the steady revenue they provided. After facing the costs – personal and strategic – of business as usual, they decided they’d rather go out of business than tolerate their current results.

For Dan and his colleagues, the only way to get what they wanted was to start saying “No” to what they didn’t want. It was a frightening move, going to that big-yet-boring client and declaring that from now on they would be solving big problems for a bigger fee.

And then an amazing thing happened. Rather than being the end of a relationship, that “No” was the beginning of a conversation about what big problems Dan’s company could solve for the old boring client. The client changed the assignment and stayed.And then something even more amazing happened. Saying “No” to what they didn’t want freed up Dan’s energy and imagination to work on getting the new customers his company really wanted. In a week, they landed an important new client who loved Dan’s new concept and didn't even ask how much money they would charge.

That’s the power of integrity: lining up what we really want with what we say and do frees up all that energy we used to spend holding together misaligned vision with uninspired action. And there’s nothing like a heartfelt “No” to clear the way.

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