What are you saying ‘No’ to?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

3 reasons every changemaker needs to start asking themselves this question

Much of my work involves facilitating people and organizations through journeys to craft compelling visions and the roadmaps to get them there.

I love inspirational language, big picture thinking, and questions that have more than one good answer.

For example: “You receive an unexpected $50K donation. There are no limits on what you can spend the money on; but, you have to spend it all within the next year. What priority do you pursue that felt previously undoable?” 

I’ve met a lot of different types of people in the health and social sectors doing all kinds of valuable and inspiring work. Very few land on an answer to this question that does not involve somehow trying to double or triple the value of this $50K boost.

Here is a not untypical response: “We’ll hire someone to solve three of our biggest roadblocks. Each should take about 6 months to address. So we will onboard our new hire really fast and make their fourth major task finding a grant that will cover their salary for a second year.” 

This answer is understandable and creative given the resource constraints of many social change organizations. However, it also looks to get around actually choosing a priority. 

Priority setting

I use a number of approaches to help people and organizations identify priorities. My favourites avoid simply zeroing in on the loudest voices or biggest pain points. We might spend some time there. However, ultimately, we explore multi-year needs and weigh factors such as feasibility, interdependencies, and vision, mission and values alignment. 

A key question I am known for asking when I work with people to do this is, “What are you saying ‘no’ to?” Apparently, I once asked it so often that a CEO I was working with joked: “We should really get you a t-shirt with that printed on it.”

I ask it a lot because I like that it prompts several really important considerations all at once. 

What asking this key question can reveal

It can help address the challenge from my above example that many who have dedicated their lives to social justice struggle with: wanting to say ‘yes’ to everything. Who among us hasn’t said some version of: “The needs we are addressing are urgent. How dare we not act yesterday?” 

Yet, you cannot say ‘yes’ to too many things at once. You risk burnout and are likely to diminish your impact if you spread yourself or your team too thinly across too many activities. As I write this we are all navigating a worldwide pandemic. It might feel like this gives you licence to ignore this consideration. In fact, it is more important now than ever.

If your ‘no,’ or ‘not now’ list is sparse and you or your team are tired, you need to take another look. 

“What are you saying ‘no’ to?” can also shine a light on the potential to place a lower priority on longer-term, more complex challenges. Many organizations are coming face-to-face with having made those kinds of choices in the past. They are recognizing that the equity they attempt to advance for their clients is something they chose to delay addressing within their own teams. 

If your vision, mission, and values speak to a more equitable society you cannot be saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to doing that work within your own organization. 

Lastly, the question, “What are you saying ‘no’ to?” can help solidify your ‘yeses.’ Your ‘no’ list should make you feel a little uncomfortable. In order to create space for priorities that are timely, feasible, interdependent with other items on your ‘yes’ list, and strongly aligned with your mission, vision and values, you will probably need to say ‘no’ to something important.

If your ‘no’ or ‘not now’ list does not include at least one item that feels like a sacrifice to put on hold, ask yourself if you’re truly clearing the runway for your most important priorities. When you make hard choices to put some activities to the side, when you are clear on what you are not doing, and why, you are better positioned for success. 

1. If your ‘no’ or ‘not now’ list is sparse and you and your team are tired, you need to take another look.

2. If your vision, mission, and values speak to a more equitable society you cannot be saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to doing that work within your own organization. 

3. If your ‘no’ or ‘not now’ list does not include at least one item that feels like a sacrifice to put on hold, ask yourself if you’re truly clearing the runway for your most important priorities.

Your path forward

Thinking big and bold about the change you want to see, and be, in the world is an exciting journey. It is also hard work! For many, it’s when you start to zero in on which steps to take first to begin to move toward your vision that the true heavy lifting begins.    

The next time you find yourself or your organization doing this kind of priority setting, try asking yourself: “What am I  saying ‘no’ to?” 

You might be surprised at how this focus on your ‘no’ helps you clarify your path forward.


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