What Do We Say No To?

yes / noBy Beth Cousens

New York Magazine has begun issuing its print magazine every other week, moving from 42 to 26 annual issues. Press coverage suggested that the magazine was losing ground by shrinking its product. A closer look reveals some complexity, that the magazine’s digital platform has taken off and that resources once devoted to the print issue are now to be used to expand the magazine’s on-line efforts. In other words, this seeming retrenchment is a focus in order for potential expansion: the magazine’s core mission – the delivery of a certain kind of content – will remain strong and even grow, and the format through which the magazine achieves its mission will change slightly. In this choice, the magazine is maximizing its resources in order to deliver its results. The magazine’s leadership is saying no, focusing strategy, in order to accomplish more.

Years ago, at a nonprofit organization for which I worked, a volunteer leader asked me to create a list of the organization’s core activities. He was expecting one piece of paper. I needed four. We had six different approaches to creating social change. We offered as many types of service to our clients as we could, fulfilling a sense of mission to our clients, occasionally following funders’ interests, sometimes pursuing Jewish values. We were practicing the “can’t say no” syndrome, rarely saying no to funders and also not saying no to ourselves. This resulted in diffuse organizational strategy, resources spread thinly across many functions instead of concentrated in a few areas. We rarely worked deeply anywhere and, consequently, we rarely made real change anywhere.

Strategy should be tight, focused. The concept of strategy comes originally from the military (the Greek word strategos means “to think like a general”) where if resources are not directly focused in a complementary way on a target, and if that target is not addressed successfully, lives are lost. Sir Winston Churchill allegedly said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Strategy is more than how we do things; it suggests interlocking means of execution that yields maximal results. Strategy needs to move the needle. Pieces of the strategy that are distracting – even if they feel right or important – need to go.

That’s hard. There are likely disappointed readers of New York Magazine who will miss the more frequent (non-virtual) read. But what if New York Magazine had decided instead to expand its on-line presence while maintaining its weekly edition? It might have stretched its resources, not able to maintain one while expanding the other. And then, it might have disappeared not partially but completely, and then it would really have disappointed its readers. The magazine’s commitment to its ultimate goal was bigger than its leadership’s desire to avoid some one-time difficult conversations with readers, some reader disappointment, and perhaps even some reader abandonment. Strategy is about the larger picture; sometimes, it is about saying no in the day-to-day. Our commitment to our vision has to be bigger than the emotions that arise when we feel that we are not pursuing our every possible opportunity. To get more done we have to learn to say no, uncomfortable though it might feel.

To act more strategically, to say yes to the right things and no to others, we might ask ourselves:

  • What do we want to be doing in the world? What change are we pursuing?
  • What are the most promising activities that might get us to this change?
  • What activities don’t fit into this puzzle? What activities seem attractive but are less productive?
  • And, finally, can we say no? What does it take?

Dr. Beth Cousens, a Wexner Graduate fellowship alumna (Class 14), is a consultant to Jewish educational organizations in the areas of strategy, program development, and evaluation and measurement. She is the author of numerous articles and research publications about Jewish life and living and blogs at www.bethcousens.com. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son. Beth can be reached at bethcousens@gmail.com.

cross-posted on the Wexner Foundation Blog