When applying for my first ever full time job, I wrote in my cover letter that I have a “yes”-attitude. Two years down the road and if you asked my colleagues, they would describe me as the person who has the guts to “kill” useless reports, processes and complexity. How did I get from ”yes” to “no”? I guess it started with me questioning whether my work tasks were worth investing time in. As you can imagine, not all activities you get assigned to in an entry-level position are value adding. I chose to step up and challenge the status quo. In this post I would like to share my experience on how learning to say “no” can transform one’s career.
I started my career journey in a finance department where I became responsible for a corporate tool that was used for capacity cost budgeting. From the outside, it was the fanciest and most user-friendly tool I have ever seen. When I looked at the structure behind, I realized it was an Excel monster. I was also terrified when I saw my handover. It was 36 pages of font size 10 text. And now attention! The process of collecting all the information and calculations that went into the tool took 5 months. FIVE MONTHS!!! For a tool that was used once a year during a budget process.
I could tell you about all my frustrations with this process but this is not the purpose of this post. Long story short, I “killed” all the unnecessary details and complexity and now the process takes less than a month. What is more, the tool has been modified to be used in other budget estimate processes throughout the year. What happened was that by getting less, finance team could suddenly do more. Sounds like a paradox? Not really. Simplicity allows people to focus their attention on what important. Check out the book by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson called “Re-work” – they have a very cool view on the power of simplicity! (Read also Hana’s blog post inspired by this book)
So how did I approach the task? I could pretend that this was a “piece of cake” and all I had to do was to objectively assess current process and identify things that were driving cost and complexity but had little value to the users. While this simplification made perfect sense to me, I didn’t think that this change would ever get approved. The company invested several million kroner into this project and the users were very happy with the results, so I was expecting to meet some resistance. Why should we change anything when things are working better than ever?
And here I was, a 23 year old right out of school explaining to the entire finance management why I believed it was a good idea to simplify the process and the tool and thus free up the resources for more value adding activities. I listed all the things that in my opinion had to be “killed” and explained in details on what it would mean for the users. I got only one question from the audience: “How much time do you need to implement this?” Few months down the road, I got a promotion.
Reflecting on this learning, I realized we have a lot of low-hanging fruits in the organizations. All these bureaucratic processes that no one revisited for years. Reports that no one is reading. “We have always done it this way”. I bet you’ve heard this phrase before if you are working in a large company. What is even worse is that whenever we create new reports, processes and tools we tend to follow the principle “more is better”. What me and my new team is trying to do instead, is to actively work with pilots which are the minimum viable products. The idea is that you release a pilot very early in the development process and then shape it together with the customer. You will be surprised, but apart from a few individuals with very specific requirements, most people actually love the simplicity.
But if saying “no” brings such great results, why is it so difficult to do it? I believe there are several reasons for it. It is hard to do it because saying “no” means going against the established believes. Because saying “no” often means a change. Because saying “no” means hurting somebody else’s feelings. But Steve Jobs once said that “it’s only by saying “no” that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” And this is what drives me at work and gives me power and bravery to say “no”. It is the opportunities that open up, the new initiatives and possibilities that I can say “yes” to.
Work and progress,