The  Art of Strategy is About Knowing  When  to Say No

When HubSpot, the company I co-founded, was in its earliest stages, I used to say yes to almost anything: new features, new initiatives, new ideas. It empowered my team to move fast and get things done. I prided myself on being a “yes” man.

I said “yes” to a highly fun and creative video series.

I said “yes” to a HubSpot All Star Leaderboard that measured customer engagement with our product.
By the time we’d grown to a couple hundred employees, however, all that dissipated energy had begun to yield diminishing returns. To put balance into my yes-no diet, I adopted three practices:

Put it in writing 
The single best tool I have found to help unlearn the yes-man ways of a startup CEO is a single-page document we call our MSPOT. With it, we articulate our Mission, the constituencies we Serve, the Plays we’re going to run this year, the plays we are going to Omit and how we will Track our progress. The most painful portion of that document are the Omissions. Painful, because they are usually excellent ideas with high potential — but necessarily omitted because we are better off doing a few things very well. One of the most agonizing Omissions I had to make, for example, was deferring the opening of our first international office by a year.

Let your ‘no’ mean ‘no’
We’re a reasonably flat organization, and we give the floor to all sorts of competing opinions. Usually, we’re pretty good at coming to a conclusion, and everyone involved heads off to act on it. Sometimes, though, ardent advocates on the short end of the decision would return to me and renew their case, perhaps with additional data or a more effective spokesperson. And, too often, in the absence of the full team, I’d see the sense in their augmented argument, and give them half a green light as well. Inevitably, that led to a reconvening of all parties, which frequently enough would lead to uninspired compromises.

And let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes!’
The other parts of that MSPOT are for what constituents we will Serve, and what Plays we will do — with conviction, and no looking back. In startup mode, we could make decisions quickly, and it didn’t necessarily matter if it was the right decision. We could examine the results, and if we didn’t see early promise, we were agile enough to adjust, change course or, if necessary, cut our losses and kill it. That entrepreneurial mindset and willingness to say “yes” was instrumental in finding product-market fit. However, in scale-up mode, the virtue of keeping our options open, and changing gears based on new information, is disruptive and expensive.

Over the past few years HubSpot has grown from a startup to a scale-up. The discipline of saying “no” has paid big dividends for us.

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