The Mummy’s Curse

Some folks just don’t take ‘No’ for an answer… and that’s not always a virtue

A CEO of a Fortune 100 company once lamented, “Our project teams understand ‘Yes’ and they understand ‘Maybe’, but they don’t understand ‘No’!” He could sympathize with the characters in the old Hollywood horror movies like The Mummy’s Curse: they think they have killed the monster but it just keeps coming back to terrorize them.

In our ethos, the “Damn the torpedoes” and “Never say die” attitudes run deep. Add to that, epic tales in corporate America of visionaries refusing to take “No” for an answer and courageously pushing their ideas forward to blockbuster success. Any industry with a significant history will have it’s own stories of determined champions or cautionary tales of forsaken opportunities:

  • IBM outsourcing their PC operating system to a tiny firm called Microsoft
  • Borders underestimating the emergence of online sales
  • Blockbuster ignoring delivery via streaming technology

These vivid legends capture the imagination and drown out the hundreds or thousands of off-target projects that burned up limited resources and diluted support to core strategies. History does not provide clear guidance. There are success stories on both sides of the debate so leaders must choose their path with care.

An Embarrassment Of Riches For Some

A small percentage of firms enjoy such a dominant position and such excess profits and resources that it makes perfect sense to pursue a seemingly random array of new business lines.

A contemporary example is Google who encourages off-strategy initiatives with their famous “20 percent time”. Employees are allowed to use the equivalent of one day a week to work on their own pet projects. This free flowing development has produced half of Google’s products, perhaps Gmail being the most prominent.

And Then There’s The Rest Of Us

The more common experience for companies is ongoing hand-to-hand combat where a dominant position is won only with brutal focus. Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great contends that companies who attained enduring success maintained a laser-sharp focus on their core strategy. Initiatives that did not clearly support the core strategy were branded distractions and further attention to distractions was not tolerated. These companies outperformed their competitors five-fold over a fifteen year period – even in mature industries.

As I related in a previous article, Saying ”NO” To Great Ideas, it is very difficult to maintain that disciplined focus. It’s even more difficult when employees believe they are doing the company a favor by pressing ahead with their pet ideas even after being told “No”… possibly more than once.

It may take repetition, but leaders need to maintain the mantra of focusing on their core strategies. Some executives have even dubbed continued work on declined projects as a “misappropriation of firm resources” to drive the point home.

“Misappropriate” may seem overly dramatic, but practically speaking, it’s actually a fair description. If a firm seeks to outperform the competition then its time, talent and money cannot get siphoned off by distractions – regardless of the champion’s good intentions.

© Dave Wittenberg