Saying No to 1,000 Things.

You can’t open a business magazine or newspaper without reading another encomium to Steve Jobs’ consummate genius or an analysis of why Apple is so successful. I’ll add my two cents here: it’s because he said no to a lot of products.

Think how tight the Apple product line is: three desktop computers. Two laptops. One iPad. One iPhone. Three iPods. Two major bits of software (iTunes and OSX). That’s not a whole lot for a $65 billion company. (Yes, I know there are other products out there, but I’m not counting the accessories, the machines that only differ by size of hard drive, or the niche software.) In fact, when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was kill off a bunch of products, including the Newton. As he describes the situation,

There were people going off in 18 different directions doing arguably interesting things in each one of them. . . . You look at the farm that’s been created with all these different animals going in different directions, and it doesn’t add up. The total was less than the sum of its parts.

In an interview with Business Week back in 2004, he explained that innovation, in part, comes from

saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

By saying to to all those opportunities, he not only conserved corporate resources — people and cash — but he conserved people’s ability to do great work and create great products. I thought of this recently when reading about the recent research on “decision fatigue.” The new thinking about decision-making is that people have a finite storehouse of energy to make decisions — whether that decision is major (should you parole an inmate), or minor (do you want tartar-control or baking soda toothpaste). As John Tierney explained it in the NYTimes,

Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making…. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying).

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. In making decisions, [willpower-depleted people] take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

This pretty well sums up most people’s lives at work. You’re constantly making decisions during the day, both major and minor. And that takes a toll.

Steve Jobs did a good job of reducing that cognitive burden by saying no to so many product opportunities. Saying no allowed the company to focus its cash, and  workers to focus their attention, on what’s most important. It’s not the sole reason Apple became the smash success it has, but it’s certainly part of the puzzle.

Take a look at your organization. Are you chasing every opportunity out there? Or are you husbanding your energies to do great work on the few truly important issues? If you’re not executing well, this is one place to start looking.