Innovate November 2016 On The Cover

Why Saying No Is A Yes To Success

Written By: David Whitney

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” – WARREN BUFFETT

We live in a world where saying “yes” is often associated with how one gets ahead — in life, in school, in business and in general. By getting ahead, one often expects success to follow. Because, after all, to be ahead of others means winning the game, receiving the promotion, getting recognized, and achieving success, if not fame and fortune.

And then, there’s what you are about to read in this column: why saying “no” is a “yes” to success.

Don’t get me wrong: I am no expert at saying no. I wrote this column as a form of therapy; it serves as yet another attempt to figure out what it will take to cure me of saying yes when I should be saying no. I realize I am not alone in this affliction, so for those of you who need a cure for what ails us, welcome to group therapy.

Saying no is a challenge for me. I know from personal and professional experience that not agreeing to do something, to help someone, or to take on additional responsibilities — the list goes on and on — is very hard for me to do. And yet, I know in my head and heart that saying no has its benefits.

Research and much reflection on the subject resulted in a list of reasons why saying no leads to success. The accompanying 10 reasons are why we should start saying no.

1. To eliminate distractions and keep you on track toward mission goals.

Saying no serves as an effective filter and, to borrow a theme from Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” saying no leads to operating as a principle-centered leader. According to Covey, principle-centered leaders “build principles into the center of their lives.” In my experience, saying no gets me centered.

2. To properly channel limited resources in order to produce maximum benefit while producing more outcomes.

Think about your own situation: You are expected to produce more — and better — outcomes even though the resources needed to produce them grow smaller and fewer by the day. By saying no, I’m able to channel whatever inputs are available into more and better outputs.

3. To raise the bar on performance.

I admit that this approach is uncomfortable, yet it is necessary if we are to survive in today’s demanding world. This is why I say no to requests, invitations, etc., from “C” players; by saying no to them, I free myself to say yes to working with, or operating in the same orbit as, “A” players. To quote my friend John Spence: “You become what you focus on and come to be like the people you associate with.” I associate with “A” players because I want to learn how to accomplish what they accomplish.

4. Usually — but not always — saying no increases measurable output

(number of problems solved, units manufactured, sales made, students enrolled, etc.). The old management saying applies here: “What gets managed gets measured and what gets measured gets managed.”

5. To position ourselves to provide focused, effective and consistent principle-centered leadership.

For me, the goal is to operate as a principle-centered leader in all aspects of my personal and professional life. This is not an easy goal to achieve and maintain, so every day, I remind myself to be, “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better is your best.”

6. To narrow choices, options, alternatives and — usually, but not always — leave the best choice via a process of purposeful elimination.

Are you like most people who, when offered more choices, become more confused? I am, so fewer choices increase my chances of success.

7. To reduce incidents of “feature creep” so that the solution produced is simple, elegant and effective.

My undergraduate and graduate college students in the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering hear from me over and over again why it is important to reduce feature creep by producing simple, elegant and effective solutions. Silicon Valley thought leader Guy Kawasaki uses the acronym DICE to prescribe ways to reduce feature creep. DICE stands for “Deep, Intelligent, Complete and Elegant.” I like to think rolling the DICE produces successful outcomes.

8. To preserve mental and physical energies.

My guess is that many people reading this column are physically exhausted and mentally drained. I know I am both, which is why saying no has far-reaching benefits for my physical health and mental well-being. Will saying no help you physically and mentally?

9. To help us fail faster and smarter.

I’m able to fail fast so as not to burn through lots of limited and valuable resources. I’m competitive, so no, I don’t like to fail; yet I embrace fast failure as part of a formula for success. Admittedly, the first times I said no were uncomfortable; however, successful outcomes resulted when I said no (for the right reasons). So now, I know that by saying no I am saying yes to success. That approach appeals deeply to those of us who always play to win.

10. To display a commitment to honesty, integrity and transparency.

By saying no, I’m better able to fulfill my pledge to under-promise and over-deliver in ways that reflect these values.



Learning to be selective at what you do — and who you do it with — is crucial for achieving success. “No” relieves you from unwanted pressures and provides you a solid foundation from which you are able to regain control of your life. (By “life,” I mean personal, family, spiritual, professional, school and community.) “No” helps selectively filter out the non-essentials in my life, and doing so channels more time, energy, and resources toward important matters — and in the direction of principle-centered leadership.

Even though I have made progress at saying no, I continue to learn painful lessons. Recurring pain occurs when two attractive alternatives appear and I say “yes” to both, only to fail at both. Failing to say no to one — because my ego convinces me I can succeed at both — produces substandard performances in which the results are unacceptable and my stress level redlines. To avoid both, I remind myself daily that saying no is a yes to success.

Make no mistake; achieving success in saying no depends on many factors. Some of these factors may be out of one’s control, so don’t get frustrated when this occurs. Instead, use the following examples to guide you forward by saying no to certain situations and circumstances:

• “Can we meet so I can run a few ideas by you?” I learned to say no to this request because a phone or Skype call of 5 to 10 minutes can produce the same outcome as a 30 to 60 minute face-to-face meeting. Caveat: Definitely say “yes” to face-to-face meetings with key people from your network; time spent with them in person, versus on the phone or via Skype, is important and valuable.

• Requests to participate in projects, committees and volunteer situations that are not part of your core responsibilities and/or priorities. One of my mentors always says, “Don’t be the peanut butter that gets spread too thin.” If you need a reminder as to why you should have said no to these types of requests, reflect on the all-too-frequent instances when you worked late — and/ or on weekends — to perform the additional work you agreed to do. An inability to say no in these instances is my single biggest weakness; I suffer deeply and painfully — professionally and personally — by not saying no and then paying too steep a price. Every day is a struggle, but I direct my energies and focus my attention on core responsibilities and/or priorities.

• Clients, customers, strategic partners or allies who are not a good fit. We all learn the hard way why this is true, but don’t take my word; go ahead and say yes to whoever comes along — in the form of clients, customers, strategic partners or allies — and see what happens. Harvard professor Michael Porter offers timeless insight on these situations: “At a red carpet event, only certain people pass through the velvet rope. The people who do pass through feel like VIPs.” That’s how your clients, customers, strategic partners or allies should feel: They see themselves as VIPs who are very fortunate to be working with you.

This being a group therapy session, what about you: How will saying “no” be a “yes” to your success?



DAVID WHITNEY serves as the assistant director in the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the entrepreneur in residence in the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in the college. The courses, Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Engineering Innovation, use real-world examples and the experiences of entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators to teach engineers how to change the world. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures LLC, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven company. Whitney is also co-chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the region.

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