BL&T No. 045: Saying “No” to Drive Growth

Agency Leadership

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"I hate Plan B. ... Because now, what you’re basically saying is that if my plan doesn’t work, I have a fallback plan. I have a Plan B. And that means that you start thinking about Plan B and every thought that you put into Plan B, you’re taking away that thought and that energy from Plan A."

From this speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger [Video, recommend 1.5x]

(s/o Peter Kang for the Sunday morning inspo)


To lose weight and get healthier, you wouldn't expect to be able to eat sugary foods as you please, no matter how much you enjoy them. The only way to achieve results would be to practice restraint and discipline. It's learning how to say "no" when offered a piece of cake at a friend's birthday or a free cookie with your coffee, as much as it is seeking out new recipes and educating yourself.

I jotted down some version of this in my notes last week after a chat with Peter, Barrel CEO, and Dan, Director of Business Development. At the end of May, on the heels of Barrel's 15th anniversary, we shared an evolved vision, mission, and set of core values. Our hope was not only to capture how we've grown as an agency but to clarify what we're after and why we're after it.


With a refined vision in place, the aim is to keep questioning if what we're doing supports where we're going. My chat with Peter and Dan was a follow-up to earlier conversations with Peter about a new role I planned to hire and how they'd help us grow our skillset in a specific type of work. Through these talks, it became clear that, in many ways, going this route would not only be an investment, but it would also be a big bet.

While we have been doing one-off projects more recently with existing accounts, we historically hadn't seen much success winning this type of work with new clients, and when it came down to it, it didn't directly feed into our vision. I started wondering why we even did these one-off projects for our existing clients in the first place.

I concluded that these projects are those sugary foods luring you in when you're trying to eat a healthier diet. We did them because we enjoyed the idea of them. We enjoyed the idea that we could do more. We could do it all. The reality is that attempting to do it all often results in unnecessary pain and limited progress.

Looking back at these project experiences, they consistently had their own set of unique challenges. Every project had its nuances, and since we didn't have the resources in-house, we'd often rely on outside help or ask the team to stretch. Don't get me wrong, we've done work this way that I'm super proud of, but upon further reflection, I imagined where we'd be if the team had spent that time working on projects that better suited our vision. Would we be that much further along?


Over the weekend, I virtually cracked open Essentialism by Greg McKeown on my Kindle. He compares the concept of essentialism to cleaning out your closet:

"In your personal or professional life, the equivalent of asking yourself which clothes you love is asking yourself, 'Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?'"

He later shares how, by asking this question repeatedly, we "discover how [the] many good opportunities we pursue are often far less valuable than the few truly great ones. Once we understand this, we start scanning our environment for those vital few and eagerly eliminate the trivial many. Only then can we say no to good opportunities and say yes to truly great ones."

Here's a look at how he visualizes what happens once you get focused and start saying "no":

While I'm only a few chapters in, it was hard not to see parallels to this past week's development.

It wasn't that going after seemingly exciting opportunities was a bad idea; these opportunities were just not nearly as valuable as those that would push us further toward our vision. In essence, we might make incremental progress in several areas when we could be making rapid progress in one.

Looking Ahead

Peter and I spent Friday digging deeper into what we could create if we chose to focus on work that better supported our vision. In the end, this may actually include creating a new team, but one that would help elevate what we do well already vs. trying to succeed in an area where we had little traction. To explore these ideas together, we workshopped them in Figma:

This conversation was energizing. Although it is frustrating that we cannot solve this in a few sessions, we could feel the momentum and recognize how many valuable opportunities we weren't creating by getting distracted by sugary foods.

We still have work to do in refining the direction for this team, but I'm excited about the possibilities. I have confidence that our discussions this week can lead to exponential growth down the line. In exploring this thought further, I am beginning to see that the choice to say "no" could have a flywheel effect, a concept developed by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great.

Here's an early take at what that might look like:

With each step fueling the next, I believe our focused efforts as a team can start turning the flywheel faster and faster.

Lesson? A vision is essential for any entrepreneur or organization, but vision is nothing without focus and discipline. The focus to stay centered on what you want; the discipline to say "no" to the opportunities that look exciting but will only distract you from where you want to go.

Thought Starter

Am I clear on what I want?
Am I putting energy in the work to get me there?

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