According to Jim Collins writing in Good to Great, successful organisations and individuals don’t just have ‘to-do’ lists, they also have ‘stop doing’ lists. Collins cites Kimberley Clark as a classic example. In order to focus on growing its core business of consumer products, the company took the tough decision in 1991 to sell its long-cherished paper mills. This decision was a key contributor in helping the company achieve record growth throughout the 1990s.
Why is ‘stopping doing’ such an important leadership skill?
First, stopping doing liberates energy and resources for the things that are of greatest importance. As Spencer Johnson puts it in ‘Yes or No’, “to make a better decision, you must first stop proceeding with a poor decision”. Second, stopping doing provides a vivid example to the wider organisation of the qualities of commitment and self-discipline. Qualities that the leader seeking excellence needs to actively encourage in others.
What makes ‘stopping doing’ so difficult?
I believe the principle reason is that stopping doing confronts us with a sense of loss. The existentialists remind us that this can trigger negative feelings which most of us naturally seek to avoid. Throughout my publishing career we stopped doing all sorts of business ventures which were all good in their own right and to which there were strong emotional ties, yet which distracted us from what was of greatest importance. In fact we became rather good at stopping things: halting publication of a popular range of fiction, closing a distribution facility, pulling out of an Asian market, to name a few.
In general the longer we had been engaged in the activity, the more attached we were to it, and the harder it was to stop. On occasions our very sense of identity seemed to be threatened by the decision; certainly we had to re-think who we were and come to terms with a new understanding of ourselves and a changed place in the market.
What can help us to ‘stop doing’?
First, practice with the small stuff. Successful leaders regularly take the time to ask themselves, what am I doing today that I could live without? What is taking our time yet adding the least to our overall success? You might for example add a ‘stop doing’ heading to the agenda of team meetings, or to your own personal to-do list. Once people discover that life continues after the change, further change gets easier.
Second, when stopping doing something that the organisation has invested time and effort in, recognise and anticipate a sense of loss. Grieving is a natural human response and as such should be allowed a reasonable time and acknowledged. Collectively marking the end of the era can help to establish the change in people’s heads.
Third, and most importantly, ensure that you have a robust commitment to what you will start doing, or start doing more of. (Without such a thought for the future, what reason could there be to stop doing anything!) Then, once you are clear what is going to contribute the most to your long-term success, or to that of your organisation, commit the resources and energy to doing it. There is nothing like a clear commitment to the future to take peoples’ minds off the past.
As a Chinese proverb puts it “If you want a hot cup of tea, you must first empty the cup”. Happy emptying!