Monday, July 9, 2012

Too Many Choices

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Anyone who's had dinner with me knows I hate restaurants with too many things on the menu. When the waiter hands me something that's spiral bound I know I've come to the wrong place. The best thing I can do is open the menu to a random page and limit my options to what I see in front of me. Entree salads? Great. I can find one that I like. Pasta? That's fine, too. Believe it or not, to my way of thinking, the best restaurants are those with just three entrees on the menu. One meat, one fish, one vegetarian. How many other options do I really need?

So given that I have this perspective, it was strange when I recently realized that my association was offering too many options to our members. Too many programs, too many initiatives, too many goals and objectives. In our efforts to be innovative and experimental we had taken on too much and were having a hard time: (A) Getting everything done, and (B) Communicating all we were doing effectively to our members and board.

I made the determination that it was time to trim back. It was time to stop doing many things well and start doing fewer things better. It would help with our effectiveness. It would help with our messaging and communications. If we had spent the last few years adding things to our plate in the spirit of innovative improvement, then it was certainly time to assess what was working and what wasn't and reallocate our resources into those fewer areas that had demonstrated the biggest impact.

We tackled some of this at our recent strategic board meeting. I engaged the leadership in a discussion about focusing our message and initiatives, and they met me more than half way. They saw the need and the logic behind what I was advocating, and they shared their perspectives on what their own experiences and the program data we had was telling them about where we were having the greatest impact. I came back from the meeting with a sharpened understanding of what was important and a readiness to realign our program initiatives for more focused effect.

But guess what? Stopping things is a lot harder than it looks. Things that fall outside the smaller circle we had drawn have champions and advocates in the membership and on the staff. That's largely why we were doing them in the first place. Somebody was deriving some benefit from them, and if we were going to stop working on them, those somebodies would have to be informed about the reasons why.

We're in that process now. To help frame those conversations, I've actually created three categories of things we're going to "stop doing":

1. Maintain Status Quo. In my estimation, these are programs that are right on the line. They are things the association has invested time an energy in, they continue to serve the interests of a small constituency, and they are clearly aligned with the shorter list of objectives we have identified for the future. They don't, however, represent growth areas for the organization. They're small. They're good. But that's all they'll ever be. Let's accept that and quit trying to promote and grow them so aggressively.

2. Put on the Backburner. These are good ideas that the association does not currently have the resources to pursue appropriately. Every association (I think) has things like this on its agenda--big picture goals and ideas that are certainly worth achieving but not so certainly worth pursuing. Look at it this way. If in order to pursue one of these objectives appropriately, you'd have to reallocate resources wildly across your organization and make it 30% or more of your total focus, you have to honestly ask if the objective is worth that kind of intensity. Is it that mission critical? If so, then you should go for it. But if not, then put it on the backburner and focus instead on a shorter list of programs and their potential impact on the resource base of the association. If you're able to grow and be more successful, you might be better positioned to pursue those backburner ideas in the future.

3. Stop Doing. No kidding. Really. We're going to stop doing these things. I know they seem like good ideas, but they haven't worked out as well as we thought they would and they're taking our focus away from the things that are more highly valued. To be innovative we absolutely have to try new things, and they were all worth the effort from that point of view, but innovation equally requires us to stop doing things as part of a continuous improvement cycle. Spend some time branching out, trying new things, and then spend some time pruning back, funneling resources into the areas that have shown the greatest potential. Everyone understands that in concept. It just takes discipline to put it into practice.

Hopefully these three categories will help me communicate with the various stakeholders who will be impacted by the changes we're going to make. I'm sure some programs will float around between the categories as the discussions begin, but at least they provide a framework that will help me accomplish the most important thing--reducing the number of programs we have to coordinate and promote.

If you'll forgive my restaurant analogy, when our customers sit down in our restaurant, I don't want them poring over a spiral bound menu, stuffed full of choices that will tax my kitchen staff to prepare and create. I'd rather hand them a single sheet of paper, with everything on it made of the finest quality ingredients by people who know and love what they do.


  1. This is an excellent analysis of a situation that comes along all too often and that, for me, constitutes a major professional challenge. I intend to reflect on your three categories and see how I might apply them!

  2. Good stuff Eric. I'm working on a similar article. Too many choices leads to indecision. Instead of a restaurant I generally use grocery stores as an example. Do you know how many types of cereal there are today?

    Are you familiar with the rule of 3? Steve Jobs was a master of it. Google it if you are not familiar.

  3. Thanks, Caley. Good luck. Please let us know what actions you decide to take.

    I hadn't heard of the Rule of 3 before, Dave, and found an interesting definition of it in the urban dictionary. Probably not what you were referring to.

  4. Barry Schwartz wrote about this challenge in his book, The Paradox of Choice. Also makes me think of Jim Collins and his question of what can you be best in class doing?

    But I don't know of many associations who are gifted at stop doing as staff and board seem to end up talking about doing so as "taking something away" from the members. I've seen groups struggle even when they've developed metrics and criteria for eliminating some efforts. They just can't make the cuts even when their own self-selected data says these are the ones to go. And of course, many programs or services continue to exist for personality or political reasons.

    Maybe it takes an exec like yourself and some enlightened elected leaders to simply see that the current array of efforts isn't sustainable.

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. I just added The Paradox of Choice to my reading list. If it's lucky, it might make it to the top of the pile by 2015. Seriously, I appreciate the referral. The overabundance of choice has always frustrated me in my personal life--and now I'm beginning to grapple with it professionally. To be innovative we must try new things. But we can't be innovative if we don't stop trying to do everything.

  5. Timely post. In the public sector, it's a similar story. Throw a couple, "but we've always done this..." into the mix, and it's an uphill battle.

    Thanks for the takeaways.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Greg. Your quota is met for the year.