• Bruce Mullan

How to say 'no' by being confident about the 'yes'

Running any kind of business requires discipline. Paying attention to the things that matter. Discipline means saying “no” to the things that don’t. The flip side is in order to say "no" you need to be really clear about what you are saying “yes” to.

Leaders do best when they seek to understand, and do what’s good for the organisation, and are prepared for candid conversations.

I was running a workshop recently with some Aged Care providers. At the end of the session, I asked for some feedback. One CxO seemed overwhelmed. “Where am I going to find the time think about your ideas and the future. I’ve still got my day job to do.” The challenge for this CxO is if you don’t think about the future, someone else may define that future for you. This week’s article is about how to find the time to deliberately explore what’s next and what’s over the horizon so that you can say "no" to what's not important and manage your time wisely.


The amount of time available in a day is fixed, largely along with your budget. To effectively manage your strategic priorities, it’s helpful to balance your efforts across three horizons: Horizon 1: Here and now Horizon 2: What’s next Horizon 3: What’s over the horizon (and not obvious or visible now) This model serves as a blueprint for managing people to stay on-task and also allocating your time in a sensible way. People often get overly excited by the promise of artificial intelligence and business analytics yet are struggling in the here and now with paper documents and fax machines. Ideally, your people and processes are focused and organised around the three horizons.


Horizon 1 is about your long-standing brand and existing services that drive cash-flow. Here the opportunity is to optimise what you do today, and do it well. You need to defend the fort against competitive threats. Your focus will be on cost and efficiency gains. You know your business really well so this is about fine-tuning what’s already in place.


Horizon 2 is about harnessing the opportunities that might be available in a dynamic and disruptive world. That might be a new funding stream, a new service design or a different operating model. You are building up your emerging business and to do this requires some investment in time and money. Interestingly, some of the initiatives might come out of Horizon 3 research, and any successful ones will end up in Horizon 1 once they are “business as usual”.


Horizon 3 is about imagining your future without the operating constraints of Horizon 1. You are offering products and services very distinct from your current core business. Here’s where your ideas for research projects, pilot programs, or investments in new businesses start to emerge. The types of people and capabilities you will need to support those services will take shape. In Horizon 3, the focus is on learning, exploring and having a large set of ideas to work with. This is your blue sky thinking!


You need to have more than just an eye on the future. You need to dedicate time, money and resources across all three horizons. The question is always – who’s doing what, how much and how to measure it? When you start thinking strategically about all of the things you might be working on, you’ll need a way to organise the initiatives and make sense of your progress. As a CEO, the following time ratio may be a useful rule of thumb.

70% on Here and Now: Tomorrow doesn’t matter if you don’t survive today.

20% on What’s Next: Roughly 1 day per week on initiatives that will eventually be brought into Horizon 1. Some might fail, and that's ok.

10% on What’s over the horizon: This leaves just enough time, perhaps, about 1 day per month for research and experimenting, and looking beyond the horizon.


Running any kind of business requires discipline. That discipline will be how you allocate your time, to focus on the things that matter. If you’re 100% stuck in the here and now that means you’re working in the business and not on it. You need to stop, get out of the weeds, and reassess your situation.

What has to change to free you up?

This is a non-negotiable.

Conversely, if one of your team is getting overly excited about (for example) the new digital innovations that are over the horizon, you need to ensure you have enough focus on the here and now in order to get there. Good planning and time management are no accident.

It is about adding just enough of the right ingredients at just the right time to give you a successful business outcome. And with that comes the enormous satisfaction of bringing your ideas to life. A perfectly good reason to say "no thank you" to the things that don't matter.

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