It takes a photon of light a little over eight minutes to travel the 150 million kilometres from the sun to the earth. Travelling at the almost incomprehensible speed of 300,000 kilometres per second, or 1.1 million kilometres per hour, the photon travels across the vast, empty vacuum of space in less time than it takes to boil some pasta.

But this is not the whole story. For while the photon can really put on the afterburners through its lonely journey across space, that same photon is virtually at a standstill while it remains beneath the sun’s surface. In fact it takes tens of thousands of years for a photon of light to reach the surface of the sun following its creation by the fusion reactions that are constantly occurring at the sun’s core.

The sheer mass and gravity of other photons prevents the photon from escaping or doing anything very interesting. It’s a little like a Formula 1 car being stuck in London’s rush-hour traffic: it may have all the energy and potential for speed in the world, but, surrounded by all the other cars, vans, trucks and buses, it’s going nowhere in a hurry.

It’s similar with a company’s activities and strategic projects. Each initiative on its own may make sense and have the potential to deliver rapid success, but throw them all at your organisation at the same time and you will end up slowing down any potential improvement that you’re anticipating. The irony is that if you keep saying “Yes” to all the good ideas you and your people have, you’re really saying “No” to rapid results, or at least saying “Not for a while”.

I remember talking to the CEO of a major British retailer and asking him about the company’s strategic agenda. He told me that he had agreed 27 priorities with his executive team. So, I asked him what these priorities were and, after sharing his top seven or eight, he became stuck and couldn’t remember the final 20! If you can’t name your priorities it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to deliver them, and the company reviewed and reassessed its major projects soon after.

Back in 2004, UK retail giant, M&S, was struggling to compete against key rivals such as Next, as well as a much stronger, value offer from the major grocers, led by Asda-Walmart. The Board hired a new CEO, Stuart Rose, and one of his first actions was to cull the 31 “strategic projects” the company was pursuing.  As Sir Stuart wrote soon after, “The company was lurching from one strategy to another. If a strategy didn’t work by Friday, a new one was initiated on Monday. The staff became demoralized by the onslaught of ever-shifting, unclear messages and strategies, which led to more bad decisions about product and further damaged the way M&S dealt with customers. It was a rapid downward spiral.

In other words, the previous CEO’s inability to say “No” to a new initiative, and his desire to say “Yes”, led directly to a lack of progress at the company and, even worse, contributed to its decline.

How about you? Where are you saying “Yes” too often and creating a situation where projects that have the potential to travel at the speed of light are simply going nowhere and getting in the way of your company’s progress?

© Stuart Cross 2013. All rights reserved.