In this recent interview, Campbell Soup CEO Douglas Conant defined his mission in taking the helm eight years ago as being, “to take a bad company and lift its performance to extraordinary by 2011.” His strategy was simple enough: developing or keeping only products that ranked first or second in three major categories. That meant, among other things, selling the Godiva chocolate brand in 2008.
Jim Collins, best-selling author of Good to Great, commented on Conant’s sale of Godiva by saying, “That gets my attention, when someone has the discipline to let go of what doesn’t fit.”
Collins firmly believes in the power of a “stop-doing” discipline, a practice that began taking shape during his early post-Stanford Business School career at Hewlett-Packard. On a return visit to the school early in his career, Jim’s favorite former professor, Rochelle Myers, reproached him for his lack of discipline. An expert in creativity and innovation, she told him his unbridled energy was riding herd over his mental clarity, enabling a busy yet unfocused life.
Her words rang true: At the time, Jim’s life was crowded with the commotion of a fast-tracking career. Her comment made him pull up short and re-examine what he was doing. To help, she did what great teachers do, constructing a lesson in the form of an assignment she called “20-10”: Imagine that you’ve just inherited $20 million free and clear, but you only have ten years to live. What would you do differently—and specifically, what would you stop doing?
The exercise did precisely what it was intended to do: make Jim stop and think about what mattered most to him. It was a turning point for three reasons.
First, he realized he’d been racing down the wrong track, spending enormous energy on the wrong things. In fact, he woke up to the fact that he hated his job. He promptly quit and headed back to Stanford to launch a new career of research, teaching, and writing.
Second, the assignment became a constant reminder of just how important his time is. He now starts each year by choosing what not to do, and each of his to-do lists always includes “stop-doing” items. Collins preaches his practice, impressing upon his audiences that they must have a “stop-doing” list to accompany their to-do lists. As a practical matter, he advises eliminating the bottom twenty percent of your goals... forever.
Third, the strategy helped him identify what factors led the companies he was studying to become “great” while others remained merely “good.” The great companies routinely eliminated activities and pursuits that did not significantly contribute to the following criteria: profit, passion, and perfection. All three criteria had to be met in order for any activity to remain in these great companies’ repertoires.
In this editorial piece Collins said, “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit—to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most important of all, a life.”
In an economic environment where time, money and attention are fixed or decreasing, where we must achieve maximum effect with minimum means, having a good stop-doing strategy may hold the key. At the very least, it will allow us to make more room for what really matters by eliminating what doesn’t.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here