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Shunning: the missing element in your mission, strategy and brand

In planning, what you turn your back on is as important as the new direction you are heading. This was an unexpected learning from an excellent session on branding led by the creative agency 43,000 feet (who were superb by the way) at a conference this week in New York City.

Bottom line: planning processes can devolve to a widening of the container to fit everything rather than a brave narrowing of focus. Someone once said: "If you never say no, your yes means nothing." A planning process scrubbed of No's can only end in so many Yes's the sheer number (no matter how cleverly concealed, categorized or thematically crafted) make themselves meaningless.

In these processes, people like to proudly announce that "we can't be all things to all people." Despite our great aspirations, the incredible pull to make everyone happy overwhelms most leaders and facilitators and the result is an antiseptic, overly generalized, non-strategic (but eloquent!) word art gallery.


"It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove."

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Processes for Removal

What we need are processes for removing ideas, of narrowing the focus. If you can't tell me what you are consciously choosing to NOT working on, then you don't know what you ARE working on. If you don't shun, you get nothing done. Put that on a bumper sticker. : )

[Def. shun: persistently avoid, ignore, or reject (someone or something) through caution]

Many planning processes feature research and brainstorming techniques for adding ideas. These are fun, community-building, energizing, and can yield great insights. But few feature idea removal processes and techniques with the same rigor and focus and intention. Sam Kaner's work (featured below) is a treasure trove of such idea removal processes.

Kaner's "divergent zone" is the fun brainstormy part of the process. But groups must go thru the "Groan Zone" and courageously be led down the convergence funnel where ideas are pruned heavily. I often show this graphic to groups I am facilitating to give them a mental model for the group process.

Four Categories of Things NOT To Do

I offer the following four categories as places to look for things NOT to do. These could be useful when going through Kaner's "convergent zone." Before I list these four areas, let me make an important point. When I refer to NOT doing and idea removal, I am referring to things you or some group wants to do but organizationally you are deciding you are not doing them for the sake of your strategy.

In other words, if this process isn't difficult and painful, you aren't doing it right.

Therefore, the following four areas are places to look for things you want to do but must not do for the sake of your strategy.

  1. Products/services - what are the products/services you won't be introducing? For example, I once ran a renewable energy center and we made an explicit decision we would NOT do technical assistance for solar, hydro, geothermal or any other technology until we built excellence in wind energy.

  2. Topical - what are the topics or issues you won't be addressing? For example, entrepreneurship is a huge interest of mine and for Smeal but starts-up will NOT be a major focus of the center we are developing. It doesn't fit our culture which is more focused on big business, Wall Street, and the big four consulting firms.

  3. Temporal - what are the things you are not doing this year? Or until something else is accomplished? Or until market conditions change? For example, with a previous team we all wanted to create a Behavior Change Toolkit but other timely opportunities emerged. It is was very difficult, but we had to consciously say we would not spend time on the Toolkit--at least for a year.

  4. Brand - what are brand elements that we are not going to adopt? Since the business model of our center will be dependent on paying company members, our brand focus will be applied research, "multidisciplinary solutions to their complex problems". Basic research is important for the college but won't be a main pillar of the center's mission and brand. That is difficult since basic research is vital to rankings, so important to articulate.

Three Types of Things NOT To Do

Not all ideas you are removing are that same. Some are to be avoided adamantly. Some are good but the timing is not right. This is important because things you are NOT doing now might be things you MUST do later. So you need to keep track and not throw all ideas into the same pile.

  • Shun (never do) These are things you should probably never do because they are so far off your brand, mission and capabilities.

  • Save (later do) These are things you can consider doing when the time is right and you can do them at a high level of excellence and quality.

  • Scan (kill your do) This is where you need to pay attention! This is an interesting category of enticing, compelling things that are likely to distract you. Like a mermaid song, these are things you, your team or a business unit is very likely to be drawn to.

Conclusion - become masters of exclusion

The Heath brothers in their book Made to Stick talk about being "master's of exclusion" in order to make our communications simple and therefore "sticky." The book Essentialism and Jim Collins' notion of a "not doing list" echo this same notion as does David Allen's GTD framework. Ray Dalio in Principles talks about focus throughout his 210 bits of sage advice and the relentless, brutal honesty needed to realize it.

If you don't know what you are turning your back on, you don't know where you are going. Remember that if you never say No, your Yes means very little. We need to find the courage and creative processes for idea removal in our planning processes. Make this clear upfront and this might reduce the pain a bit.

Remember that if you don't shun, you get nothing done.


Let me know what you think of this idea and how it can be improved upon at

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