According to Faulkner, Ginsberg and many great writers, if you are particularly proud of a piece of writing, chances are it’s self-indulgent, stands out, and does not serve the greater good of your work.
The saying goes: “you must kill your darlings” – delete them. The overall intent of your work is more important than a particular piece that doesn’t fit, no matter how special you think it is.
So what does that have to do with business?
In today’s world, leaders are under great pressure to find new opportunities for growth. Ventures into new territories, product, channels of distribution, etc. are typically evaluated by short-term profitability and not strategic alignment.
These “darlings” become the focal point, rather than a coherent organizational vision, and leaders lose their focus.
John Bell, former CEO of Jacobs Suchard and author of Do Less Better, told me how “killing the darlings” saved his company.
Early in my career I faced the daunting task of resurrecting the Canadian packaged food company. Our sales were in steep decline and the company hadn’t made a profit in 4 years. We were competing in a dozen categories with “me-too” brands, none with a competitive advantage. Swelling inventory was chewing up cash, a strike loomed, and shareholders patience was waning.
We considered plans that involved cutting some costs, expanding to new geographies, finding new customers, improving existing products, launching new products, increasing promotion, etc. etc. etc. In other words – trying to do more better. But would this create the transformation we desperately needed? It might marginally improve profitability, but it wouldn’t dramatically turn things around because we were unfocused.
What if we narrowed our focus? What if we had a coherent strategic intent? What if we did less, but did it exceptionally well? To do that, we would have to “kill some darlings” – not an easy thing to contemplate when it involves people you care about losing jobs. The only way you can “kill your darlings” is to keep the big picture in mind – to think long-term – and know that in the long run, the new organization will be healthier for everyone.
And that’s what we did. We made the tough strategic choice to become a coffee specialist, using a tea business as a cash cow to fund new initiatives in coffee. Two factories would become one, 10 product lines would be sold or closed, and 320 people would lose their jobs to save the jobs of 180. It was the most difficult decision I had ever faced and it took a lot of courage to do it, but the business that remained prospered because we concentrated on running it, and nothing else.
Within three years, coffee sales doubled, reaching a 27% share of the national market. Profitability returned, and sales exceeded the $40 million we had sacrificed by giving up the other businesses. In the years to come we got better and better at the coffee business – better at procurement, roasting, blending, and marketing. New opportunities emerged that were aligned with our focused strategic scope. And we surpassed our giant generalist competitors, Kraft and Nestle.
Ready to kill your darlings? Keep these guidelines in mind:
1. It’s Not About Pruning Deadwood.
Killing your darlings is not a matter of pruning deadwood. Some of the projects, products or lines of business you will need to let go of might be doing very well.
The question you must ask is whether they serve the greater good of the company – do they add value in the long run? Do they ensure you’re moving in the right direction?
2. Grow with Focus.
The idea of killing your darlings is not simply about doing less. It’s about creating a strategic focus and doing what you do exceptionally well.
Growth is still desirable. But when a new opportunity arises, evaluate it through the lens of whether it is aligned with your strategic scope, not how exciting or sexy it is, or how easy it is to do.
3. It Needs to Be Ongoing.
Writers kill their darlings during the editorial process. But unlike a writing project, which ends at publication, the business environment is constantly changing. You need to evaluate your darlings for strategic alignment regularly.
Strategic sacrifice is about giving up something of value for the sake of the greater good of the enterprise. Dumping pet projects and passing on new opportunities is difficult to do, unless the idea of strategic sacrifice is entrenched in the culture.
Killing your darlings is one of the ideas discussed in John Bell’s new book, Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. Bell challenges the ‘do more and more’ paradigm that most business leaders and managers embrace and makes a compelling case for ‘doing less, better’ (focus). He shows that the best strategies are focused and concise, and not only tell you what to do, but also what NOT to do. According to Bell, you don’t need deep pockets to outmaneuver giants. Creativity, nimbleness, and ingenuity are the best bargains in business, and they cost nothing.