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.
I worry a little about this notion being carried to the extreme, thus justifying the deaths of innocent civilians for the greater good. I know it seems like a ridiculous leap but the reality is there for those who have lost loved ones “for the greater good.”
Strategic sacrifice in this context is of course quite different from that in the corporate world. I am nonetheless still concerned.
Thanks for your thoughts, Gary. I think if someone is intent on doing evil, they will always find a way to justify it.
What I appreciate about the metaphor is that it applies not only in business but to our personal lives as well.
In our personal lives, our “darlings” are things that feed our ego and distract us from our deeper purpose. We need to ask ourselves questions like: How important is that expensive new car? Do I really want to work all the time to make money to buy things I really don’t care about?
I read this as “growing in love with your darlings”..and thus not being able to “kill them..(tho I do despise the word “kill”) How many organizations LOVE their darlings”: a process that no longer works but is the “darling ” of the CEO: a product that few buy but is the “darling” of sales…you get the idea. Well done.Jesse.
Well said, Eileen. The strong language appeals to me because I think it’s descriptive of how it can feel to make the tough decision to terminate a product line or project you’re overly attached to. The best way to keep from getting attached to (and distracted by) your darlings is to keep focused on a clear vision, the big picture.
Jesse, this spoke to me on a personal level. I’m not a business leader but am learning (with exhausting effort) to be laser focused on what I want. These “darlings” are new opportunities that seem so perfect – but quickly deteriorate when evaluated through the lens of my strategic scope. I’ve been peeling away the project that I know aren’t suited to me, even though it’s tough to do. You’ve given me courage to tear off a few more ‘darlings’. You’re right about the tough talk – if it were mellow it would be easy to obscure it, but not get rid of it.
Glad to hear you are peeling away projects that are not aligned, Jane. If you fill up the space with the wrong things, there won’t be space for the right things to emerge. Keep those strategic lenses handy!
You can’t be everything to everyone. When Steve Jobs went back to Apple, he was obsessed with figuring out the one product Apple could be a leader in, and subsequently cutting down on the rest of the “also ran” products.
Richard Branson is always emphasising the power of saying NO to opportunities that land in his lap, if they don’t grab him. The balance between what one learns in business school about diversification and what one learns in real life about lack of focus is tricky. Personally, I buy into “less is more”. Thanks for the post, it definitely is food for thought and while I see Gary’s concern, my belief is that is the exception and not the norm in the long run. “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”, nobody likes cutting jobs Or doing harm to people’s livelihoods, but the lesser of all evils is the best choice.
I enjoyed reading your take, Thabo, particularly because Jobs and Branson are mentioned in the book. Jobs and Tim Cook said no to scads of opportunities. As for Branson, here’s a guy who negates the complexity of a conglomerate by keeping his companies as simple as possible, and operating them as autonomous enterprises. As for Virgin’s failure in cola, clothing, movies and vodka, he killed those darlings and moves on.
Thanks John. I guess the book goes from maybe to being on my “To Read” list.
This article made me remind a quote attributed to Peter Drucker: “There is no bigger waste of time than doing exceptionally well something that doesn’t need to be done at all”
Indeed! We need to be able to experiment and try out new things, but if they don’t fit, we need to be able to move on. That’s what allows us to be truly exceptional.
Great post Jesse! Killing darlings sounds so hard – but the vision of being exceptional is very powerful!
Thanks, Chery. It’s the exceptional vision that makes killing your “darlings” tenable.
When running our value-added technical products master distribution business, we asked ourselves some simple questions to filter out the alluring opportunities we considered: Is this aligned with our vision and purpose? Is it in our niche of computer graphics? Is it a strategic product line or merely volume with low-margin – i.e., opportunistic? These questions served us well.
Delighted to hear this, Lowell. In my experience, distributors are often the ones who have the greatest difficulty with complexity because the product line can be exhausting. Good on you for having the strategic tenacity and courage to find your niche and stick to it.
Great questions everyone should ask! Thanks for sharing them here, Lowell.
Great piece, Jesse. Although you don’t mention church organizations, in my experience they need this perspective desperately. And since so many of the governing leaders are lay people who change offices regularly, the overall congregational vision is truly key in guiding decisions, great and small. The spiritual mission alone is not enough. I have forwarded this to my church board and ministers. Thanks.
Great point – not only for religious organizations but non-profits as well. It’s so easy to simply assume that these are mission-driven organizations and for the governing body to lose their focus. Hope this starts a good conversation in your church.
Cheers for this post Jesse 🙂 Killing your darlings sounds brutal however this could lead to the survival of an organization. The darlings aka “plethora of initiatives/projects sometimes unrelated to the strategic direction” – consume scarce resources, become anchors weighing down and preventing organizational agility, pits leadership & employees against each other and so on. No doubt that this calls for some very harsh, very tough decisions!
Well said! The real brutality is what happens when these projects are not weeded out, as you describe so well.
When I set out with MYCASKI Blog I had the notion that I would create something where I espoused all things ‘Leadership’. I wanted to present myself as the expert on all leadership matters. After many months of research and recalling my work life observations I discovered that I did not have the skills, values or experiences to become such a guru. In order for my dream not to turn into a nightmare…I refocused and not knowing it at the time ‘killed the darlings’. Now I pursue my strength and my passion to provide all leaders at all levels the mindset to sustain their lives for as long as the choose. Thanks again Jesse for presenting a stimulating post. Kind Regards Raymond
Congrats, Raymond. This is much more crisp, focused and clear. You’ve done some hard work and made some difficult decisions. May you now go full steam ahead!