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October 2016
Dean Andy Boynton

Leading with ideas



By Andy Boynton, John and Linda Powers Family Dean


At Boston College, we are embarking on a strategic planning process—
which means of course we’re generating plenty of ideas about things to do in the next decade. We at the Carroll School of Management are serving up our share of items for the University’s grand To-Do list. But during one meeting, I stepped over to the wall-to-wall whiteboard in the dean’s conference room and wrote out these words: “Ten-Year Don’t-Do List.”

I emphasize here the “Don’t,” and in a moment I’ll say more about what I wrote under that heading. My point, however, is that while everyone loves a To-Do list, the exercise can be unproductive. What most people and organizations could really use is a Don’t­-Do list.

This is not a new idea but it’s arguably more urgent than ever in organizations of all kinds. Firms today are under intense pressure to explore new sources of revenue and avenues of growth. The upshot: more ideas and possibilities are undoubtedly finding their way onto To-Do lists.

So we need to lay down some “boundary conditions,” as the mathematicians like to say. With so many options (made possible in part by the explosion of technology and data), we need to be explicit about what we’re not going to try to do.

In his celebrated book Good to Great, Jim Collins pushed the idea of “stop doing” lists. “If you look back on the good-­to­-great companies, they displayed remarkable courage to channel their resources into only one or a few arenas,” Collins wrote. They had the discipline “to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.”

That’s the kind of thinking behind a Don’t­-Do list. There are only a few things really important to an organization at any given time—a few initiatives, or maybe just one initiative, worth spearheading. In organizations big and small, there’s a scarcity of resources including people, money, time, and technology. Inevitably, you’re not going to have all the resources you need to do everything you want.

Experimenting with ideas is one demand on resources, although the need for experimentation is often underestimated. (In a previous edition of Carroll Capital, I discussed some of the experiments we’ve run at the Carroll School.) To be implemented successfully, every new idea or initiative has to be developed, tested, piloted, revised, and continually improved. You can’t do that with every good, or even great idea.

Those realities have weighed on our minds at the Carroll School as we’ve held town-hall-style gatherings and other conversations feeding into Boston College’s strategic planning process.

One item that I scribbled out on the whiteboard was executive education. As we all know, this usually means non­credit, academic programs running as little as a day or two for executives who hold down full­-time jobs. Many schools have found success with those kinds of programs, and for a while it was on the table for consideration at our school.

In the end, we decided that executive education is a Don’t. Aside from the fact that the executive education market has been lagging, it’s not a great fit for our school. We’re best known for the undergraduate experience we provide to management students and the scholarly research conducted by our faculty as well as for some highly regarded graduate degree programs. For some schools, executive education might be a solid opportunity for growth. For us, it would probably be an “opportunity” to spread ourselves too thin.

Other Don’ts that I threw on the board included “Global MBA” and “Global Alliances.” Again, another school might have very good reasons to seize the initiative in these areas, but for us, they sound more like an opportunity to not be great at something. Here I’m using negative words like “not” and “don’t,” but the purpose of this exercise is to arrive at a robust collection of Do’s.

In fact, one item on my whiteboard is really a Do masquerading as a Don’t: “Don’t drop research and teaching faculty focus.” We believe our faculty is the essential key to our success—precisely because of its dual focus on great teaching and equally great research. That’s where our resources are going.

How do you come up with a highly effective Don’t-Do list?

In general, there are two questions to ask: 1) If we do this, will we be really good at it? and 2) Will it make a difference in the market? To answer these questions, you need to have a clear-eyed view of the competition and the possibilities of getting the results you want. Will the idea or initiative have a real impact on your performance? Will it move the needle? If the answers are no, the idea should be exiled to the Don’t-Do list.

Knowing what you’re good at—and realizing it can’t be everything—is a huge part of this thought process. No less a figure than IBM founder Thomas Watson once acknowledged: “I’m no genius. I’m smart in spots—but I stay around those spots.”

Go outside of those spots, and you’re in the Don’t Zone.