Inc. magazine reports this week on the one question that Steve Jobs asked Apple design guru Jony Ive every day. Here's the query: "How many times did you say no today?" Jobs preached "extreme, laser-like focus" at all times. Ives explained: "The discipline to turn your back on something you believe in passionately, so you can apply yourself to what's at hand, is really remarkable," Ive said. "It's a deeply uncomfortable but really effective thing to do."
Do I agree with Jobs' question? All things in moderation, I suppose. I do agree that focus is crucial if you want to excel. That's as true of companies as it is of individuals. Great firms clearly make tradeoffs; they say no when the typical firm in their industry says yes. Trader Joe's, for instance, rejects many of the standard ways of doing business in the grocery industry. That makes them incredibly distinctive and difficult to imitate.
When it comes to individual behavior, though, I am a little leery of taking the Jobs question too far. To have a successful organization, we have to have people who are willing to sacrifice at times to help others. We need collaborators. That means sometimes saying yes for the good of the greater whole, even if it may distract you from the task at hand.