‘Managers need to learn to say no’ (interviewer: Ruben van der Laan)

Blog_RubenvanderLaanInterview by Ruben van der Laan.(online version on his website)

Cyriel Kortleven is a much sough-after speaker at conferences and meetings. Through is enthusiastic and playful attitude to life, he creates an open and informal atmosphere. ‘Less is Beautiful’ is his fourth book in which he invites professionals to look for ways to gain more with less efforts. I met Cyriel several times and every encounter with him had been inspiring and given me new insights on how to approach business and life in general.
Ruben: ‘Simple is beautiful’ is a patchwork of many little gems showing the power of simplicity. One of them is describing ones life in 6 words. What is your life in 6 words?

Cyriel: Ah, that’s a nice one to ask… Let me think… ‘Life is short, enjoy the moment.’ With a surname like mine (which means ‘short life’ in Dutch) it has to be something like this.

Ruben: Why should business people read Less is Beautiful?

Cyriel: Nowadays people work and live under tremendous pressure. We continuously have to grow and perform. My book is somewhat of an antidote to this reflex. We don’t necessarily need more. Also as creativity expert I’m often being asked to solve problems that require more with less. That is a simplification challenge.

Ruben: I don’t understand. ‘More with less’ sounds as increasing the pressure? Where is the simplification challenge?

Cyriel: Well, you could try to do your work with less energy and still try to achieve the same results. That is definitely a simplification challenge. The problem is the way business treats ‘Less with more’. They’re actually not simplifying because in the end they just want more: more turnover, more sales, more market share, etcetera. And they do it by cutting costs, by increasing the pressure. Simplifying is just not in their mind-set. And that’s what makes my book unique. Though there are many books on the topic, business hardly does something with it. I want to show the examples where it works in the world of business.

Ruben: So what would be your advice to managers?

Cyriel: Managers never seem to ask themselves the question: ‘how does what I do contribute to what needs to be achieved?’ They just seem to be rushing from one task to another. Just look at meetings. Managers report that most of their meetings are not useful, yet they spend a lot of time attending them. How come? Their perception of taking some distance equals to spending some 3 days meditating in a remote mountain retreat. But that’s not the answer. The answer is 5 minutes of reflection at the start of your working day. Meditating is nothing more than thinking about the 3 things you’d like to achieve today.

Ruben: I understand that in seeking simplicity you have to start with simple things. However, would that be enough?

Cyriel: It’s a start, but you’re right, it’s definitely not enough. One of the major insights I got when writing the book is that managers need to learn to say no. There is one quote from Steve Jobs that sums it all up: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” No is an enormously powerful word.

Ruben: You were just referring to meetings. Your book is also filled with examples on how to hold meetings differently. Why this focus on meetings?

Cyriel: When you ask people about the biggest burdens at work, they will answer meetings and emails. That’s why I focus a lot on meetings.

Ruben: And why not emails?

Cyriel: I wanted to stay away from the issue of time-management. There’s already a lot of excellent literature on the issue.

Ruben: So what is your favourite meeting tool?

Cyriel: I love the wonder walk. It has some very clear rules that help to have a focused meeting while being able to have a nice time walking. And the reporting is done in a very simple way: on one flipchart. A picture of this flipchart is then send to all participants.

Ruben: There are a lot of paradoxical examples in your book (Cyriel laughs). Do you recognize them?

Cyriel: Yes, absolutely. One of them is that as a creativity expert I advocate the ‘Yes, and…’ approach, while I just praised the power of no. But I guess you have more examples?

Ruben: For example, the festival Burning Man as example of running an organisation on a minimal amount of basic rules. If it works for the short time Burning Man lasts, why can’t it work for society at large?

Cyriel: I’ve been 3 times at Burning Man and asked myself the same question. Some aspects would be working in society, but not the whole concept. The principles of Burning Man would clash with the principles on which we’ve built society. Though I would love to see elements like trust getting a stronger foothold in our daily lives.

Ruben: Another paradox: an app called ‘the internet disconnector’

Cyriel: Yes, isn’t that bizarre? We have moved so far on the scale of connectivity that we’re always online. Apparently we need the same medium to provide us a tool to disconnect from it. That’s kind of funny, but there’s a serious tone to it. We’re unable to think for ourselves anymore and search the internet for tools to disconnect us from that same internet.

Ruben: Isn’t that the same as the mindfulness bell?

Cyriel: Yes, you’re right. Sometimes we’re so busy that we need a tool to remind us to be mindful. I use it for my daily 5 minutes reflection. But it’s true: it’s paradoxical.

Ruben: And then the most beautiful paradox of the book: you make the case for less switchtasking because switching our attention between tasks is detrimental for the quality of our work, relationships and much more. But the book can only be read in a switchtask way of reading, giving the reader piece-meal and easy bits of information. That seems to be inconsistent with ‘Less is beautiful.’

Cyriel: The book is meant as inspiration in which I want to invite the reader to reflect. And for that I make the thoughts small and manageable. Nevertheless your observation is right: I question our continuous switchtasking while at the same time using the same principle as fundament for my book. The question for me is: how do I have an impact on managers and professionals? A week-long retreat would not work. I needed a different approach. I once experimented with a week without clock. The week was beyond expectations for all participants. But you have no idea of the amount of energy it took me to find enough participants. People do not want to invest such an amount of time. It simply costs them, well, too much time. Now this brings me to the biggest paradox of all: making things simple is actually very complex!

Ruben: And how did you manage to make things simple for you?

Cyriel: The book is built around 3 principles, which you will also find as 3 chapters in my book (start to stop, simplify and let go). Taking those 3 principles as a start, the simplification challenge becomes manageable. It’s how it works for me.

Ruben: Thanks for helping us on the way to simplification

Cyriel: Thank you.