Make Good Decisions by Eliminating the Bad Ones: A Business Lesson from The Onion

Amber Johnson Leadership

Mike McAvoyAs part of this quarter’s executive panel series, we’ve asked CEOs to tell us how they make big decisions. We’ve seen Tom Carmazzi’s rigorous decision matrix, and Marisa Smith’s “never miss” steps for decision-making.

Today we turn our attention to Mike McAvoy, president of the satirical news source, The Onion, and one of Crain’s 40 Under 40. Known for their “nothing is sacred” approach, The Onion might not seem like the best source of business wisdom, but McAvoy would beg to differ. “My job is to figure out how to put a business on comedy,” he told a gathering of leaders last fall, at an event hosted by the Executive Breakfast Club of Oak Brook.

Consider The Onion’s editorial process. Each day the writers contribute hundreds of possible headlines – a giant list of ideas that eventually gets whittled down to only five to ten winners, like the recent Study: More Children Growing Up in Single Parrot Households.

It’s this business process of “whittling down” ideas that is most transferable to other companies, McAvoy told the audience. He offered a simple two-step process: “First, get a lot of good ideas. Then reduce, reduce, reduce so your final ideas are really great.”

“Leaders need to be editors-in-chief,” McAvoy told the audience.

The Art of Eliminating Ideas

McAvoy and others remind us that when faced with a thorny decision, leaders naturally turn their attention to what they should do. But eliminating what you should not do is an equally important step in the decision-making process.

A recent New York Times article, The Art of Adding by Taking Away, illustrated this well. The article’s author, Matthew E. May, told the story of a particularly challenging project that required reconciling Eastern and Western approaches. May felt he was at a standstill in the leadership of the project. And then one day a post-it appeared on his desk:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” it said, capsulizing teachings of Lao Tzu. “Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

May seized on this idea of subtracting ideas, and began to research the concept of subtraction. He quotes Jim Collins on its effectiveness in business:  “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.”

Whether or not you consider The Onion to be art, McAvoy would argue its success comes as much from eliminating ideas as it does from generating them.


Amber Johnson is the corporate relations advisor for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. Find her on Google+.


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