I have always found that clutter is bad - in personal life as well as in business. But it seems to be our nature to amass but never whittle away; our instinct to hoard but not let go. But as Henri Matisse wrote, “Instinct must be thwarted just as one prunes the branches of a tree so that it will grow better.”

This lesson of pruning is one I am retaught every few months in business. For instance, for entrepreneural ventures such as those I’m involved in, cash is king and year-on-year revenue growth is a badge of victory we wear proudly. We work hard to win clients and work hard to negotiate deals. The instinct, then, is to keep all clients all the time. We tell ourselves that we’ll fire a particularly bad client as soon as we replace that revenue. Oftentimes, we never do. That client lingers on like a bad marriage or else it’s us that we find fired! During the whole ordeal, no one is happy.

Happiness, and indeed organizational success, as measured across a broad spectrum of indicators (such as revenue, profitability, work culture, and job satisfaction) seems to come from proper pruning in anticipation of future success. In business, this means that I must be vigilant in discerning the true value of money. Not all dollars are the same; not all money is healthy.

At the most basic level, a bad client may sap employee morale or exhaust a lot of company resources. Overhead factored into profitability properly, you may be better off flipping hamburgers! Similarly, a bad client may be bringing in $20,000/month but, like golden handcuffs, limits you from perhaps launching a new product or taking time to reorganize your enterprise - the opportunity cost of which could well be above the $20,000/month mark.

Rob Bell, in his popular Nooma series, speaks of a child that walks around the beach picking up shards of once-beautiful seashells. With his hands full, he suddenly spots a large starfish on a rock. His parents notice and excitedly tell him to pick it up. Dismayed, the child looks at the starfish then looks down at his full hands. “I can’t!” he cries, “My hands are full.” Too often we give up the glorious for the mundane.

The maxim in business really is: prune everything; prune annually.