When new ideas are voiced in your company is the typical response ‘yes but…’? If so, you’re really saying ‘No’ and closing the door on new ideas and open-minded employees. Paul Sloane says we could all learn a lesson from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos by implementing the Institutional Yes.

One of the exercises on my Creative Leadership workshop runs like this. People in pairs have short conversations. In the first conversation one person makes a suggestion for something new that could be done for customers (say). The second person replies with an objection. They start their sentence, ‘Yes but….’ The first person then rebuts the objection with another sentence starting, ‘Yes but….’ They carry on ensuring that every sentence starts with the words, ‘Yes but….’ After a couple of minutes they stop and then begin a second conversation. One person starts with a suggestion for something new that could be done for employees (say). The second person adds to the idea with a sentence beginning, ‘Yes and…..’ The first person responds with a sentence starting, ‘Yes and…’ and so it goes on. In the first conversation every sentence after the first starts ‘Yes but….’ In the second every sentence after the first starts, ‘Yes and….’

The results are instructive. Typically the first conversation spirals down into an argument with no agreement. In real life the more powerful person would usually win. The second conversation goes to all sorts of creative and unusual places. It is fun and leads to interesting ideas.

I then ask the delegates which conversation type is more common in their organisation. It is always the ‘Yes but…’. When we say, ‘Yes but….’ we are really saying, ‘No.’ It is the quick, negative, normal response to fresh ideas in the office. Einstein said that every truly great idea initially appears absurd. The more radical the idea the easier it is to find fault with. We can show how clever we are by pointing out some of its obvious flaws.

When we say, ‘Yes but….’ we are really saying, ‘No.’

The typical responses to a creative suggestion might be:

  • Yes but it would cost too much.
  • Yes but the boss would never agree to that.
  • Yes but we are too busy right now.
  • Yes but we tried something similar last year and it did not work.

When we say, ‘Yes and…’ we start playing with the idea and exploring its possibilities. ‘Yes and…’ does not mean immediate approval; it means, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’

Amazon has directly addressed the issue of kneejerk negative reactions. They have implemented what CEO Jeff Bezos calls ‘The Institutional Yes.’ If you are a manager at Amazon and one of your people comes to you with a suggestion your initial answer must be ‘Yes.’ If you want to say No then you must write a report on why you are stopping this idea. Amazon has made it much easier to say Yes rather than No so that more ideas are tried and implemented.

If your default response is ‘Yes but…’ then try saying ‘Yes and…’ Start a quiet revolution in your business by exploring crazy ideas rather than immediately rejecting them.

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation.

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