Yes, but …

I dread those words. “Yes, but …” indicates one of our suppliers, team members or colleagues both agreeing with a conclusion but denying responsibility for it. “Yes, but …” is by its nature a defensive stance. It indicates entrenched interests, a hidden agenda. It does not bode well for the rest of that sentence, nor for the continuation of the trust I put in that relationship. “Yes, but …” indicates a deep denial of ownership of the issue we are discussing. “Yes, but …” is casting away responsibility.

There are other, more powerful ways of starting that sentence. “Yes, and …” for example, which indicates both ownership of the issue and points to actions undertaken or in preparation to either better understand the problem or deal with it.

As a ComEx member, it is my responsibility to ask those questions that will help move blocked issues forward. I do not always have the detailed technical understanding to solve the problem, but I have the responsibility to point to the elephant in the room and tell the audience there is in fact, an elephant in that room. I’ll start asking questions such as, for example, “This thing here appears not to be as we intended it to be. What happened?”, or “I noticed we are heading towards a huge overrun on the development budget for X. What is going on?” These questions are the essential “why?” questions you need to ask the people working on the project where the problem occurred to help them take the necessary distance and see the whole of the problem. When you, as a supplier, a team member or a colleague are deep into the issue, you may not see everything that is there because you are too close. If you’re with your nose touching the building, you cannot see its entire structure. My role is to ask those “why?” questions to coach the team towards a solution.

It can be disappointing to see a member of that team stuck in her or his thinking, refusing to look up and take one step back. If the answer to a “why?” question starts with “Yes, but …”, I know that the intent is to deny their responsibility. And that is the wrong answer. It is not about responsibility, not at that point, it is about finding a pragmatic solution for the issue at hand. And that solution can be found together. “Yes, and …” on the contrary looks forward and lists what has already been done to find a solution for the problem and can indicate potential avenues not yet explored. It helps rule out potential causes because they have already been addressed. It indicates extreme ownership.

Judge yourself how powerful this difference of one word can be:

The question: “I see we are behind on planning, we run the risk of shipping late to this customer. What has happened?”

The answer you don’t want to hear: Yes, I agree we are behind on planning, but our resources were taken by a priority project.”

The answer you want to hear: Yes, and we are looking at whether we can redefine our answer to the Minimum Viable Product specifications to ship on time.” or even “Yes, and we discussed this with the client. We are looking at a couple of possible solutions …”

The next time your team member, your supplier or a colleague answers one of your questions with “Yes, but …”, encourage them to start their sentence with “Yes, and …” See what it brings you. It may make all the difference in the world.