Nobody ever solved a problem with a “no”

By Carl Heise

How do you respond when a colleague floats an idea that you think will take your organisation in the wrong direction, or is simply doomed to fail?

We hear the word “no” in countless ways every day, and we say it as often, backed up by cold hard rationale: “too hard,” “too busy,” “ too risky,” “too slow,” “already tried it”.

But nobody ever solved a problem with a “no”.

Yes, and…

The core disposition of successful problem-solvers can be explained with two words, “Yes, and…”. As I have said before, thinking differently to solve complex problems is a team sport. And the fastest way to put the brakes on team spirit, and the rapid problem solving that it fosters, is with a “no”.

When we are problem solving it is essential to employ the “Yes, and…” response.

When we say “yes” we acknowledge the value and effort of a teammate’s contribution, even if we don’t necessarily see it as the way forward. The “and” allows us to pivot to what else needs to be considered in evaluating the appropriateness of the idea as we move to the next stage of solving the problem. It keeps the conversation moving forward rather than cutting it off at the knees.

“Yes, and…” is not your basic “can-do” attitude, it is more considered and strategic than that American-owned idiom, but it stops short of diplomacy.

“Yes, and…” is both a skillset and a mindset

Imagine for a moment that a colleague has just shared what you consider to be a terrible idea. It may be terrible, or not. It may be based on a misunderstanding, or based on additional information that you did not hear because your inner machinery was grumbling about how your last idea was rejected. Regardless, there are two pathways available to you and by now you can guess how the “No.” will go. Choose a “yes” response and with emphatic, skilled questions the person who made the offer may realise that the idea is out of scope, or they may articulate their thoughts in a different way that makes you realise that they are actually on the money.

Throughout the problem-solving process it is essential to have clarity in order to: accurately define the problem; test and eliminate ineffective ideas; and develop, refine, and test the best ideas. The best way to do this is to ensure that all parties to the conversation have agency to make offers, and to receive offers. Sharing is, as they say, caring. “Yes, and” is both an empathic disposition and a skill that creates new openings. When we listen with the intention to acknowledge, we find the value in the person, and the essence of their idea. The rapid transmission of ideas between collaborators is where we become more than the sum of our parts. And that’s where the magic happens.

We have a choice

So, we have a choice. We can adopt the disposition of a gatekeeper with a well-developed arsenal of “no” rationales. Or, we can adopt the mindset of a listener and acknowledge others’ thinking, keep their thinking moving, develop collective momentum, and trust that the right questions will keep the solutions in scope.

There is nothing on the other side of “no”. The solution to the problems we face are on the other side of “yes”.