Seven types of yes

Seven types of yesIn our business, we sometimes stumble on ways to describe behaviors that have gone un-named. Once named, we can set about reinforcing good behaviors and stopping bad ones.

An example is my list of the seven types of yes. About 15 years ago, I was working with a multinational client, and as we sorted through the strategy, we were pleased to see that our meetings ended with a lot of head nodding. That convinced us that we were advancing the agenda. But after each meeting, we discovered this wasn’t true. The yeses we were getting weren’t the type of yeses we wanted. I interviewed each member of the working group about what they meant by yes and discovered that there are, in fact, seven types of yes.

Here’s the list: 

  1. Yes. I love it. Let’s go.
  2. Yes. It’s the best alternative. Let’s go.
  3. Yes. It’s the best alternative, but let’s consider how.
  4. Yes. It’s okay. But I like other options better.
  5. Yes. I’m nodding my head, but I’m not convinced.
  6. Yes. I’m nodding my head, but I’ll actively block after this meeting!
  7. No.

The implications were clear to us. Types 1 and 2 were great types of yes. Type 3 was a constructive form of yes, but needed more work. Types 4–6 were all rubbish. They simply implied a vote to passively or actively block progress on the recommendation. Type 7 was at least clear. We then set about making sure we could define the types of yes implied by all the head nodding in meetings. Quite unashamedly, our little group was happy to clarify the type of yes their nodding implied, and all too often they joyfully announced they were nodding to a type 5 or 6 yes. At least we knew where we stood—and, to be frank, we wondered whether we had the right leaders on the team.

Over the years, I have used this list multiple times and, unfortunately, it almost always comes in handy.

I raise this here for a very simple reason—it is an example of the southward wind we call the curse of the matrix (and the rise of the no-men). This behavior—happily nodding your assent while actively considering your next moves to block the decision—is what happens in organizations that have allowed themselves to get bogged down in bad decision-making behaviors. In these blogs, we’ve offered up several actions to deal with this:

  • Embrace conflict: It is critical to recognize that a key purpose of good organizational design is to create conflict, most often between parts of the organization trying to capture the customer benefits of sameness and those trying to capture the customer benefits of difference.
  • Hold the Monday meeting to resolve conflicts: The issue isn’t conflict itself, but the speed of conflict resolution. A Monday meeting with the full team can clean up that week’s backlog of decisions and signal to the organization they have only four days to blame slow decision making.
  • Drive a stake through the heart of energy vampires: A lack of good decision making gives rise to the energy vampires—folks who patrol your organization sucking the life out of all your people by finding ways to say no or to slow action.
  • Get out from your desk and back in the field: Sometimes, leaders are part of the problem because they allow themselves to get locked behind their desks, forced into a box and stop going out to the field to solve the problems of the kings.

Now, we offer you a fifth idea: Use these seven types of yes to figure out what your people really mean when they say yes. For the first 30 days, you’ll have fun realizing why so often things don’t happen quickly. For the next 30 days, you must only allow a yes to be a type 1–3 yes. In the final 30 days, you might want to consider the futures of all those type 4–7 head nodders. I’m pretty sure you’ve found your energy vampires.

This entry was posted in The curse of the matrix by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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