The Power of “Yes, If…”

“He that would be a leader must be a bridge.”
–Welsh proverb






Recently, my team began a discussion on a topic within our ongoing strategic planning work.  When I raised a topic about a piece of work we are doing today and whether this work can be moved elsewhere, the immediate response from the person most impacted by the topic was “No, because…”.  I paused for a minute because this was the first time I had experienced with this team such a strong negative reaction to a particular line of conversation, one of resistance and stopping all further dialogue on the topic.  I tabled the topic for the moment (it wasn’t imperative that we reach a decision on it right away) and decided to analyze what happened, starting with how I introduced the topic to how to address the strong negative reaction to the topic.

Reflecting over my career, I have encountered “No, because…” numerous times.  I once had a boss who on repeated occasions talked about “guarding the shores” and “fighting off the hordes of barbarians.”  I can visualize this boss having conversations with his peers and bosses starting with “No, because…”.    Each of the earlier statements strike me as “defending the turf” against someone external to our local organization.  Perhaps these statements were this boss’s way of telling his employees that they do not need to worry, that he was looking out for our best interests.  Since I’m drawn to the larger picture, I wonder: are our best interests the same as the larger organization?  The same as our Agency?  How was I supposed to know since it appeared to me that my boss was busy burning bridges instead of constructing them?

I encountered “No, because…” when my larger organization was looking at ways to combine functions to reduce cost and ensure the same high level of performance we’re known for.  Again, my immediate boss (a different one) responded with a “No, because…” statement.  His position didn’t invite dialogue – it sought to stifle the exchange of ideas and to leave the status quo in place.  Again I was struck by the boss being overly-protective of some sort of local interests at the cost of the larger picture.  How was anyone supposed to know if the proposal might lead to improvements if those involved were not willing to be open to the ideas surfaced and have a meaningful conversation about them?  I wondered if “No, because…” was endemic to our culture.

Then an event happened a few years ago that gave me great hope.  On Halloween Day 2006, the NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin, announced that he approved a final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope before the shuttle was to be retired in 2010.  The remarkable thing about this statement was that the previous Administrator had ruled out any further servicing missions following the Columbia accident because there were no options for a safe haven if the shuttle was damaged during launch as it had been on STS-107.  Clearly, this was a “No, because…” position, and most of the Agency rank and file accepted it.  However, Mike talked about the conversation he had with the Agency’s head of safety and re-approached the idea of sending a shuttle mission to service Hubble, starting with a very simple statement:

“Yes, if…”

Simply raising that statement in the context of a shuttle mission to service Hubble opened possibilities and free thinking that led to a solution (the key part being that a second shuttle would be on the other launch pad, ready to go if there was a problem).  Simply saying “yes, if…” led to an open dialogue that found a solution and, in a few short months, will achieve the result of extending Hubble’s operational lifetime to continue its amazing mission of discovery.  All because the decision-makers were willing to entertain one very simple statement:  “Yes, if…”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are times when “no” is appropriate.  Clearly, if one is dealing with a situation leading to a misalignment of ones core values and the mission of the organization, “no” is quite appropriate.  “No” is also appropriate if one is dealing with situations that infringe on ethical, legal, or personal rights matters.  For the Hubble servicing mission, the initial “No, because…” response seemed to me to fly in the face of what NASA is here to answer: What’s out there in space? How do we get there? What will we find? What can we learn there, or learn just by trying to get there, that will make life better here on Earth?  The “No, because…” answer as it pertained to Hubble did not have in mind what NASA is about – instead, the “no because…” had an overly cautious and perhaps understandable motivation rooted in safety for the astronauts, yet did so in a very closed way.   The “Yes, if…” approach remained true to safety yet opened the dialogue to embrace the reasons NASA is here.

Therefore, the path before me is quite clear.  First is a revisit to the core values of the team as it relates to our strategic planning work.  We will revisit the topic at hand by asking how the topic is tied to our values.  From there, if we see an opportunity for improvement that strengthens our core values and does not run contrary to any, we will explore solutions using “Yes, if…”.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

(This entry is dedicated to Mike Griffin, NASA Administrator from 2005 to 2009.  Besides the “Yes, if…” statement, Mike gave me several others during my brief time at NASA Headquarters that I carry with me every day.)

The Power of “Yes, If…”