Say “Yes” As Often As Possible

Yes
Some years ago, I discovered that it’s my job to say “yes” as often as possible. A school administrator is a gatekeeper whose support teachers seek for permission to try a new idea or change a policy. I used to think that my role was to evaluate a new idea and decide whether to support it. Now, I start from the assumption that we can do it and proceed from there. Saying “yes” imbues teacher leaders with confidence and trust and lays the groundwork for school innovation.

Do I shun responsibility by saying “yes?” Hardly. For one, if a teacher or program director brings forth an idea that lies far outside the mission and norms of the school, then I say so. However, the message is not that I personally disapprove of the idea but rather that it does not have a strong chance of success given the nature of the school. Most people take such feedback well. If they persist with their idea despite such feedback, then either they are right, or their idea will ultimately not pass muster with others.

If a person like me does not pass judgment on an idea, then do all ideas get approved, leading to organizational chaos? Not at all. Rather, I fulfill my role to design and lead institutional processes that thoroughly consider, refine, and approve ideas. When groups of people, working from considered norms, review ideas, then the process is higher quality and more inclusive. Groups possess more collective wisdom than individuals, and any one person possesses personal preferences and blind spots.
Two kinds of institutional processes, natural and structured, may be used to consider an idea. Natural processes include trial, error, and correction, similar to what design thinkers call “iteration.” A person with authority can simply say, “Why not? It seems like you have thoughtfully considered this idea. Go ahead and try it, and let’s see what happens.” This works well when the barriers to entry are low. Starting small is another common design thinking strategy, designed to keep barriers low until an idea begins to show value.
Structured institutional processes usually take the form of a committee. Effective committees include thoughtful members committed to the school mission.Clear norms are essential, so that all participants are operating from common principles. Cultivating teacher leaders through training and practice develops a strong pool of candidate committee members. Administrators in the room must share their opinions only sparingly or else risk making decisions de facto by influencing the decisions of teacher leaders.

“Yes” is a powerful motivator and “no” a powerful demotivator. If the success of a school depends on the collective ingenuity and hard work of everyone involved, then collective motivation helps … a lot. It is practically impossible for a single or group of administrators to come up with all of the good ideas that will help an organization succeed. I have seen many good institutions stagnate due to overly directive leadership and faculty discord. On the bright side, a motivated, confident faculty becomes a wellspring of thoughtful, strategic ideas, the foundation for a culture of innovation.
According to a popular refrain, leadership comes in four styles: autocratic, consultative, consensus, and delegation. Saying “yes” means that one makes autocratic decisions only infrequently or for minor matters that may also be defined as tasks. “Yes” means that we are going to use more inclusive decision-making methods when people come to us with ideas. Perhaps we will solicit a lot of input and then decide whether to support the idea. Or perhaps send the idea to a consensus-based decision-making group. Or perhaps the individual who brought the idea will decide how far to pursue it.
The response, “yes, and” has become a popular way to support free and open sharing of ideas in conversation. “Yes, and” is certainly preferable to saying “yes, but.” However, why not just say, “yes” and stop there? Even when well-intentioned, adding “and” to a colleagues’s idea partially appropriates it. The person has only just expressed a thought, and we’re already improving on it? Better to respect the person’s thoughtfulness and trust later peer processes to further develop it. Say “yes,” as often as possible and design systems processes to support school innovation.
Photo credit: Kai Friis on Flickr

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