The Power of “Yes, And” Thinking in Business & Leadership

The Obvious: Life is a series of complex relationships and decisions and the answers that we so crave are rarely ever clean cut and crisp.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about politics, religion, leadership or business — the truth that lies at the core of every thought or argument or thoughtful argument is complete but messy. There are almost always exceptions to rules and emotional drivers that masquerade as facts and cloud our judgment. Many people, myself included, find it incredibly frustrating that the truths they hold to be self-evident usually have another side to them — the reality is that life is supposed to work this way.

Why? Well. Because each one of us is an organic system. And the things we create are systems, some organic and some not. For systems to work, you need ground rules and that’s where things get messy — since this is a business blog and not a philosophy club — we’ll talk about the system of business that we create and what it has to do with the concept of “Yes, And” thinking.

Defining “Yes, And” Thinking:

Yes, And thinking is the ability to hold two contrasting truths in your head and recognize the validity in both. I would add the caveat that “without judgment” belongs in that definition. It’s a skill that most people probably think they have and are even good at but I would argue that it’s something much more nuanced than we give it credit for — if you’ve read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman before, you’ll know that what we assume about ourselves and our environment in the moment is very rarely the whole story.


What Does This Have To Do With Business?


As a business you are often being asked to commit, commit, commit. And that’s good — you absolutely MUST have things like product/market fit and a specific audience that you’re speaking to before you dive head first into a marketing campaign or open a business account. It’s the foundation from which everything else will be built so it’s worth it to get it right.

That said, almost every other decision you make about leadership, culture, team-building, scalability, growth, marketing, etc. will have some element of “yes, and” thinking tied to it.

As an example, we can look at the traditional debate and conversation around scaling a business. It’s one that is often taught as a black and white, growing or dying mindset and I personally think it’s unhealthy and unreasonable.

A few ‘black and white’ truths do exist when talking about business success – if no one is willing to pay you for your services, you don’t have a business. If you have no audience for the problem you’re trying to solve, you don’t have a business. That’s ok — you’re allowed to figure that out but it’s not a company until someone pays for the solution you offer.

When it comes to whether or not you should “scale at all costs”, however, nuance abounds. You can be both growing a stable and profitable company AND delivering a high-touch, high-value product. Your journey will look a LOT different than a company that is selling a highly-consumable, digital or physical product, but you can do it. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

You can be the CEO of a company AND have a lot to learn about leadership and team development. You can agree that companies should make money and be profitable AND behave in a way that supports your employees and your values.

You can believe that you, yourself, deserve to be successful, wealthy and fulfilled AND believe that those things are not dependent on other people’s suffering.

It can seem impossible to run a business that has both values and money. We see it all the time.

The issue is not usually with the business model or the customers — the issue is with the belief system and values of the business owner. Non-profits are particularly good at having this problem. They have passion and drive and desire in spades but often lack the fundamental belief that what they’re running is a business. We see it in their marketing and often their leadership and fundraising struggles. By applying some “yes, and” thinking to the problem it becomes easier to see that two truths can exist side by side in harmony — you can make a lot of money AND run an entity that puts that money where its mouth is when it comes to values and ethics.

It’s harder for sure — as to why that is, well. Absolute power is the phrase that comes to mind. But it’s also societal pressure — people are great at shaming other people because they associate wealth and success with greed and distrust.

We see this with small businesses a lot — business owners will avoid taking the next obvious step in their business development because they “don’t want to be Amazon”.

I’ve written about this at length but the idea that you will “be Amazon” by accident or by making basic business decisions is preposterous. It’s like saying that lifting weights makes you bulky. If only it were that easy! It ain’t.

With “yes, and” thinking it’s possible to see that you can run a sustainable, comfortable and reasonably-sized company (however you define it) AND have a team and leadership structure in place to make running that business possible.

So, what’s an area in your life that you hold a black and white truth? Money? Politics? Success? Failure? I bet you a dollar that you can find two opposing thoughts that are both true about those beliefs. The challenge (and we might dive into this later on…) is that it’s up to¬†you to figure out what to do once you realize that whatever the answer is that you’re looking for isn’t a straight and narrow path. It’s just convenient to believe that “only greedy people make money” and not that “money is a neutral tool to be utilized”. It’s in that second realization that the choice comes — how will you use the power of choice and critical thinking to make a decision that supports your values?