No Means Yes

No Means Yes

For years when my children were small, I’d look forward to watching Tuesday Night Fights on USA Network. I could get my little ones to bed and then watch boxing 2 or 3 hours a night, once a week. It was my favorite show. In particular I loved to listen to the announcer Sean O’Grady explain what it really meant when a boxer took a shot to the stomach and then started shaking his head as if it didn’t hurt. Often the boxer would smile around his mouth piece to show just how much the punch didn’t hurt.

“No means yes,” O’Grady always said. “You shake your head no at me in a fight, I know I just hurt you, and I’m coming inside to do it again.”

Business leaders take notice. When we share information on a new product or a competitor or even a new startup, and we’re greeted by our teams with criticism of the idea, the company, the business model, the future – pay attention.

No means yes. The execution might be flawed or misguided, but the idea likely needs more inspection. Few people in business have the confidence to acknowledge a good idea or business maneuver without criticizing it simply because they didn’t think of it first.

In fact, simply acknowledging the talent of another is hard for most people in business, and it’s this inability to look objectively at other people, products, services, and ideas that holds back so many. No doesn’t have to mean yes, but so often it does. Spotting the good in another’s idea always leads to better innovation.

Want to quickly figure out which people on your team are the ones with the real business skills and ideas, regardless of their pedigree? Simply pay attention to how they respond to the successful work of another outside your division or company. Praise the idea of another person or company and see what happens next in your team. Keep an eye on the one or two individuals who start by acknowledging the things being done well. These few will tell you what you need to know, both about the idea and about your roster of current or future leaders. Sit quietly and watch how they articulate what they think.

In contrast, those that respond first and forcibly with criticism usually aren’t your top people. They won’t be either. They’ll tell you it’s a bad idea, it’s already been done, it can’t be done, it stinks. I pay attention to those who acknowledge the good in an idea, even if it is in fact flawed.

I want to see how the people I am counting on consider new ideas and learn from them, how they identify the pieces that do work or could work, rather than pick at small things. I want the best on the team to ask themselves, What can we learn from this, and then come back with ideas that can be tested. We like to take little bets on new ideas and this is the best way I know to quickly establish and test them, to knock holes in them if you will.

Today consider putting someone else’s idea or product in front of your team, and ask them to assess it together. Out loud, right then, spontaneously. And take notes on what happens next.