Yes but… Syndrome

Suggestion Box

I like this cartoon. It dispels a myth and confirms a truth.

The myth is that good ideas are born that way. The truth is that imagination generates new ideas and judgement determines whether they are good or not. To ignore these two steps is to ignore the laws of thinking.

The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and that is a logical advantage to us working in groups. However, that advantage is lost if we ignore the laws of thinking. The laws of thinking require us to suspend judgement until the idea has been imagined. It is impossible for us to fully imagine an idea and judge it simultaneously and to try is symptomatic of ‘Yes but… Syndrome (YBS).’

As individuals and in groups, YBS prevents us from consistently generating and maximizing the potential of good ideas for the benefit of our students. I speak from experience.

As an individual, until relatively recently, I suffered from YBS. I would spend more time judging my ideas than imagining them. Yes but it will be probably be too much work. Yes but it has probably been done before. Yes but it will probably be too expensive. Yes but it probably will not work. Any one of these internal judgments would prevent me from fully imagining an idea and would certainly prevent me from sharing it. Upon reflection, what I was really doing was predicting how other people would judge them. This in itself was quite irrational given that I have always had the pleasure of working with very open minded people who have positively encouraged those ideas that somehow slipped out.

Every now and then, I have a relapse of YBS but an understanding of the laws of thinking and two significant mind shifts have allowed me to manage it. Both of these mind shifts are connected and grounded in two Adaptive Schools’ Norms of Collaboration: Presuming Positive Intentions and Putting Ideas on the Table.

Presuming Positive Intentions

Members of effective collaborative groups consistently presume positive intentions in the thinking and actions of their colleagues. Presuming that an idea has been put forward to help the group allows members to welcome, listen to and inquire into an idea. I have never had any issue presuming positive intentions in those that I work with. I welcome the ideas of others in the belief that these ideas are shared for the benefit of the group and ultimately our students. Presuming that others will also welcome my ideas in this way has helped me to overcome YBS as has the knowledge that I am sharing ideas for the good of the group and our students. In this sense, presuming positive intentions in myself is my antidote to YBS.

Putting Ideas on the Table

Presuming positive intentions in myself allows me to fully imagine and share my ideas. Distancing myself from my ideas once I have put them on the table is what allows me to suspend judgement. Bob Garmston, founder of Adaptive Schools, often talks about not getting up on the table with your idea. I interpret this to mean that once you have shared an idea, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the group. It is then the responsibility of the group to inquire into it, refine it, and ultimately, judge it. Absolving myself of this responsibility to judge my own ideas has enabled me to share my ideas more freely. It is not for me to say whether my ideas are good or bad and if my ideas turn out to be bad, it is not for me to defend them. The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and an understanding of this law of thinking, coupled with my positive intent in sharing my ideas, keeps me off the table so the group can judge them.

YBS is not suffered from alone. Groups also suffer from YBS and group members and leaders must be cognizant of this. As it is for individuals, Group YBS is avoidable and Adaptive Schools describes some practical strategies that can ensure group efficacy is not undermined by it.

Dialogue v Discussion

It is very important that all members of a group are clear as to whether the group is imagining or judging ideas. If some members of a group are imagining ideas while others are simultaneously judging them, ideas will not be fully imagined. An understanding of the distinction between dialogue and discussion as described by Adaptive Schools is useful in this situation. Dialogue is employed to fully understand an idea and discussion refers to what occurs when a decision is being made. Facilitators and meeting agendas that make explicit reference to when dialogue and discussion are to be entered into will allow ideas to be fully imagined and effectively judged.

Exploratory Language

I am sure that it is clear by now that ‘Who has a good idea?’ might not be the best question to ask of those suffering from YBS. To encourage the sharing of as many ideas as possible, a skilled facilitator or group member will use exploratory language. Instead of asking ‘How can we raise reading scores?’ a better way to frame that question might be, ‘Given our experience as teachers of reading, what might be some things that we could try to raise reading scores?’ The question remains the same but the use of exploratory language (might, could) implies that there is more than one answer and the more ideas we have on the table, the better our chances of raising reading scores.

To some degree, we all live with YBS and if our students are the ultimate beneficiaries of our ideas, it is very important that we manage it.

*This post was inspired by my learning from On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn From Philosophy

About Mike Simpson

MIKE SIMPSON is the Director of Curriculum and Learning at The International School Yangon. Originally a lawyer from New Zealand, Mike has also worked in schools in Qatar, Venezuela, and Lesotho. Mike has a particular interest in the development of collaborative and innovative learning communities. He hopes that his blog might be of interest to other teachers and school leaders as they nurture these communities in their own schools.
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