Service delivery
December 12, 2012

When ‘yes’ means your word

The Primes
Chris McGoff
John Wiley, 241 pages, $35.95

As the World Bank in the 1990s was preparing for a major transformation to mark its 50th anniversary, consultants Chris McGoff and Michael Doyle met to discuss the plan developed under the auspices of the Bank’s director of strategy, Christina Wallace. While McGoff was still trying to process the ideas in the dozen or so pages she handed them, Doyle looked up from the documents, straight into her eyes, and said bluntly, “It won’t work.”

She admitted to a similar feeling, but said she needed their help to understand why and to fix it. Doyle took a piece of scrap paper and drew two quick sketches. He labelled the first the “Rule of Problem/Solution Parity” and the second, “Logic.”

He explained that the first rule related to the fact that people needed as much space to talk about the problems as the solution. But the design for the World Bank process that had been prepared didn’t give sufficient time for the Bank’s senior leaders to get clarity on the problems and gave too much time for the solutions part.

As well, the process violated the natural logic of group planning and collaboration. Doyle set out three aspects to such logic. Groups work best when they start with the situation “As Is,” and then move to the “To Be” state they envision. Group members need to start by thinking about the world and their outside environment before considering what’s going on in their own organization. They also needed to start with long-term plans and then shift to short-term plans.

Those three steps are the essential logic of group planning, but in the plan were mixed up. “People will get lost. This process won’t result in the outcomes you want and need,” he advised.

Those sketches, and the thinking behind them, allowed for a successful redesign of the World Bank’s effort. The two rules Doyle had shared were among 46 guidelines for working in groups that he and McGoff developed in the heat of battle, as they struggled with the complexities of their consulting assignments over the years. The duo – Doyle died a few years ago of a heart attack – called them “primes,” viewing the insights as blinding shocks of the obvious. “Like genes are to individuals, primes are to groups. Whether you understand them or not, they determine a group’s performance. Master the primes and you can master leading groups,” McGoff writes in his book sharing them, The Primes.

The book is eclectic, but consistent in the terse way each idea is laid out – a guide for practitioners – and the equally pointed sketch accompanying each prime idea. Take Integrity, where the sketch is SAY → DO. There are many definitions for integrity but the focus here is on the fact if you say something you must do it.

That requires three skills, McGoff says:
•    You must recognize when you have been requested to, or are about to, give your word.
•    You should say “yes” only when you mean it (and you should only say “yes” if you mean it).
•    You must get very good at saying “no,” since that should be your most common response.

“Integrity is the source of trust. Trust enables intimacy. If you get nothing else out of this book, get intimacy,” he declares.

The Declaration Prime is also about being intentional. It advises that a declaration is a statement of what you will achieve by a certain date. “Are you willing to live unreasonably?” he asks, and to take a gamble by declaring an uncertain outcome for a specific date? Too often, we hedge of course.

President John F. Kennedy didn’t hedge. He declared that an American would go to the moon and back by the end of the 1960s. Mahatma Gandhi declared that there would be a free India before his death. Babe Ruth declared that he would hit the next pitch over the wall. “These leaders pointed and then hit. Athletes today swing away. When they happen to hit one over the fences, they stand and point. That is not declarative leadership. The order matters,” he says.

When you declare, like Cortez abandoning his ships, you have no options. McGoff tells the story of a complex project where declarations were made, spurring everyone on to new forms of collaboration to make sure the outcome was achieved by the appropriate date. A declaration can be a powerful thing. A hedge, not so much.

Declarations and vision often go hand in hand. But the primes include an element of vision that most of us wouldn’t consider, yet is crucial. It’s called the Dynamic Incompleteness Prime and it counsels that while you must come up with a vision for your organization that is compelling for what it signals, you must also make sure it is inviting for what you leave out. Then indicate what is missing, and what the group has to complete for you. This encourages everyone to contribute to the framework you have outlined and helps develop a description of the future that those followers are likely to fall in love with.

“Dynamic incompleteness adheres to the truth that too much form causes resistance and too much void creates chaos. The leader’s job is to bring just enough form to inspire the people and frame what needs to be articulated. In a nutshell, that is the art of visioning,” he writes.

In the Power Prime, the duo looked at the power of a group. “Do you know how to turn strangers, competitors, cautious allies, and suspicious shareholders into powerful, outcomes-driven coalitions?” McGoff asks. Again, in the chart for the prime, it’s depicted simply, a triangle, with three elements listed: Right shared perspective, right shared intent, and right coordinated action. The message is that any group’s power is a function of the degree to which members are willing to operate from a shared perspective; the degree to which they will commit to a shared intent; and the level of co-ordination of their actions. “A weakness in any part of the triangle erodes the power,” McGoff warns.

He suggests this simple formulation will give you power in the many groups you must work with today beyond your internal team. “Teams are only one kind of group, and their future is limited. Globalization, interconnectedness, and systems thinking are producing an entirely new level of problems and possibilities that no single organization or authority can get its arms around. The highest skill to master is the ability to generate power in groups composed of strangers, competitors, cautious allies, and suspicious shareholders. That is the world in which we live,” he notes.

The Request Prime highlights the importance of being able to distinguish during the frenzy of our day between a statement, a request, and a command:
•    A statement is a description of something or the condition of someone. No response is necessarily required.
•    A request is an invitation to give your word on something. It requires a response, yes or no. “Maybe,” or “I’ll try,” means no, and McGoff argues their use should be forbidden. Instead, say the actual word: “No”.
•    A command is a requirement for someone to make good on his or her word.  “Commands are an essential part of high performance social contracting, and the only response to them is ‘yes,’” he stresses.

He points out that too many people cloak their requests as statements and their statements as commands. The result is confusion and frustration. He urges you to make sure that everyone in your team can tell the difference between a statement, request and command, and recognize – in the moment – which they are receiving. Make sure they understand that statements don’t require any response or actions; that can save a lot of time. And make sure th

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