The Three Yes Rule

I sat at my desk, feeling a mix of disappointment and anger.  In less than twenty-four hours I saw months of hard work squandered and $1 million dollars evaporate.  I painfully learned what I call the “Three Yes Rule” of strategic execution.

I was working in the enterprise strategy department of a Fortune 50 organization.  Senior leadership was looking for ideas to increase top-line growth (revenue), and profits.  My idea was to start a cross-business innovation fund.  Business leaders would contribute to a central fund.  Representatives from each area would form a committee to review, select and invest in promising new products or services.  The money would be used to fund strategic experiments – small pilots that would prove the concept and the viability of long-term success.

I shared the idea with our company president, who thought it had promise.  Over a few months I socialized the idea with business unit leaders and got them to initially pledge $50,000 each or $500,000 total.  One leader convinced me that the fund was too small.  He reasoned that it takes the same amount of effort and buy-in to raise $1 million, as it does $500,000.  It took another month and a half to go back and meet with all the leaders with the increased pledge idea.  I had leaders sign a pledge, so they could see that their peers had also committed.  Finally, I met with each business units’ Chief Financial Officer to insure they were willing and able to fund their commitment.

I set up a centralized account under my cost center and had $1 million dollars transferred into the account.  I felt great!  The next day I got a call from the president of the company who asked me to come up to his office.  He congratulated me on my efforts and told me the innovation idea was DEAD.  The business unit leaders had a meeting, I was not invited, and decided to kill the fund.

I learned a lot that day from my president…I learned that you need three yesses.

  1. Yes #1: Understanding and Merit.

When you share an idea with someone for input, the first yes falls into the awareness category.  I understand your idea and I think it has some value.  Leaders in large organizations constantly have people pitching ideas to them.  They know, however, that very few get funding.  It takes considerable effort to shepherd an idea from conception to implementation.  So many leaders will say “yes” to be supportive and positive, knowing that others in the process will be more critical and kill your idea.  If you are serious about executing on your plan you need another yes.

  1. Yes #2: Feasibility, Buy-In, How-To.

This stage requires considerable effort and is where most initiatives fail.  The next yes you need is agreement that your idea is feasible.  That means it is compatible with your company culture, and you have the resources, both human and capital, to execute.

Next you need all the major players involved in implementing your idea to both understand how it will work at a detailed level and get their buy-in that “Yes” it makes sense.  I use Everett M. Roger’s five attributes of an idea to demonstrate the value to others:

  • Advantage – show how your idea is better than what they do currently.
  • Compatible – highlight how your idea is consistent with existing company values and their past experiences.
  • Not Complex – make sure your idea is easy to understand and explain to others.
  • Try It – give people the opportunity to try your idea on a limited basis.
  • Results – show how the results of your idea are observable to others. People won’t adopt a new idea if they can’t see the results.

In my story, this took three months to get buy-in from everyone, but the hard work resulted in the creation of the fund.  I stopped at this point; I did not know I needed one more yes.

  1. Yes #3: Credit and Personal Impact.  

The final agreement you need is how the credit or success will be communicated and what the personal impact will be on the major players if the idea is successful, or it fails.

President Ronald Reagan had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that said: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”  If you really want your idea to be implemented, then determine who should get the credit if it succeeds – and often that is not you.  Also be accountable if things go poorly.

So, what happened at that business unit head meeting where I was not invited?  A mentor of mine who was at the meeting shared those leaders worried if the innovation fund was successful, it would make them look bad.  They could not let a person from outside their business coordinate investment decisions and be the catalyst for grow in the organization.

Success in the Future.

I learned my lesson.  I created a Chairman’s Fund that centralized investments under the executive team, without the knowledge of the business unit heads.  Over the years that fund launched several successful products, services, and new business lines. 

Bottom Line

Use the “Three Yes Rule” to guide your ideas from concept to successful implementation.

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