The Power of Yet

A deceptively simple technique to break a paradigm
Barry Cross
The Power of Yet

Sometimes it just takes one word. The right word.

Not but. Not can’t or haven’t. Not even not.

The word is yet. A simple conjunction. Three letters, never spelled incorrectly, yet extremely powerful. Properly positioned, it changes everything. Put it at the end of “We can’t” and you get, “We can’t, yet.” That one word suggests a different tone and meaning, changing the mood from glass-half-empty to glass-half-full all by itself. Here it is again — “We don’t do that here” versus “We don’t do that here, yet.” As in, that isn’t a bad idea. Let’s figure out how to make it happen. 

You have used the word before. Someone pushes back on an idea, stating, “That won’t work. We don’t have the skills (or resources or time).” You respond, “We don’t have the skills, yet,” maybe with a bit of a smile on your face, and you have succeeded in shifting the paradigm within that meeting. The paradigm in broken but now people are listening. The naysayers look obtuse if they push back without hearing you out. Now, hook them!

For me, there are three characteristics of effective leadership. Great leaders recognize opportunities, avoid catastrophes, and, most important, break paradigms. Breaking paradigms keeps us from getting too comfortable, keeps us on the edge. As leaders, we need to continually challenge the team and help them see things from fresh perspectives. This is how we solve problems, innovate, and prevent the business from getting stale. Breaking paradigms is a key skill-set and behaviour within the lean organization.

Where the word "yet" gets its real power is when we use it to connect needs and opportunities

Still, it is easier said than done. When was the last time you broke a paradigm? When did you ask for something exceptional from your team, and then helped them achieve it? If the culture for creativity, problem solving, and change is missing, you need an enabler. Start with yet, such as in the sentences noted above. The next stage, and where the word yet gets its real power, is when we use it to connect needs and opportunities. As in, we want better service yet improved efficiency.

Toyota did this famously 25 years ago with the creation of the Lexus (see Jeffrey Liker’s The Toyota Way for the full account). In this table, we see the uncompromising goals of the first Lexus, the LS400, stacked against the key attributes of the Mercedes 420SE and the BMW 735i (drawn from The Toyota Way, page 48).

Great high-speed handling > yet > A pleasant ride

Fast and smooth ride > yet > Low fuel consumption

Super quiet > yet > Light weight

Elegant styling > yet > Great aerodynamics

Warm > yet > Functional interior

Great stability at high speeds > yet > Great Cd value (low friction)

For Toyota, the application of yet maintained a lean focus for the engineering team, pushing them to solve problems within existing designs. Super quiet yet light weight. In order to reduce road noise on vehicles of the time, auto makers tended to increase the amount of insulation between the cabin and the engine. Yet the goal of light weight forced the Toyota team to develop technologies that reduced noise coming from the engine itself.

How will you surprise your customer? How will you make life easier or simpler for your employees? At its core, Operations is about execution and making strategy come to life.  Don’t settle: start by applying that simple word to bend, shift, and break a paradigm and watch the doors open.


Barry Cross is adjunct assistant professor at Smith School of Business and co-author, with M. Kathryn Brohman, of Project Leadership: Creating Value with an Adaptive Project Organization.

Smith School of Business

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