Yes Actually Means Let’s Do This Thing

Do you remember the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum, circa 1990? I think it was one of the first self-improvement books I ever read. Coming from a family steeped in the Irish tradition that most of life’s problems can be sorted out over tea and toast, I have always liked the part of the book that says, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.”

It’s been a while since I read the book but I think about it often. I think about how playing fair and cleaning up our own messes are rules that decision-making organizations and governments must relearn and ingrain in the practice of group-think and action. While I can’t recall specifically if Robert Fulghum talks about keeping promises, I suspect it is at least implied.

As someone who has spent most of their career in healthcare, I admit that moving into the world of business has been a massive learning curve over a very short period of time. While there are many similarities, I am learning there are also many differences. The most obvious, of course, is that people go into healthcare to help people; people go into business to make something – often money, sometimes a product. This delineation may be more of a Freudian character study but the fact remains – the motivations people going into healthcare are different than for people who enter business.

This may be why it came as a shock to me that a yes in business does not actually mean “Yes, let’s do this thing.”

Imagine for a moment, after months of waiting, you go to see an orthopedic surgeon about a knee replacement. Imagine you have been experiencing some degree of pain for a nearly a decade and finally, you reach that magical combo of age, pain threshold and impact on daily living where your Doctor agrees that surgery would be great. In the consult, you discuss the problems you’ve been having; the doctor discusses how he can solve those problems for you, and how much your life would be improved. Problem- Solution… what a perfect match. You leave the meeting thinking, “Wow, that Doc really gets me. My problem is going to be solved.” And you start making plans for an improved situation.

Now imagine weeks or months go by and, despite your attempts to reach the doctor to firm up those plans you both discussed, you get no response. You get no date for the next consult, you get no pre-surgery prep sheet, nothing, nada, zilch. So, you start questioning what was actually discussed during the meeting. Did you imagine how excited the surgeon was to help you? Did you imagine the solution they offered was real? Clearly, you must have misunderstood their level of commitment to move you along the road to health.

I am not saying healthcare waitlists don’t exist and am definitely not saying healthcare providers make promises they can’t always keep. But I am saying that in healthcare yes usually means “Let’s do this thing.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the same case in business. I have never been around so many people – many in power positions – who provide false hope. No matter what you call it, providing lip-service that sounds like a yes but really means no – or not at this time – creates false hope. That is crippling to the machination that is business… and particularly devastating to a start-up. It took me three years to have a meeting with a person who said yes and committed to action during the same meeting. Three years – that just wouldn’t fly in healthcare.

For all of you in the business world, could your family doctor wait months to give you a prescription for an antibiotic? Absolutely not. So why is it acceptable in business?

If I go further down this rant, there appear to be many organizations and departments devoted to perpetuating the false hope of help… for start-ups in particular. Many millions of dollars are given and heaps of air time provided to describe how help is available to start and grow your business. But in my experience, it’s often the idea of help, rather than an intent to actually help. It has not just been service providers; potential customers do it, as well. In healthcare, we often measure ‘patient compliance’. I know there are metrics around what could be called customer compliance (aka churn rates in the business world) but what if we discussed the impact of customers’ compliance as urgently as we discussed patient compliance? Would businesses be more successful if yes was part of an actionable plan to move forward? I am betting it would.

So, it seems that yes doesn’t actually mean “Let’s do this thing” – how did the line become burred? My follow-up question: how can you bring more sincerity to the business world?

If it’s not specifically mentioned in Robert Fulghum’s book, I would like to add my own kindergarten wisdom, which we’ve all heard before: please, practice saying what you mean and meaning what you say.