The Agreeable Gorilla: the power of "And"

But we can’t do that.”

Not my best opening line, but Jake had caught me unaware. I tried again. “Look, using the Saskatchewan office to do the testing is a great idea, but it won’t work because we haven’t set up any network infrastructure with them.”
Jake gave a shrug. “Well we just need to get that set up then.”
I nodded, “we could, but that means working with IT on prioritization. You know how much fun that is.”
Jake asked, “Isn’t this project the key corporate goal for the year? We just need to explain that to IT, right?”
“Yes it is. We absolutely can explain this to IT, but I don’t think it will help much. They’ve already planned out their infrastructure work for the next four quarters.” I don’t think Jack was getting just how hard what he wanted to do was. The number of hoops we (I’d) have to jump through was staggering.
“Okay, I understand.” Jake was staying remarkably relaxed through all this. “We can still make the request though, right?”
I gave a shrug, “Sure we can, but they won’t say yes.”  Jake nodded but kept silent. “Okay, Saskatchewan is off the table, any other ideas?” I looked around the table hopefully but no one said anything. Sigh it was going to be a long meeting.
And  why do you think there are no more ideas?”
Sigh, the only thing worse than a long meeting, was a long meeting with Hogarth kibitzing at me. “I don’t know  that. Ask the engineers, they’re supposed to be the brilliant ones.”
And didn’t you just ask them?”
“Yes, but they’re sulking because their pet idea didn’t fly.”
“They are disappointed, I agree. And do you think your negative response might have contributed to that?”
Sigh, “Yes I suppose it could have, but you know how unlikely IT would be to agree.”
“Certainly, IT has been a bit rigid of late, and if you don’t ask, you will never know, right?”
Sigh, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Hogarth nodded, “Isn’t it so much easier when your not being butted to death?”
Blink, blink… But, but, butAnd, “Oh my.”
The power of “But”
Have you ever stopped to wonder at the power of this simple little conjunction? With three simple letters you can entirely negate everything that came before it and utterly replace it with what ever you say next.
“Certainly it looks like a beautiful day, but it’s nighttime right now with no moon so I can’t see a thing.”
See the power? If alchemists could harness the power of the mighty “but” then surely they would learn the secrets of turning lead into gold. After all, we all know that “but” really stands for “Behold the underlying truth!”
This one little word has the power to destroy communication.
And I believe that communication is one of the cornerstones to any team. Good communication will make the team better. Bad communication can completely ruin a project. “When you said blanco I thought you said you wanted the walls painted black. I didn’t know blanco meant white.”
Good communication also relies on collaboration. Nothing breaks a collaborative environment faster than a lack of trust. And how much are you going to trust the guy who keeps shooting down your ideas? “That’s a great idea, but I don’t think it will be practical to implement.”
Are you a but-head? Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Go to your next meeting and listen to everything you say. Every time you say “but” make a hash mark. You may find yourself very surprised. Now have a friend do this exercise for you. Odds are, there will be even more hash marks. We are so ingrained in the use of the word that we don’t even hear ourselves saying it. I’ve been aware of the dangers of this word for years, and I still catch myself going to this word at least three times a day. 

The power of “And”

Let us take in contrast the power of the lowly “and
“We could go to the beach, and after that grab a bite to eat.”
“I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“That sounds like a good way to boost DB performance, and if we use pair programing we can reduce bug count also.”
It is simply amazing how much more open your communication becomes by substituting one three letter word for another. You take a conversation from a conflict, to a collaboration. From an either/or decision point to a “cake and eat it too” cooperation. 
Which do you think is more positive?:
“We were going to go to the movies, but we decided on going to dinner instead.” – This makes it sound like a bad thing.
“We were going to go to the movies, and we decided on going to dinner instead.” – Was there conflict?
Simple Team Exercise: Try this simple and fun exercise. It’s called the “Yes, and” story game and actors use it a lot for practicing improvisational theatre. Seat the team in a circle. Tell everyone you are going to tell a story together. The rules are simple. The first person says one to four sentences of a story. Then they stop and hand it to the person to their right (or left, but pick one direction and keep going that way). The next person continues the story. Only they have to start their story by saying “Yes, and.” They then continue the story from there for one to four sentences before handing it off to the next person who starts with “Yes, and.”
We have the power to change communication. With a simple substitution we topple even the biggest gorilla in the room.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email,
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP
A Month Passes Addendum: I’ve spent the last month paying attention to the use of “but” around me. I’m absolutely amazed at how common the word has become. In one recent coaching session, my client used “but” two times in a “sentence,” creating a very conflict laden run-on sentence. I was editing some writing and found no less than three “buts” in one short paragraph. The writer had meant it to show how flexible something was, only the end result was to create a series of conflicts of what something could do. Reminded me of the old Ginsu steak knife commercials, “but wait there’s more!” Are you a steak knife or a can opener? Make up your mind!
And I noticed another word, that is insidiously creeping up to supplant “but” while being no less controversial. When someone says “Actually, it’s white, not black” do you have the urge to smile and agree or reach out and smack the offending words from the person’s mouth?
There is enough conflict in the world without adding to it with the use of such ineffective words. So take the pledge with me. “I will actually make an effort not to say but.”

The Angry Gorilla: Emotion is your choice.

Photo from Wikipedia

“I CAN’T BELIEVE THE NERVE!” I stormed into my office, barely catching the door before I slammed it for all it was worth. I compensated for the averted door slam by tossing my notebook across the room. Stalking after it, I noticed Hogarth reclining in the corner of the room. I didn’t even look at him, I was in no mood to have my head shrunk by a pseudo- imaginary gorilla who’d watched one too many Dr. Phil episodes. “Don’t even start, I am NOT in the mood.”
I threw myself into my chair, threatening to topple it over in the process. I glared sightlessly at my computer monitor. I was too agitated to even scan my recent emails. It was all I could do to not grab the monitor and throttle it like I wanted to throttle Bob’s snake-like next. Finally I calmed down enough to scoop my battered notebook up off the floor.

Photo by astrogrl –

Sitting back up I noticed Hogarth again. He was sitting in the corner of the room, not speaking or moving. He just sat there calmly looking in my direction. I snorted and tossed my book on the desk. “Not gonna work, hairball. You can’t fix this with a few pithy sayings and making me twist my mind around to look at itself from behind.”
Hogarth just sat there, unblinking. His placid face betrayed no hint of emotion.
I grunted and turned to my computer. I might as well get some work done.
Five minutes later I threw up my hands in surrender. Turing to the still silent Hogarth I said, “Fine, you win!”
Hogarth didn’t respond. He just laid his hands in thighs and cocked his head to the side.
“The team just demoed the product to the CEO. He was really impressed with how the workflow was improved. He said ‘Best damn idea I’ve seen in a long time.”
Hogarth just blinked. Still I could hear the question. “So? So Bob took credit for it. Complete and total credit for it. The lily livered slime bag had the nerve to take credit for the work!”
Hogarth just looked at me.
I sighed. “Bob’s idea for the workflow was a miserable failure. The team tossed it out and came up with something from complete scratch. Sure it fit Bob’s stated user requirements, but it had nothing to do with Bob’s actual ideas.” I smacked the table in frustration. “And there wasn’t anything I could do about it. If I’d told the real truth, it would have looked like I was tossing Bob under the bus. He may be a spineless product manager, but I’m not going to lower myself to that level.”
I clenched my fists, fighting back the desire to pound on the desk. “Oh he makes me so MAD!”
And then Hogarth finally spoke. “No, he did not make you mad.”
“What?” I stared at my gorilla with blatant incredulity. “I’m furious. I damn near took the door off its hinges and I think I dented my desk. How the hell can you say that Bob didn’t make me angry?”
Hogarth spoke, his voice calm and Yoda-like. “Anger you, Bob did not. Chose to be angry yourself, did you.”
I shook my head, not sure I’d heard Hogarth clearly. “Hogarth, he just took credit for the entire project and you want to tell me he didn’t make me mad?”
My gorilla nodded his head. “Yes.”
“Have you been sniffing the white out? That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard you say all month. How on earth is it he didn’t make me mad?”
Hogarth folded his hands in his lap and leaned back against the wall. Speaking from under half-lidded eyes he said, “between stimulus and response, lies the ability to choose.”
“Really, Hogarth, you need to stop buying self-help books at Kmart. What quack shrink said that?”
Hogarth opened one eye and looked my way. “Stephen Covey.”
Anyone who’s ever said Project Management isn’t a stressful job probably defines fun as “poking hot needles in their eyes.” Project Management can be high stress, high conflict and highly political. Mark Horstman,, points out “What junior employees call politics, executives call doing business.”
So the stress and conflict are part and parcel to the job we do. What we do about it though, is completely in our control.
Stephen Covey says in 7 habits of a Highly Effective Person “Between stimulus and response, lies the ability to choose.” It is the kind of phrase you might expect from a Zen master or Yoda and in his own ways, Covey is the Jedi teacher of business. It’s an incredibly simple concept and as powerful as it is simple.
We project managers are bombarded from a hundred different angles every single day. We face reluctant teams, self centered sales reps, political managers, oblivious executives and more. At least that’s what we tend to describe them as when in reality we are dealing with teams that are unsure of next steps or feeling insecure with their positions, sales reps that are paid to make sales and if they don’t they don’t get paid, managers who recognize business is a series of give and takes and executives that must make a hundred decisions a day to keep the company moving and you probably are only aware of three of those.
Human nature is pretty quick to assign emotional content to everything. Being an effective project manager means focusing not on the emotions but on the behaviors. Behaviors are the words one says, how one says them (tone and inflection), facial expressions, body language, and work product (timeliness, quality, documents, delivery, etc.).
  • Bob’s slouching in the meeting, that must mean he doesn’t care about the project. No, what it means is Bob got two hours of sleep last night because his son fell off the porch and broke his arm. Bob was in the ER until two in the morning.
  • Mary just wrinkled her nose. She thinks your idea is horrible. No, Bob smells like a sweat sock and Mary has a really sensitive nose.
  • Alexi just called the project “bad and bloated,” he’s being insulting and condescending. No, Alexi is a native Russian speaker and he watched an urban comedy last night. He meant to say “phat” not “bloated” and was trying to say he thought the project was “cool.”
Once we recognize that we should be looking at people’s behaviors, without assigning emotional bias, then we have to start working on our own response. Maybe Bob did intend to completely undercut you and hog all the glory. Is slamming your door and breaking your desk going to make things better? Will your boss blame Bob for having to shell out money for a new computer monitor? More importantly, will anyone want to work with you? Bob may have been underhanded and greedy, but you are the one and only person responsible for your response to his actions.
Being a great project manager means taking the high road, a lot.
Just remember “The man poking you in the chest does not make you angry. You make yourself angry.”
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP