The “Yes, buts…”

“I agree with prioritizing clients being a better practice than first come first, served, but I think our staff will have too hard of a time with that.”

“I agree with focusing on housing stability before launching into a complete case plan, but our clients really need longer case management before they are ready to be housed.”

“I agree with the idea of working with a smaller group of people really intensely to solve their homelessness, but our funders want to see high numbers of people we interact with.”

“I agree that we should know the difference our program makes in people’s lives, but we don’t have the time nor are we required by our funders to track those types of changes.”

“I agree that we should spend time talking about how to better work like a system, but our CoC thinks they already do that really well.”

“I agree that we need to have an assessment tool, but youth are too different from other populations to be assessed.”

“I agree that publicly reporting how we are doing relative to targets would be helpful, but our staff would freak out.”

“I agree that we should offer person-centred services, but there are some administrative things that we are required to do that makes that impossible.”

“I agree that we should be non-judgmental and meet people where they are at, but people need to be sober for at least 7 days before they can really make a decision about housing.”

“I agree that providing supports to people in their homes is really needed in our community, but our agency has a policy that staff can’t leave the office because of worker safety.”

“I agree we should have centralized intake and common assessment to get the right person to the right program, but we need to keep our shelter beds full and our programs maxed out so that we get paid.”

“I agree that targeting prevention resources are difficult, if not impossible, but we feel it is important to provide a safety net to anybody that comes through our door…until we run out of money.”

“I agree that our staff can use more training, but we’d rather spend all of the money we get on direct client costs.”

And I could go on. All of these are examples of things I have jotted down as I have heard them over the past few weeks. Needless to say, there is an epidemic of “yes, but” mentality that can impede our ability to make lasting, effective change.

The “yes, but” response is interesting because people tend to accept the premise of the argument. They tend to agree with the evidence as presented to them. They tend to nod when data is used to highlight when/how/why something different may be considered. It is the action that is required as a result of the evidence that they resist. And the resistance is grounded in a range of rationale like organizational history, what is felt to be an imposed requirement by funders (which can be real), values, perception of client needs (regardless of evidence), fear of staff resistance – and so on.

The “yes, but” is a good case study in how people and organizations don’t always resist change (they agree that a future desired state may be better); they resist transitions (come up with a reason not to move to the desired state).

When the forum is appropriate, people that have attended my seminars or workshops know that the question I follow with is “But…what?” When there is a well-founded reason to consider a practice different than what we are doing, I like organizations and people to embrace the discussion of how we get from the current state to the desired future state. I am not so naïve to think it happens overnight. People may have feelings hurt. Organizations can be in a state of flux while they work through the change. Leaders (not just managers) have to grab the gauntlet and manage the risk and structure in moving forward. Champions are often needed. Staff have to be supported as they weather the transition.

Next time your organization is grappling with making a move that you have the evidence to believe is the right direction and find yourselves confronted with the “yes, but”, try one or more of the following:

  • Respectfully and calmly inquire “but what?” to figure out what is at the core of the resistance. Another way to reframe this is to use “yes…and” rather than “yes, but”.
  • Encourage people to talk about their values. It can often be assumed that people working in the same organization share the same values and perspectives on issues. That is not always the case. Knowing those differences helps with navigating different feelings and perspectives on the issue at hand.
  • Continue to use evidence – data points and evaluated examples – that support the change that is being considered. Proof that something may be a better way of doing work is better than emotional anecdotes.
  • Ask people to join you in having a solution-focused approach. That is to say, have people engage in dialogue about all that is required to make something work or make a particular change rather than noting just the barriers to moving forward.
  • When other people or organizations (like funders) are seen to be as the only thing stopping you from achieving the direction you want to go, invite them to engage with you in moving forward. Not all funders are connected enough to day to day realities that they understand well enough that their good intentions may not completely jive with good operational practice
  • Promote a culture of your peers that agrees that they will deliberately try to be creative first and critical second when confronted with new ideas or innovative approaches to service that are different than current practice.
  • Acknowledge that working through change to a new desired state of operation is rarely 100% correct. If we accept a “process” approach to working towards improvement, then we can learn and grow while we reflect and try.
  • Think about the end users of your services while you discern the value of making the change happen.
  • Create a simple evaluation framework to compare performance from the current way of delivering service to the new way that service is being tried.

The “yes, buts” can kill change and smother attempts at innovation. Our job is not to maintain the status quo at all costs. Our job is to focus on a hopeful new reality where the mission of ending homelessness is achieved. When there are compelling reasons to change or try service delivery differently, it is in the best interests of the people that we serve to demonstrate we are integrating that knowledge into practice.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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