Saying ‘yes’ is one of the dominant tropes of American life. America’s favorite politicians are the sunny optimists: think Ronald Reagan and “Morning in America.” In fact, the culture is so insistent on looking on the bright side that, as Barbara Ehrenreich complained in a recent book, injunction can be heard on the cancer ward. You might even say — and some historians have — that Americans themselves have been pre-selected for their optimism: you or your ancestors had to have a powerful faith in the New World and the opportunities here to make the trek over in the first place.
That’s why when I interviewed Nikesh Arora, Google’s head of sales, operations and business development at a media conference last week, one of his comments had particular resonance with the live midtown Manhattan audience and in the blogosphere shortly afterwards. Google, Arora said, works hard to create “a culture of yes.”
Arora described the Google approach as an “inversion” of the attitude in more traditional companies, where “everybody in management is trying to look at where the flaw is when somebody is presenting. Everybody is trying to figure out what’s wrong with their plan.” At the Googleplex, by contrast, “we’re going to say what’s right with it, let’s find a way to say yes.”
According to Arora, creating a culture of yes is central to creating a culture of innovation. As he put it: “the more times you say yes, the more you create a culture of yes, the more likely you’re going to have people innovating and coming up with great ideas. The more you say no, people will absorb that, anticipate that and say, ‘What’s the point of me trying to innovate, management is going to say no anyway’.”
Google’s culture of yes extends to the pay-checks of its employees: a couple of weeks before I interviewed Arora, Google had given all of its 20,000 staff members a $1000 holiday bonus and decreed a company-wide 10 per cent pay raise.