Yesterday, after the votes in the U.S. Presidential election had been counted and the winner decided images of the world's reaction to the election of Barack Obama filled our television screens. As I watched crowds and individuals from all over the world chant "Yes We Can" with tears in their eyes, I too found myself succumbing to a tsunami of emotion. Hope filled my heart as my eyes filled with tears. I cannot remember a more universal, positive, or global transcendent moment.
What was happening? My recent work and research has been in the area of what I call tangles. A tangle occurs in a human system when you have strong egos, protected turf, and a propensity to blame others. In the business world, what I call a Strangling Tangle occurred when Enron started making faulty deals and those up and down the management chain chose to ignore signs that something was obviously wrong. In that case, the chant was probably, "no you can't, as in "no you can't stop me", or "no you can't talk about it." Perhaps there was an emboldened "yes I can" on the part of the late Ken Lay and his leadership team, and it was really a "Yes I can break the law, and "I don't care who we hurt."
Three thoughts struck me about the sight of individuals of all ages, races, and religions shouting "yes we can." First, the word "yes" is significant. For weeks our environment has been telling us "no." "No, your future prosperity is not as assured as it once was." "No, your 401 K portfolio is not as secure and robust as you thought," "No you can't go out on those shopping sprees," "No, you may not have a job next week, next month, or next year." These chants reverberated a resounding "yes" filled with possibility and hope.
Secondly, the word "we" is also noteworthy. One of the primary sources of organizational tangles is an "us versus them" mentality. We use words like "you" or "they" to distance and separate ourselves from others. When we think, I don't trust you or them, we are not a "we." The power of the word "we" is that it expands our thinking and our possibilities. The intonations of the crowds suggested that we really are all one human family.
And finally, the word "can." The word implies capability and completion. To say I can do something, or you can accomplish something suggests its manifestation. The opposite of the word "can" is cannot. The word "can" is a green light suggesting movement. The word "cannot" is a hard stop.
So one way to prevent tangles from strangling an organization is to pay attention to the words and language being spoken. When a leader says "yes we can," that inspires hope. When a team says "yes we can," that signifies a commitment to succeed and work through tough issues. And when an organization collectively says "yes we can," milestones are broken, hopes fulfilled, and barriers broken. Yes we can.