Don’t be a But Head

I have to admit it: I can be a real But Head.

You know the feeling…you’re sitting with some colleagues and you’re brain-storming; you can feel your pulse quicken as great ideas, wild ideas, silly ideas rise. One of the “stormers” runs to the white board and starts sketching ideas.

That’s when it usually starts for me. “But we don’t have enough cash,” I’ll say. Or, “we’ll never get their support.” The Buts start tumbling out of my mouth. Miki Kashtan described it to me last week as “the impossibility chatter.” And, if it happens often and frequently enough, the Buts can suck all the energy out of the room.

I was at a board meeting recently and came face to face with the corrosive effects of “but.” This organization has had its troubles of late and this was the first meeting after some particularly disturbing events had been uncovered.

A group of us had spent part of time in a side meeting, a planning meeting, with staff and some ad hoc committee members. We were working to sort through the options regarding a program the organization offers. One option, a compelling option because of a tightening cash situation made worse by the disturbing and recent chain of events, was to kill the program. The other option was to grow it.

The committee was comprised people who favored expansion and our work was to figure out how to make that possible. Over three days, we spent a total of nine hours debating, envisioning, and expanding.

Sure enough, every time we tried to break free, my impossibility chatter would kick and the Buts would come streaming out. And to be fair to myself, I could see how the implicit fear that gives rise to the Buts spreads like a virus in the room.

Just as the energy was about to be depleted, one staffer spoke up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “it seems it’s always my role in such meetings to point out what the problems are with ideas. I hate it. But I feel like I’m being irresponsible if I don’t.”

Suddenly I saw it…the way out of the But Head mentality. Because the truth was, this guy wasn’t letting his impossibility chatter kill the energy, stifle the creativity. He was simply delivering the power of what is.

There’s a difference between allowing the Buts to stop the process of innovation and recognizing the reality of things as they are. That difference may be a nuance, an energy shift, or small substitution of words (such as “and” for “but”) but it can mean the difference between life and death for the innovation process.

Recognizing and accepting things as they are now doesn’t have to limit the way you believe things can be later.  For individuals as well as organizations, if properly integrated into the envisioning process, that recognition can ground the planning, the dreaming, and allow the envisioning to stay connected with the core of who and what we really are.

  • panterosa,

    “But” is about the problem and the challenges. “And” includes the desire and the challenge equally. As I designer, I like “how” as a way to focus on solutions. “How” makes the challenge subservient to the desire. “How” galvanizes support, and opens the playing field up to many types of solutions. “How” gets you back behind mutual purpose, as well as making you feel you are in control, which means usually means you can solve things better.

    • jerrycolonna

      Reminds me that language is really the key. Re-reading my post and rethinking about the meeting that inspired, I recall the different experience I had when one guy started noting the reality of the situation by saying, “And I’d like to add…”

  • Scott Barnett

    Immediate reactions to people’s ideas are usually not “right” or “wrong” – they are your first reaction to that idea. Most great ideas formulate over time, I’ve never heard an entrepreneur say “we got it perfect the first time around”. The biggest issue with “but” is it kills the creative and open process of letting people blurt anything out, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. The biggest obstacle to progress is the person or people who need to be “right” and are not open to the idea that the best answer will come only through collaboration and openness. Simple things like saying “and” instead of “but” are great starting points, but (there it is again! :-)) it has to go beyond that. Explore all options, keep your mind and body open to multiple points of view and suggestions, and let the collective wisdom of the group bring you more power than the value of your individuality.

    • jerrycolonna

      Exactly so Scott. Oh and there’s nothing wrong with the word “but,” per se. Except when it’s used as weapon against the enlivening ideas.

  • Jeff

    choice of words, inflection, and timing are critical in creative process, particularly when all constituencies don’t agree. words are all powerful; the wrong ones can create carnage like the armies of ceaser, yet the right ones make your heart soar with endless possiblily. The well honed orator can be King of possibility!…….and it takes alot more courage to make to make an investment or a decision to – to say yes, into the unknown, than it does to point out what might not work.

  • Prashant Gandhi


    Excellent post as usual.

    I like my workshops to have a lots of energy – thats the number 1 rule. So I have incorporated a lot of techniques from the Improvisation theatre like energizer games etc. 1 game I play often with people is to get them to try out 3 scenarios of planning a picnic between 2 people. In the first scenario, each person has to make a suggestion which the other person would actively reject. In the second scenario, each person makes a suggestion and there’s a reluctant acceptance (with a lot of buts) of that suggestion by the other. In the 3rd scenario, each person makes a suggestion which the other person would follow up with “Yes And” and use that to build up on that suggestion.

    Smart people quickly realize that the endgame is not about making the other person miserable, but to build up on their idea to get to a different destination. Ultimately realities kick in and when they do come in, its with a lot of laughter (“You got a But sandwich with you for picnic”) and make s it more palatable

    • jerrycolonna

      Love your “game” Prashant. I think I may “steal” it.

  • Peter Cranstone

    Is it “Patty Melt Monday” or “Confront reality as it is – not as you want it to be Tuesday”. Nobody likes to be a but head. The key I’ve found is to understand the nature of the meeting and set the appropriate expectation “before” you begin.

    Patty Melt Mondays are no place for a but head. It’s a time where everything is on the table and invariably the best idea won’t surface until the last 15 minutes of the meeting (should’t last more than 2 hours)

    This is in direct contrast to the confront reality as it is meeting where being a but head is critical and welcome. Every startup gets out of whack sooner or later. It’s life – get over it and confront reality as fast as you can. For that you NEED the but heads.

    For vision I need patty melt mondays. No product managers, no but heads, just pure dreaming about intractable problems.

    After that – without the but heads nothing gets to done. Innovation must be tempered with customer reality and validation.

    I once had a Board member who would chastise me every time I used the “but” word. He hated it. So from then I wrote and spoke without the “but”. However (a lesser but) I learned that even a but has its place. You just have to use it wisely.

    • jerrycolonna

      Hmmm…I see the place for the person who delivers the reality of things as they are…THEY are needed. I’m not so sure about the those who have the need to constantly point out why the ideas are no good, those who contribute to my inner impossibility chatter.

      • Peter Cranstone

        I agree with that. It’s the whole, do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Constant “No’s” don’t help so they have to be monitored and if necessary reassigned “somewhere” else.

        • jerrycolonna

          I’ve seen some facilitators “park” the “no’s” and the “but’s” on a dry erase board while the discussion ensues. That feels wise to me.

          • Peter Cranstone

            Agreed. Helps set expectations and let everyone know what’s going on.

          • jerrycolonna

            Actually, the more I think of it, the more I like it. It also sounds the message that those view, and the energy behind the Buts, are valuable and respected (even if believed not to be in service to the process at that time).

          • Peter Cranstone

            Yep. I’ve learned over time that it pays to listen a little harder sometimes when the but’s appear. I’m the type that intuitively jumps to a conclusion and it takes others longer to get there. I’ve also introduced a deadline into some meetings – to overcome the buts. They have to present validated evidence that this is a good or bad idea in the next 48 hours. I want to determine if they just like the sound of their own voice or there is something a little deeper that I need to pay attention to. Either way – it always has to drive to an outcome (vs. an activity).

  • davearkoosh

    Jerry, great insights, and thanks for the post! I’ve met a lot of but heads who are unhappy with their career or with their execution of personal goals. Whenever I encounter one, it serves as a reminder to keep reality in mind, but not let the odds get in the way of intuition and creativity. While it’s important to face reality and plan for unforeseen contingencies, the longer but heads allow the behavior to stop them from finding some zone where their productivity and creativity meet, the more likely they are to go from “but” to “if only,” reflecting on missed opportunities.

    You’ve reminded me, though, that but heads aren’t necessarily naysayers, but vocal realists. In fact, such a trait could be a major benefit during the creative process, keeping the brainstorming anchored in what is possible, as opposed to what is merely imaginable.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Dave. And sorry I went so long without posting. A few things conspired to make it harder…some malware problems on my server, my own busy-ness, my own travel (I was ten days on the road attending board meetings and a training retreat), and my own writer’s block (which I’m still working through).

      You and Cranstone both see the need for the But Head…you’re re-phrasing it to “vocal realist” really helps me see that we’re saying the same things.
      You also helped me see that the But Head is probably someone who’s got inner challenges. Doih! Of course…I should have seen that. Sometimes the coach is oblivious!

  • Stu

    This post is a great case study on how extraordinarily smart and sophisticated people can get caught up in their own internal processes (impossibility chatter), the content of problems (what we are trying to achieve) and lose sight of the process of solving the problem (how we are trying to solve the issue).
    Defining the problem solving process up front helps of course, cutting down on never ending debate.
    One great model that acknowledges the place of impossibility chatter is described in ‘Strategies of Genius Volume 1’ by Robert Dilts where he describes Walt Disneys approach to creativity as consisting of three separate archetypes working together: a visionary (the dreamer), a realist (the problem solver), a critic (the evaluator/identifier of weaknesses and impossibilities ). When everyone playing understands the roles and importance of each role life just gets easier.

    Finally, although using ‘And’ instead of ‘But’ helps it has become somewhat hackneyed. We really do know what you mean. Linguistically I’ve found using ‘Although’ to be more powerful as it balances both the idea and the objection.

    These are great posts and great discussions. Keep up the good work Jerry.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks for the encouragement Stu.
      I really like how you framed the problem. Even more I love Walt Disney’s identification of the roles people play. Seeing it that way makes me less irritated by the realists.

  • Tereza

    I’ve done a bit of facilitating and envisioning work with some fairly stuffy folks (including whole lot of accountants).

    One observation I’ve developed over time is that in addition to the mood factor, there are for sure variations in skill among folks in the abilities Stu mentions below — to Envision, to create Reality, and to Critique. You want and need everyone to participate somewhat in all. But not everyone will be able to take you where you need to go. So you have to partition these activities accordingly, and channel them to when you need them in the process.

    A few things I’ve learned are useful. One is that people brainstorm better alone than in groups. Meaning, if you need to generate a meaningful and broad set of ideas, you will have more options if you ask people to come up with their own exhaustive list ahead of time, and have them submit them to you. Some will have 1 or 2 ideas. Some will have 20. Many will be generic. Some will not. If you brainstorm together, some important ideas may get shot down prematurely. And the more people in the room, the less control you have around where the group will land.

    As the facilitator, you have to see all ideas, and start anticipating where you want the group to land. Get very smart on the pros and cons of all, ahead of the meeting. Pull aside individuals and learn more, if you have to. Be equipped to vociferously defend any and every suggestion that was made. This is time consuming but important for trust building later.

    Then draft out the Guiding Principles — the “musts” of where you’re headed. And draft-define the Objective.

    When you meet, start with review of Guiding Principles and Objective. Get them to wordsmith it as much as they need. They need to own this. This is where the accountant says “needs to be in budget”, HR says “needs to energize our people”, etc.. A lot of it is motherhood and apple pie. But they need to have their say.

    Next you post everyone’s brainstormed suggestions, with no identification or judgment attached. This is where you apply judgment as facilitator of whether they need to know an idea showed up 6 times or just once. Depends if it’s a legitimate future prospect, or a relic from the past you need to kill.

    Anyway, what you do next depends on the task at hand. It may be a strategy, a work plan, a budget. But bottom line you are sorting, evaluating, clumping, elevating, sub-classifying and rejecting based on the Criteria, Objectives, and where the group is going. You are pivoting, but this is OK, because you studied these ideas, know them cold, and the contributors respect that.

    I recognize there’s often not time for this preparation. It’s a highly bespoke approach and requires about twice as much prep time as group meeting time. And they need advanced notice to submit their ‘homework’. But when you can, it reliably delivers strong results.

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