The Cost of Saying Yes

Mar 07, 2023

Every “yes” carries a cost. We usually think that “no” carries the big cost, but a “yes” can even be more expensive than a “no.”

Netflix made a whole film about this.

Not long ago, I spent the day with a young entrepreneur whose business was growing at a phenomenal rate. The company was in a market-pull phase with incredible tailwinds and momentum.

As I began to get a feel for the business and the issues facing both the founder and the enterprise, it became apparent that the biggest variable to successfully navigate over the next 18 months was the reoccurring and mounting cost of “yes.” That became our theme for the day. In the past year:

  • He said ”yes” to outside growth capital and new partners.
  • He said “yes” to renovating a historic building to house their cool, new offices.
  • He said “yes” to a surge of new employees to keep up with the business growth.
  • He said “yes” to a new customer segment and expanding geographic target.
  • He said “yes” to layering on new offerings since they were already doing them.
  • He and his wife said “yes” to adopting another young child.
  • He said “yes” to being on the elder board at his church.

He had pledged a lot of “yes” answers and now the payments were coming due.

We spent the day outlining and analyzing the costs connected to all those “yes” decisions. There was a mounting debt of outstanding costs screaming for payment.

He wasn’t Steve Jobs yet, but he was starting to feel the crunch of what Jobs ran into–lots of ideas and activities but no focus.

It is an illusion to think any yes doesn’t carry a cost. It does.

I am immediately reminded of the parable from Jesus where He asks: Who says yes to building a tower without counting all the costs associated?

“Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish’.”  (Luke 14:28-30 The Message)

“The power of a promise kept” is a phrase many people use. When I say “yes” to something or someone, I am inadvertently making a promise. This helps me in my thinking, in counting the cost. How many times can I really pledge “yes” … at the same time? Am I a promise keeper or a promise breaker? Here are two examples to make it practical:

The “Yes” to my wife: When I said “yes” at the altar to Karen, it was an incredibly good decision. It also carried a huge cost. And not just in terms of saying “no” to every other potential wife out there (not that there was anyone else willing to take me). I was tying myself to someone else and giving up independent control. The kids I would have, the way I would parent, the career path I would choose, the money I would make, the stresses and joys of my life, all of it and much more was tied to the “yes.”

The “Yes” to a new employee: Usually, when we think of hiring a new employee, we think of what we gain. What’s this guy going to bring to the table? How will she strengthen us where we’re weak? But we also need to recognize the cost of saying “yes.”. Saying “yes” to new employees includes onboarding, training them, motivating them, giving them a good culture, and, of course, paying them.

Those are just two examples, but there are infinite places to say “yes,” and all of them have a cost:

  • The “yes” to my kids
  • The “yes” to a new job
  • The “yes” to a new business
  • The “yes” to a business deal or partnership
  • The “yes” to God
  • The “yes” to a vacation opportunity
  • The “yes” to a large purchase
  • The “yes” to a loan
  • The “yes” to more education
  • The “yes” to a friendship
  • The “yes” to geographic expansion
  • The “yes” to a new department
  • The “yes” to competing in a new market
  • The “yes” to committing to win

Let’s break down any “yes.”

  1. To say “yes” means I am saying “no” to someone, somewhere, sometime about some thing. A “yes” always carries boundaries and constraints. Take a few minutes to calculate the hidden cost or the prolonged cost of “yes.” Sometimes you should say “no” to a good opportunity so you have a “yes” in the bank for a great opportunity . As David Allen said, “You can say ‘yes’ to anything but not everything.” No one has an unlimited bank account of “yes.”
  2. To say “yes” means I must stockpile some resources to fuel the later stages of the commitment or project. Calculate the cost to the end, not just the emotional start. And make sure to get all the costs in: money, time, relationships, and emotion.

Let me be clear. I am not making the case to become a “no” person. Those people have their own set of issues. The goal is not to say “no,” but simply to count the cost of the “yes.” And no doubt about it, yes carries a certain energy and power to it. But keep in mind that every “yes” carries a cost.

That is why I love what Mark Twain said: “Measure twice and cut once.”

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