Cyrus Stoller home about consulting

Ternary status check

I recently finished an engagement with AirAsia X in Malaysia. They are the long-haul, low-cost affiliate carrier of the AirAsia Group. In other words, they are a sister company to the AirAsia that’s been in the news. Recent events (e.g. AirAsia 8501) have been tragic. My deepest sympathies go out to the families of those effected. At the same time, I can’t help but feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to witness well-executed crisis management firsthand.

When I was in Malaysia, I found it difficult to figure out what people meant when I would ask them questions because they would always answer “yes” - sometimes they meant “yes”, but other times they meant “no” and “maybe”. While no doubt, they were trying to be polite, it made deciphering their answers frustrating. It took time for me to calibrate to body language clues about what they actually meant.

In reflecting on this, I realized the same thing can be said when people answer simple questions like “How are you?” with a short “fine” or “ok”. In my experience, “fine” can mean anything from “I’m doing well but have nothing interesting to report” to “I’m pissed”. Words like “yes”, “fine”, and “ok” are heavily context dependent.

Unfortunately, this type of miscommunication is surprisingly prevalent.

Easy Solution

I want to share a quick trick that’s helped me avoid this conundrum. Instead of using words that have connotations that are culturally dependent, I used +1, 0, and -1. Because we had defined our own vocabulary together, we immediately understood each other. Even with language barriers, I could use a quick thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down.

When I asked people questions using this new framework, I started getting the full spectrum of responses instead of just “yes” to everything.

In addition to helping to transcend culturally boundaries, I think this system works well for checking in with team members as well. Everyone processes stress differently. Some voice discontent at the smallest inconvenience, while others bottle up their frustration. And of course there is everything in between. When you ask “How are you doing?, people may say “well”, but that leads to the exact same problem, because people can (and often do) mean different things with the same word.

In addition to minimizing chances of miscommunication, I think using this ternary scale is a good way to do team check-ins.

Frequency and Cognitive Burden

In the past, I have caught myself dreading having to do check-ins because I’m not sure how long they are going to take and because I’m not sure that I want to have to figure out how to articulate exactly how I’m feeling. One of the advantages of this system, is that I don’t need to worry about explaining what my “good” means. I can just say “+1” and be done with it.

It’s also far easier to interpret what team members are saying. There’s no reading between the lines. If someones says s/he is feeling like a “0”, then I know what that means at face value.

Because it doesn’t take a lot of thought to figure out how to express how you’re feeling, I’ve found that people I work with have tended to check-in more often, which has led to us catching potential road bumps earlier on.

Normalized Scale

So, why not just use a 1-10 scale like everyone else? Unfortunately, the 1-10 scale has similar problems as using words like “good” and “ok” because we don’t have the same scales. One person’s “7” may be another person’s “9”.

The point of this scale isn’t to be granular. Rather, it’s to quickly find out if there is anything that needs to be addressed. Most people know if they are feeling positive or negative. Deterining how much will take more qualitative exploration. If everyone is feeling like a “+1”, then there isn’t much to discuss. On the other hand if anyone is feeling like a “-1”, it’s easy to have a discussion about what it would take to improve the situation.

Optimize What We Measure

As soon as I start measuring something, my first instinct is to optimize it. In this case, that’s exactly what I want. I want my team to optimize everyone’s satisfaction and to make sure everyone is feeling good and moving in the same direction. By getting everyone on board with optimizing this metric, discussions default to productive solutions instead of assigning blame.


If you’re working in a group, you may want to give this a try. I’d love to hear if you have similar experiences. I’m always looking for new ways to improve team communication. If you have any tips, please shoot me an email.

Category Advice