Jennifer B. Davis
There is a principle of improv that says in order to draw an audience into the drama, each actor must take a "yes, and" approach. If one actor says that it is a cold day and shivers, then all the other actors must join in and build on that to create a realistic scene, collaboratively, on-the-fly. In short, it leads to better performances. This was illustrated for me in a professional development workshop facilitated by the accomplish improv actor and corporate trainer, Cynthia Oelkers, from In The Moment Productions.

I read an interview (with Men's Health, republished on the Innovation Network) with award-winning advertising agency, Weiden+Kennedy, which outlines their five rules of creativity. The ideas below echo the "yes, and" approach.

  • Act Stupid. "Our philosophy is to come in ignorant every day. The idea of retaining ignorance is sort of counterintuitive, but it subverts a lot of [problems] that come from absolute mastery. If you think you know the answer better than somebody else does, you become closed to being fresh." states Jelly Helm, creative director.
  • Shut up. "The first thing we do when we meet with clients is listen. We try to figure out what their problems are. Then we come back with questions, not solutions. We write these out and put them on the wall. And then we circle the ones that we think are interesting. More often than not, the questions hold the answer."
  • Always say yes. "What I've learned from improvisation is to let go of outcome and just say 'yes' to what ever the situation is. If you say an idea is bad, you're creating conflict--you're breaking an improv rule. You want an energy flow that moves you forward, as opposed to a creative stasis."
  • Chase Talent. "Find people who make you better. It's best to be the least talented person in the room. It's reciprocal. It challenges you to keep up."
  • Be Fearless. "Do anything, say anything. In the worlds of our president, Dan Wieden, 'You're not useful to me until you've made three momentous mistakes.' He knows that if you try not to make mistakes, you miss out on the value of learning from them."
The alternative is "No, but."

You should note, however, that there is an important difference between "yes, and" and always agreeing with your collegues or leadership. Although you can always find something to align around as a starting place (ie, the point of “Yes, And” and the basis of a host of effective communication tools), it is important to get conflicting views on the table.

In a recent Harvard Business Review interview, author Michael Roberto was asked about why it was essential for leaders to spark conflict in their organizations, as long as it is constructive. His book Why Great Leaders Don’t Take ‘Yes’ for Answer outlines why it is important for people to speak up and for others to listen. He compares and contrasts prevalent corporate cultures as follows:

  • The Culture of No: Coined by Lou Gerstner to describe the situation he inherited at IBM in the early 1990s. It is a culture of indecision where dissenters have veto power in the decision and dialogue is stifled.
  • The Culture of Maybe: An analytical approach, combined with a discomfort for ambiguity, leads to paralysis as the organization strives to be certain (see my previous post on certainty versus clarity).
  • The Culture of Yes: Dissenters are encouraged to offer alternate explanations of the facts and respectfully challenge the status quo, with the idea that everyone is building towards something better together.
So, here is the challenge. Whenever you want to say "but," stop yourself and begin with "yes, and" instead. It will be hard at first, perhaps, to find common ground, but your conversations (and even negotiations) will be more successful if you remove the word "but" from your vocabulary and do your part to build a culture of yes in your organization.
7 Responses
  1. What a helpful posting!

    I have been playing around with "improv" as a way of thinking about how marketing is changing.

    Have you read "Truth in Comedy"? You might like it based on this posting.

    Thanks for extending the conversation around improv. Fun to find someone else wrestling with the same issues.


  2. kristi w Says:

    This reminds of a group personality profile that I have taken, called CARE. People are generally stronger "creators", "advancers", "refiners", or "executors" and all parts are essential in completing a process. So, yes, I see that this "yes, and..." approach is helpful, AND (not but) the refining touch of "but" is also essential at times.


  3. Alan Says:

    How true. I have been around those that know it all and never shut up. There is no opportunity for them to ever hear what anyone else is saying.


  4. Becky S Says:

    As a recovering "know it all who never shuts up" I appreciate this approach. It's now going to be the mantra to accompany my morning coffee. Thanks!


  5. John D. Says:

    Yes, and ... I have already begun saying this more. No early results to report, but - I mean Yes, and - I am feeling more alive and connected.

    John D.


  6. Ryan Huntington Says:

    Well i am very impressed with this, do you mind if i quote you in a speech i am working on about "yes-and.." theory....which apparently i am sorta making it up as i go along because there really isn't a "theory" persay, just alot of helpful advice which should be combined into a law. Anyway, let me know if its ok to quote you!


  7. Certainly, Ryan. Or should I say "Yes, and" I'd be honored. Good luck to you in your work.