Gini Dietrich

Brainstorming: “Yes, and” Like an Improviser

By: Gini Dietrich | July 15, 2010 | 

Guest post by Liz Caradonna, an associate at Zócalo Group and a lifelong improviser

In improv, “yes, and” is shorthand for the state of being completely open, accepting and uncritical toward the contributions of your scene partner. So accepting, in fact, that you’re able to embrace and extend your partner’s ideas as if they were your own. Someone on stage just called you “Grandpa”? Accept and further that. Yes, you are their Grandpa. And… perhaps Grandpa has some riveting stories to share from his time serving overseas.

Congratulations! You’re improvising. Improv is not really about being funny. It is about collaboration – a deep, connected state of cooperation between people in the act of creation. At its most collaborative, improv is joyful, effortless, and exhilarating. What if you could make your office feel like that?

Here is one simple and subtle way you can start yes-anding at work this week: Change the way you facilitate team brainstorm sessions. In your next brainstorm, instead of just writing down each suggestion as it comes up, pause after the first person offers an idea. Acknowledge the person, and take a moment to extend what they’ve just said. Get everyone in the group involved in this step. Ask questions to the rest of the team:

* Where does that idea lead you?

* Is there an angle of it that can be extended further?

* Does it have any interesting or surprising implications for the client or project?

Be patient. The group may want to move on to the next idea right away, anxious to generate as much creativity as possible in the time allotted. This is understandable – the traditional brainstorm is built on a principle closer to “yes, or.”

But when you make an earnest effort to engage in a judgment-free exploration of each idea, you’ll quickly come to realize that any idea can be built upon.

What’s more, these explorations will lead the group toward a more fully shared understanding of the assignment – inspiring new ideas that are ever more likely to resonate with the group’s purpose.

After all, the ultimate objective of a brainstorm is to generate a plan for the group to pursue. There’s actually no award for having the most words written on the whiteboard at the end.

Brainstorming in this style regularly will increase the confidence of your team members as they begin to suspend judgment instinctively and grow to think of themselves and each other as smart people whose ideas are almost always viable.

It also helps build community within a group – when your idea becomes our idea, we can drop any biases we came in with and pursue the project with a mutual feeling of pride and ownership.

“Yes, and” is both the mind state that makes teamwork possible and the feature that makes teamwork enjoyable. People want to play with others who make them feel good at playing – and there’s no better way to make someone feel brilliant than to accept their creations, for a moment, as established fact upon which you’d like to add your own.

Try it, and see what happens.

Liz Caradonna is an associate at Zócalo Group and a lifelong improviser. Visit her on the web at e-liz, or follow her on Twitter for up-to-the-minute weather reports and wisecracks.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I once worked with a large corporation that loved to have brainstorming sessions as much as they liked to have coffee (a LOT!).

    There would be great ideas; folks would nod and hum sagely; pretty colours would soon fill the white board; and everyone would go away buzzing with anticipation.

    The memo would then come out – “Thanks for the meeting guys, great stuff, but we’re going to stick with our Creative Director’s ideas on this one.”

    Then they wonder why they’re losing great people and great clients at a scarily big rate…

    Too many folks seem to forget that greatness is in everyone; it just needs to be accepted. Junior intern; mailroom guy; sandwich getter; or the CEO.

    Everyone has something that can be brought to the table – individualism.

    Get that, and let it shine, and you never know how far your company can go.

    Great thoughts, Liz – thank you. 🙂

    • Thanks, Danny. You’re completely right: in some environments, people are disproportionately concerned with the sources of ideas rather than their merits. One of the biggest downsides to this is that the culture soaks into everyone – and junior people can start to discount their own ideas preemptively. They miss out on building the skills of explaining, elaborating on and providing rationale for a plan, because they’ve assumed from the outset that their ideas are no good.

      I’ve forgotten the exact wording, but there’s a Del Close quote about treating each other “like poets and geniuses” that I think is applicable in this, as many, contexts.

  • Liz-

    So nice to see you incorporate improv in daily work.

    As a former improviser, I have found the ideas and fundamentals that we learned applicable in many work settings, particularly in sales.

    A corollary to what you talk about above is the improv lesson of “protecting the freak”. When someone makes a bold or, let’s say, “unique” choice… it’s important to accept it in order to progress the scene (Kramer from Seinfeld is a good example of this).

    Similarly, the act of brainstorming is exploring uncharted paths. Exercise and exhaust ideas that are initially freakish… who knows where you might end up.

    • Ah, yes – when I initially solicited feedback for this post from improviser friends, one pointed out that her sales job is “yes-anding all day long.”

      I love what you’ve said about protecting the freak, as well. There is a wonderful exercise I’ve seen in a workshop (not sure of the original source, but I first learned it from Andy Hobgood), in which one person in a scene is charged with acting as erratic, unsavory, irritating and impossible as they can, while their partner’s job is to interact with them as if there is nothing at all abnormal about their behavior. It’s an exercise that feels difficult and unnatural for most, but really illustrates the joy and audience delight that can come from protecting the freak successfully.

  • I had not really thought about it before, but I believe you are right. It seems that in most sessions, things move along too quickly. The pause lets the group get the most out of each idea.

    Well done. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Brian. I’m with you there… I can understand the urge to keep things fast-paced and “productive,” but have to wonder: why bring everyone together if we’re not going to build off of each other’s thought processes? If the object of a brainstorm is just to generate 126 different ideas, we might as well just ask people to submit slips of paper into a sealed box. 🙂

  • The best class I’ve ever taken thusfar at my university was an improv class. You learn so much from the experience!

    • So glad to hear that, Rob. Give a shout if ever you’re here in Chicago – I’d love to recommend a class or two for you to check out!

  • I absolutely love this, Liz! Who knew improv was so applicable to the office?

    I had never heard the term “Yes, and” before reading your post. Certainly there’s also the more traditional “Yes, or” that you mention. I, however, have been way too familiar with the depressing variation “Yes, but.”

    This is similar, I think, to Danny’s memo above. Thanks for the ideas, but…

    If you don’t embrace unique thinking, you end up with the same old mediocre status quo. If so, why even hold a brainstorm in the first place?

    • Thanks, Dan!

      I think “Yes, or” and “Yes, but” both have their place in the creative process – generating huge quantities of possibilities and critically evaluating them are both really crucial skills… but it seems like we focus on these so much sometimes that we neglect the potential power of instantaneous support and agreement.

      It makes sense, though. As so-called “thought workers,” we have the luxury of being able to ignore that skill set because we have time (and comfortable chairs!) on our side.

      I think the concept of yes-anding, if not the terminology, is much more instinctive in professions like firefighting or emergency medicine, where people are much more often compelled to make an immediate choice as a group. In our field, there seems to be a lot more resistance to seriously entertaining/pursuing the first idea on the table… sometimes to the detriment of our work.

  • Yay Liz!

    As an improvisor and professional myself, I love this article, and I’d like to add something.

    In corporate discourse, people tend to get excited about the “yes” part, because it implies people will agree with them, and it hints at the possibility of getting to consensus faster and not getting stuck in conflict or roadblocks.

    But the “and” part is equally important — in an improv scene, if all people do is support each other, there is no scene. If all you do is agree with each other and heighten and extend that agreement, there won’t be a lot of new ideas. Your meeting will be successful from an organizational and personal prestige standpoint, but it will not help your business very much.

    One of the keys to successful improv scenes is to make especially your early “ands” very strong, fresh contributions. Tap into the point of view that each player brings into the scene — it’s the players’ responsibility to have a strong perspective or feeling about what is going on, the “Yes” issued by the second player supports and agrees with the reality of what that person is doing, but it’s up to the second player not to surrender his or her point of view in that agreement, but to adapt it. Corporate brainstorming works similarly — agree and support, but don’t give up on your own perspective or lose faith in your own talents or contributions.

    For example, let’s say the first player in an improv scene comes out and starts cleaning a pool, talking about how the summer makes him feel good.

    The second player comes out with a perspective before the first player speaks — let’s say the second player chooses to be a flamboyant bullfighter.

    The “Yes” does not involve the second player giving up on being a bullfighter and agreeing that the summer makes her feel good too.

    The “Yes” means she’s probably not a bullfighter, she’s a pool cleaner, but she can retain aspects of the bullfighter idea she brought into the scene.

    Maybe the second player agrees, because summer is the most dangerous season, and danger is what excites her. This is a very different perspective from the first player.

    Now you have a relationship between two coworkers, one of whom is more daring and risky than the other; they don’t disrupt the scene by getting into an argument about whether the summer is dangerous or not — they play out the relationship between these sorts of friends, which we’ve all seen before and can base our stuff off of.

    The benefit of “yes and” in business settings doesn’t come from backing down (not that Liz said it did, but this is I think a pitfall people run into) — giving up on your own ideas immediately and consistently and only talking about somebody else’s ideas doesn’t tend to lead to a lot of interesting work in either improv or life.

    But it does mean finding ways to get your perspective to complement and build off what your teammates are doing, rather than arguing or being in conflict.

    Maintaining basic agreement and practiced reconciliation while retaining diversity of perspective can be challenging. It also requires a good team that works well together to make the most of it, in both business or improv.

    But your team needs to be just as willing to offer genuine “ands” as it is to congratulate itself for the “yeses.”

    • Right on, P-Fenz.

      So many principles of improv interact with one another that it can be daunting to distill the whole thing into a statement on “what improv means in a business setting.”

      I like what you’ve drawn out here, though, as a next angle to explore: how does taking care of ourselves help us take care of each other? I’ll post-it note that. 🙂

      • Yeah, that’d be material for a different article.

        You should also write an article about how, if you’re on a conference call with somebody you’ve never talked to before, and you want to amuse yourself, it’s better to pick a funny voice that is based on an emotional point of view than a foreign accent, because foreign accents are hard to keep consistent across entire conference calls.

  • Sean McCarthy

    Thanks for your post, Liz.

    I’ve always been fascinated by comedy, particularly improvisation, as an art form. Thinking on your feet, without filters and prejudices, has the ability to open so many more possibilities during brainstorming sessions.

    I had an internship at a boutique PR firm — yes, I know I was just an intern — in which our supervisor spearheaded all brainstorming sessions, without leaving ideas or concepts up for discussion. It trumped everyone’s confidence and paralyzed further creativity. During an hour that professionals usually look forward to, we let those initial flickers and flames of ideas fester inside us, and then slowly and sadly subside. It was frustrating to see.

    Nurturing improve in the workplace should always be a goal.

    Good post, Liz.

    • Thanks, Sean. That experience sounds seriously aggravating!

      As a manager, there are always going to be times to direct and times to discuss… it seems counter-productive to do one under the guise of the other, though.

  • This is fabulous insight! Yes, and I’d love to see it added to the Vistage library! Yes, and Gini Dietrich is just the woman to make that happen! Yes, and isn’t it great that now I know of Liz, who makes even solitary brainstorming so much more invigorating!

    Thank you!

  • Elissa Freeman

    Love the originality around this post!

    I took a year of Second City Improv (with no designs on actually being discovered, tho’ it did cross my mind)…and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

    Yes, it was lots of fun…but the notion of saying “Yes, and…” was a difficult concept to initially embrace. And it’s equally as difficult to do in a brainstorming session.

    Which is why an excellent facilitator makes all the difference. It’s the faclitator who creates those opportunities to explore “yes, and…” As a PR professional who’s participated in many a brainstorming – the great sessions are often lead by those who can truly lead and nuture the ideas to successful fruitition.