Use This Simple Improv Technique to Bring Out Talent in Others

Nathan Roberton

In improv comedy, actors always say, “yes, and…” to whatever the others toss out. In other words, they build on the talent and creativity around them.

For example, if your improv partner says, “This snowstorm is so blinding I can’t see anything,” you should accept that a blinding snowstorm surrounds you and demonstrate what your experience is being virtually blind. But don’t say, “Actually, the visibility isn’t that bad.”

This simple principle leads to incredible interactions and enables players to face down the risk of making stuff up in front of a live audience and somehow produce great work night after night.

Earlier in my career, I was fortunate to work for August de los Reyes in the Windows Innovation Group at Microsoft. He is now head of design at Pinterest.

August was brilliant at cultivating an improv mindset among his team. He was always open and additive, never negative.

For example, August gave all his designers notebooks, and told us each to sign ours. He asked that we produce as many ideas as possible, and to document them all so we could patent them. But the message he was really sending was that each of our ideas were immensely valuable.

He would periodically go through our work and curate it to find the gems. By building on our efforts — never criticizing or being negative — he got the best from each of us.

In contrast, I’ve watched an executive sit in a room as 30 ideas are presented, and to simply respond, “I’m very disappointed, you have wasted two weeks.”

What does a team do with that sort of feedback? There is nothing to build upon. There is nothing constructive for others to do.

You don’t have to love an idea in its entirety to say, “Yes, and…”

You could say, “Yes, I like that you drew a picture of each concept, and maybe if you added more detail to each image we could make faster progress.” In this way, you can build on a concept even if you aren’t that positive about the concept itself.

If you are unable to find anything positive to say, the odds are that:

● You may not have yet learned how to bring out talent in other people

● You have such a bad team that nothing you can do will make a difference

In truth, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I’ve almost never seen the second statement be true. Great leaders can produce extraordinary results even from ordinary people. One way they do this is by building on the people around them, rather than tearing down those people.

Eric Lippke, now VP of Engineering Services at Disney Technology Solutions & Services, long ago hired me to do a series of animations. At one point, he reacted to one of my creations by gently saying,”Maybe not this one,” then redirected me to another option.

In retrospect, it was obvious I had created something that was inappropriate for a corporate setting and that Eric had plenty of reasons to be much harsher with me (it was 1997, and I was very young). But I’m assuming he knew I had both good intentions and the ability to grow, so he pushed me towards the positive instead of highlighting my obvious misstep.

When a leader says, “Yes, and…” he or she is modeling the type of behavior that others will follow. Members of high performing teams build on each others’ contributions. In contrast, teams under siege tear each other down.

Bring out the best in others. Build on the positive.

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