What “yes…and” really means in the workplace
How a little phrase from improv makes a big impact
At IBM Design, I’ve heard the phrase yes…and tossed around and have been wondering if my coworkers really put it into practice. So, I set out on a mission to use yes… and to shift my team’s dynamic and create an environment of innovators.
The phrase yes… and comes from improvisational theater. I started my journey with improv at Coldtowne Theater in Austin, TX. I’ve since taken classes at Dallas Comedy House, Northeastern University in Boston, MA and I’m a current student at Leela in San Francisco, CA. I’ve been hooked since I realized the power it has to change one’s perspective on communication and collaboration.
Let’s break the phrase down…
Improvisers accept any new idea that arrives on the stage, no matter how outrageous. Because of this reaction to say yes! to everything, improvisers tend to trust each other more than any other group of people I know. Yes! means that improvisers have each others’ backs, and they will be accepted if they put an idea out on the stage.
We should take this perspective into the workplace. Although you may not literally say yes! to everything you hear, have the mindset of yes! Encourage your team to acknowledge and accept all ideas that are brought to the table. This will create a safe environment where members are more willing to share fresh ideas, which is one step towards being innovative.
I added an exclamation mark to yes! because improvisers also celebrate each other for coming up with ideas. It can be hard to speak your mind, but it’s so vital to innovating. Bringing this positive energy will build confidence in team members and will encourage them to innovate.
But what if I make a mistake?
Mistakes are gifts.
Improvisers enjoy the surprising answer (or the “mistake”) more than the expected (or “correct”) answer because it leads to more entertaining scenes. In the workplace, encouraging team members to celebrate all ideas, even the questionable ones, will continue to build the confidence and support that’s needed to create new ideas. Yes! will move the team forward. Mistakes can be a gold mine for new ideas.
Once you’ve nailed acceptance and encouragement, the next is to build. Saying yes! won’t lead to collaboration, thats where …and comes in.
Improvisers are masters of getting out of their heads. They are so engaged in their scene partners’ ideas that they lose track of their own. This allows improvisers to fully acknowledge one another. When both improvisers are feeling this way, this is where we see true collaboration.
Using the phrase yes… and means that to be a team player, you have to let go of your own bias and opinion toward your coworkers. This is the only way we can completely listen and accept what our coworkers are offering to us. When I’ve had a conversation where my partner and I both follow yes… and, we have more meaningful and engaging discussions that lead to really surprising and creative ideas.
Start making change on your team now.
Knowing these principles is one thing, but spreading them to a team can be difficult. The way I know best is to bring improv directly to the team through a corporate training workshop with a local improv theater (reach out to Leela if you are in the Bay Area). Nothing is better than a nice break from the day to day, while being able to support local art in your area.
Learning to say yes… and instead of no…but can be a hard habit to break. After introducing improv to my team, I’ve already seen my coworkers self-correct and see how much more engaging of a conversation they can have when agreeing to listen to each other.
Alex Morris is a software designer at IBM San Francisco. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.