Why You’re Doing “Yes, and” All Wrong

Insights -

When talking with potential clients who are interested in Organizational Improv™, I often hear “Oh we love ‘Yes, and …’ We use it all the time,’” which is great. The more people using “Yes, and …” the better. However, once we actually start working together, it quickly becomes apparent that they’ve got the “yes” part down but need some help with the “and” part, which in my opinion is the most important of the two components.

But let’s back up for a second: What is this “Yes, and …”? It’s a phrase and mindset used in improv comedy to accept as true (the “Yes”) what your fellow comedians have brought to the metaphorical table and to build on it (the “And”). This sort of radical agreement, as it’s often referred to, is the cornerstone of what allows improvisers to co-create spontaneous magic onstage. “Yes, and …” is an effective way to collaboratively develop hundreds of out-of-the-box ideas to various problems and have fun doing it, which is why it’s increasingly used in  business settings to help companies and organizations innovate.

“Saying ‘yes’ is about agreeing with and not prematurely saying no to an idea, which is valuable and gets us on our way to more of them. The ‘and’ is necessary because it ensures the quality.” – How to Improve(ise) Your Way to Better Ideation

As “Yes, and …” has become a more popular tool for the workplace, organizations often think they’re using the technique effectively. In reality, teams are usually focused more on the words and not embodying the spirit of the phrase. All words and no action won’t get you the magical results of “Yes, and …”: Creative productivity, building buy-in, and investing in what your team members are bringing to the table. Essentially, the power of “Yes, and …” is co-creation: It takes an idea from my or your idea to our idea.

“Yes, and …” is also an effective tactic for minimizing the risks of groupthink, which occurs when loyalty and consensus in a group is valued more than surfacing the best ideas and making the best decisions. In groupthink, dissent is often punished, incentivizing group members with differing opinions to stay silent. With a false sense of consensus, teams suffering from groupthink often make bad decisions at best and unethical decisions at worst. Because, “Yes, and …” requires a mindset of co-creation (acceptance and building), it both broadens the range of ideas on the table and builds true consensus, moving your team out of dangerous groupthink territory. In fact, the goal for most improv teams is to achieve the “groupmind” that helps everyone to co-create and “Yes, and …” better in the moment. (More on “groupmind” from Mindhatch Insights coming soon.)

In short, the benefits of “Yes, and …” are many but only if you do it right.

If you are struggling to reap the benefits of “Yes, and …,” here are four simple techniques to make the magic of radical agreement happen:

Commit to the Language: It’s “Yes, And …”

This may be an obvious suggestion, but don’t underestimate its power. I’ve had an Organizational Improv™ workshop participant struggle to even say the word “Yes” out loud in a “Yes, and” activity because he was so unused to saying that word in daily life; it felt completely unnatural for him. He, like many corporate-types, had been rewarded time and time again in his career for saying “No.” Once he got over that hump and could say the words out loud more comfortably, the benefits followed and he experienced an incredible breakthrough in how he was engaging (or not) his colleagues and how innovative and productive he could be in his work.

A few years ago, I facilitated an innovation session whose lead champion was a self-reported big fan of “Yes, and …” However, throughout the session, she would literally respond to a previous comment in the group discussion with “To ‘Yes, and …’ that… but…”, and then follow with something that was either critical or totally off-topic. Both responses  are essentially “no’s.” Her problem wasn’t literally saying the words like it was with the participant I mentioned earlier; hers was a problem of committing to the spirit behind the words.

When you commit to the language and the spirit, “Yes, and …”, it makes it harder to add in a sneaky “but” or completely switch topics. At all costs, avoid responses like “Yes, but … ,” “Yes, however,” etc… And by forcing yourself to literally say the words, you stand a better chance of actually following through with the spirit of it.

“The greatest thing I learned while taking classes at Second City was the very first thing they taught: ‘Yes, and ….’ In improv, you keep scenes alive but accepting whatever you are given and then adding to it or amplifying it. There is no space on stage for ‘No,’ ‘I’m sorry, you’re mistaken,’ or ‘Yes, but….’ Those transitions kill energy, set up interpersonal conflict, engage the ego in a defensive posture, and stymie the flow of conversation onstage.” – Jason Seiden

Follow Through on the “And”

Be upfront about what you’re adding on to and be explicit about the connection of your contribution to the original idea. For example, “Yes! And to build on Sandy’s idea of expanding the product to smaller markets, what if that strategy also ….” Organizational ImprovTM is all about generating action and removing all obstacles in the way of taking action. The “and” in “Yes, and …” is a bridge to more action. If you stop at “Yes” the action stops. To do “Yes, and …” successfully you need to accept and build.

Businessman with Yes Blocks

“The thing about improvisation is that it’s not about what you say. It’s listening to what other people say. It’s about what you hear.” — Paul Merton

“Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Use “Let’s Riff on This For a Moment” to Explore and Dig Deeper

Create the time and space  for everyone to really explore and build on an idea. Give people permission to go broad and deep. For example, “Joan’s thought to use AI to solve our supply challenge is unexpected and interesting. Let’s riff on this for a moment.”

“The improviser has to understand that his first skill lies in releasing his partner’s imagination.” – Keith Johnstone

Offer An Explanation With “I Like That Because … ”

Find a way to support someone else’s thought by explaining what you like about it. Then add your contribution. For example, “I like Joe’s idea because it takes advantage of our core strength: our people. And what if we also did … ”

“Those who have learned to collaborate and improvise have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin

The beauty and effectiveness of “Yes, and …” is that it’s simple and collaborative — a group of minds working together is much more effective than one working on its own.  When a team fully commits to the words, “Yes, and …”  — two words — in language and spirit, it will transform its creative and problem-solving output as well as strengthen the individual relationships between members. The key, though, is learning how to do it right and committing to doing it consistently.

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YES! And I want my team to learn how to really do “Yes, and ....”
Coonoor Behal
written by

Coonoor Behal

Coonoor Behal is Founder & CEO of Mindhatch, and an experienced and recognized business strategy and innovation consultant with focused expertise in design thinking, improvisation, and innovation facilitation.

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