Yes, And has been the mantra of the improvisational performance community for a long time. By default, it became the mantra of the Applied Improv training community, too.
Along the road, improv performers discovered that what they know and the theories they put into practice are desirable in business, so we began offering what we knew to the corporate world. Many companies are trying to find the best ways to put improv into their own practice; the benefits are numerous:
- People become more adaptable
- People become more cohesive members of their teams
- People develop more empathy
- People treat each other better
- People treat customers better
And so on. Each company that embraces it discovers how improv culture and skills have a positive impact on their people, in many different ways. These impacts can result in better employee engagement, lower turnover (which saves a ton of money), happier customers, better products and services and more money made. Sounds great.
Most of this training revolves around (or at least includes) the concept of Yes, And.
With Yes, And, we say "yes" to whatever our partner says, and then provide the "and", building on their ideas. They say, "yes", to us and build on what we say.
Improv nirvana results. Except when it doesn't.
Like everyone else, I fully embrace Yes, And. I teach it in performance improv classes. It's a centerpiece of many of the corporate engagements I lead. Yet, both my understanding and teaching of it have evolved.
On the performance side, I teach that PERFORMERS need to play using Yes, And. The CHARACTERS they are playing do not.
By that, I mean if their character thinks an idea or offer is misguided or wrong, they can say, "No". Performers don't have that right - they don't get to judge what another player is doing in the middle of the scene. What that player has offered is REAL and needs to be played with, even if that "playing with" means "NO, I won't do that".
I got quoted by author, blogger and teacher Pam Victor in her discussion of Yes, And, in which she claims that she doesn't even teach it any more (I think she does, but terminology IS important):
In a discussion online, General Manager of CSz Portland, Patrick Short, helped me further refine this subtle distinction in my mind when he said, “A character may say, ‘No,’ if that fits their character in that situation. The PERFORMER should not say no, which usually comes from panic, pushing their own agenda, or ignoring others' ideas.”
I love this differentiation between the improviser’s mind and the character’s mind. The character can say no, if that’s honest to their point of view. The improviser must say yes to the reality of the moment – this is exactly what “Yes, and …” means to me! (I bold faced it, so you know I mean it.) But saying yes to the reality of the moment is a subtextual, unspoken affair; which is why a blanket, out loud “Yes, and …” to every offer is so clumsy and ineffectual, because... it is like a dentist using a hammer as her only instrument.
The whole Pam Victor blog, a bit NSFW, can be found here.
So what does this mean on the Applied Improvisation side?
Yes, And means something different than "You're right!" My favorite distillation of the meaning comes from Sue Walden, who, in a workshop, summed up Yes, And as RESPECT (Yes) and INSPIRATION (And).
- YES = I respect you as a person and I respect your idea(s)
- AND = I will be inspired by your ideas and build on them
The power that our Yes, And training gives companies is that their people are very well-trained in "No" and "Yes, but...". Like our improv-performing friends, co-workers often respond with "No" out of panic, fear of the unknown, politics, status battles and agenda pushing. Working in Applied Improvisation training gives groups a chance to exercise their "Yes" muscles. Most of us are really ripped and toned with our "No" muscles. Yes, And gives us a chance to work on our "Yes" muscles. (Thanks to Andy Crouch for that analogy!)
And here's a wild thought: There's a time and place for Yes, And.
Design Thinking folks use a double-diamond chart to define a process. Starting from a point, they ideate and widen the diamond to discover the challenge. Then, they narrow it to define the problem. Development of potential solutions are another widening of the diamond, followed by a narrowing as we deliver the product or service.
The periods where we EXPAND the diamonds are the times for Yes, And. Accept all ideas, no matter how off the wall or wrong they may seem. You never know when one of those crazy ideas spurs a much better idea in another team member's head.
When we have reviewed our ideas, and are narrowing them down, we don't need to invoke Yes, And directly, except the connection to respecting our teammates. Companies are sometimes afraid of Yes, And turning into GroupThink and sending them over a cliff because no one will say, "No!" That's reasonable. There is still a place for standing up against bad ideas. It's just not in the Discover and Develop phases.
(The chart is from a cool article on design empathy, from Business 901. Check that out here.)
Yes, I still teach and lead with Yes, And.
On the performance side, working in CSz 101, I want to use Yes, And to help people get past the panic of "my mind is blank". Yes, And focuses you on responding to your partner. Saying yes first gets you started and away from the blank mind. It's also cultivating an attitude that your scene partner is a huge set of gifts to you (and you to them), just by being there and focused on THEM.
In Applied Improv, we need Yes, And just to get to a place where we are truly listening to and respecting each other. Past that, why not use Yes, And as our code of recognition? We can be secret agents representing a new way of thinking and getting things done. We can be Heroes.
Patrick Short has worked a lot recently with companies involved in sustainability. Because, Portland.