Tales from the Unstuffed Shirt

Unleashing the Power of “Yes! And” at Work

Before we dive in, let’s imagine a scene that might have played out several years ago in a Volkswagen facility somewhere in Germany:

Hans: “I have an idea…instead of making our diesel engines run cleaner, let’s write some software that fools the computers used to test engine emissions.

Dieter: “Yes, and we’ll install the software on all our diesel engines!"

Hans: “Yes, and we’ll win the employee of the month award!"

Dieter: “Yes, and we’ll buy new lederhosen with our bonuses!

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about whether the concept of “Yes! And” is a useful improv tool to bring to the workplace. The naysayers generally fall into one of two categories:

  1. We’ll Have Too Many Ideas: worry that employees will sit around producing lots of new ideas through the use of “Yes! And”, but won’t get around to executing on any of them.

  2. Some Ideas Are Just Bad: freeform fear that employees will abandon good judgment and mindlessly “Yes! And” any idea that crosses their desk, like our friends Hans and Dieter.

Businessfolk who are suspicious of “Yes! And” generally invoke some variation of “it’s nice for creative types, but the workplace is different.”

I love when this comes up in conversation, because I get to tell people that the same concerns they have about “Yes, And” in the workplace can be witnessed onstage, across the globe, nightly. Even experienced improvisors have performances go sideways because of these issues. They aren’t specific to the workplace; rather, they occur anywhere people have misunderstood the intention behind “Yes! And”.

What’s important to realize is that “Yes! And” isn’t about ideas, it’s about people.

Take that in for a moment, and then feast your eyes on the following diagram.

It's all about people

As human beings, we are constantly playing multiple roles in our lives: parent, teacher, friend, consultant, rodeo clown, etc. It is within and among these roles that we share ideas and information with each other. In the workplace, employees and managers exchange ideas in the context of their roles. People who inhabit the role of “factory worker” are likely to have discussions or share ideas about improving widget assembly, while others will not.

The mistake that we make is to think of “Yes! And” as an interaction between roles when it’s really a shared agreement between people playing roles.

When we respond to someone in the spirit of “Yes! And”, what we’re really saying is:

“I’m going to fully and actively collaborate with you in this moment to create something totally awesome.”

This level of engagement doesn’t happen between roles. It happens between human beings. And, it works the same way whether you’re onstage or in the executive suite.

With this understanding, let’s explore the concerns about the use of “Yes! And” in the workplace, starting with “We’ll Have Too Many Ideas”. This is a common outcome when “Yes! And” is treated simply as a means to foster ideation between roles. Beginning improvisors often fall into this trap, using “Yes! And” to keep introducing ideas within a scene versus working together to advance a story. The result is a scene that is hard to watch because it never goes anywhere.

The same thing happens in the workplace when co-workers throw ideas back and forth without taking action. The success of great ideas requires people to actively engage and collaborate; otherwise, all you have is a collection of random brain waves.

The concern that “Some Ideas are Just Bad” speaks to broader cultural issues in the workplace, most often a lack of trust. Suggesting that the use of “Yes! And” in the workplace would result in a loss of judgment is the same as saying “I believe my employees do not perform their roles to the best of their ability.” Wow. How dangerous is that? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if my manager doesn’t believe that I’m doing my job to the best of my ability, why would I put in the effort? In any work, family or community environment, safety, productivity and happiness are diminished when people don’t trust that others are performing to the height of their ability. Just look at Congress.

Again, this same issue plays out onstage, when you have an improvisor trying to take over and manage a scene because they don’t trust their scene partners to play to the best of their ability. You end up with lopsided scenes where one person is driving the agenda and everyone else (audience and scene partners included) is confused, hurt or disconnected.

When we create work environments where people feel encouraged and safe to truly “Yes! And” their colleagues, great things can happen.

Employee engagement increases. Good ideas that used to languish become bold initiatives. Toxic cultures become talent magnets. And, there’s a lot more laughter—regardless of whether your role is in an improv troupe or Fortune 500 company.

Live - Laugh - Love.

As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”

Steven Beauchem is a strategist and consultant helping clients to excel in the digital world. He studies and performs improv in Chicago and San Francisco, and is passionate about leveraging the ideas, energy and techniques of improv to drive innovation and cultural change in the corporate world. In his spare time, he is a board member at Stage 773, home of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, and is also developing a new improv performance series (expected to launch in Chicago in spring 2017). Steven's writings here are his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employers or clients.

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If you’re feeling particularly brave, share your experiences in the comments section below.

Written 6 years, 5 months ago.
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