Comedy improvisation (improv) is a popular art form in Chicago. During an improv show, actors take a random suggestion and develop a story on the spot. A master improviser has an extraordinary ability to listen to others (“yes I see you, yes I hear you”), and build on top of whatever situation is given (“and here is another interesting thing..”). In any great improv scene, the actors “yes and” each other. They embrace each other’s ideas and build on top of them.
Life is like improv in that it’s unpredictable. Life throws “random suggestions” at us and catches us off guard. Much like improv, the same “yes and” mindset can help us make sense of the unexpected and collectively figure out the most optimal path forward.
Facing the same situation, we think and act differently because we are wired differently. Imagine an improv scene where one woman is acting out crying. One actor might assume some tragedy happened to her, like losing a family member. A different actor might think that she finally got her dream job, and those are happy tears. These different assumptions lead to very different scenes, but both paths have the potential to become great stories.
When we work on a project with others, we will have different opinions. Our best interest is to figure out an optimized path as a group. For the group, we care about what is right, not who is right. Just like improv, where a great scene can emerge when everyone is on board, a great work decision can develop when everyone is contributing to each other’s ideas.
A core philosophy behind “yes and” is “assume good intent.” In improv, it means that actors assume the whole ensemble has the intention to make the story great. At work, it means everyone has the intention to do the right thing. It requires a shared understanding that “we are all in this together, and we will make the best out of it together.”
“Yes, and” consists of two actions: “yes” and “and.”
“Yes” means that we really listen to and acknowledge other people’s ideas, knowing that they are different from ours. It’s about knowing that “I don’t have all the context to make a great decision, I need your input so we can make the best decision possible.”
For example, when a team member proposed that “project X should be done by date Y.” Our instinct can be “there is no way we can meet that timeline.” Instead of responding with our first instinct, we put it aside and listen to the present idea. “yes, I hear that project X should be done by this time. Can you tell me more about what must be done in project X?”
“And” means think about how to build on top of other people’s ideas. The “and” step relies on a solid “yes” step because we can’t build on top of an idea without embracing and understanding the idea. Using the previous example, after learning more about what must be done in details, we can develop that idea by exploring what can be done for project X within the date Y. Eventually, the team of people with the best intention for the project will make the most optimal decision.
The most powerful effect of “yes and” approach is that it creates positive cycles among teams. It gives team members psychological safety to express ideas and take action. In improv, when an actor “yes-and” other people ideas, other actors are also likely to reciprocate. At work, when our ideas are being embraced and discussed, we are likely to support and develop other people’s ideas. We also feel safe to contribute our ideas, knowing that they will be embraced and debated.