I recently hired The Second City ( to conduct an improvisation (improv) workshop for a team of about thirty leaders in my organization.  So what can the #1 comedy club in the nation teach us about leadership? As it turns out, a whole lot!

Business, like virtually every human interaction, is improv.

  • Your boss asks you a surprise question – Quick! Improv!
  • A client asks you to solve a problem – Sweet! Improv!
  • You interact with your team – Hopefully it’s improv.
  • Big sales presentation – If it’s any good, it’s improv.
  • Being authentic and real – Improv.  All day long.

Let’s face it, business is a constant cycle of high stakes improvisations.  If we’re not improvising, we’re in serious trouble.

Nowhere in business is improv more important than when developing new ideas.  In most cases, new ideas get shut down faster than you can blink an eye, which all but guarantees that people are afraid to bring up new ideas in the future.  The good news is that you can fix this with the most fundamentally important rule in all of improv.

“Yes, AND…”

Let me explain.  When responding to a new idea, you have three basic choices.

No, because…

Yes, but…

Yes, and…

90% of the time (at least) teams use the first two when encountering new ideas, which is precisely why so many great ideas never fully develop.

The word “no” shuts down improv faster than anything else, so improv actors know to stay away from it.  Regardless of the idea or concept that comes out, professional improv actors use “yes, and” to support ideas and develop them enough to have the absolute best chance at being successful.  In business, we’d be wise to follow this same principle, as it would ensure that all ideas get fully developed, thereby increasing their odds of being the next big idea.  It’s not about whether the idea is perfect upon introduction; rather, it’s about what happens to ideas when creatively supported and developed as far as possible.  Only then do you make the call on whether or not to execute on the idea.

Try this exercise with your team – it will change your life.

  1. Break up into groups of three or four.  If your team is already small, do it as one group.
  2. Pick a topic…any topic…as long as it’s casual.  Try this – the group is deciding where to get together for an offsite meeting next year.  It can be anywhere in the world.
  3. Each person thinks of a place to go, and they will get several turns to introduce it.

Round 1 – Each person introduces their idea (Bangkok, Thailand, for example), and the other members of the team respond one-by-one with a “No, because…” statement.

  • Example – “No, because Bangkok is way too far to travel.”

Round 2 – Each person introduces their idea, and the other members respond one-by-one with a “Yes, but…” statement.

  • Example – “Yes, but I heard that the weather is very hit-or-miss in Bangkok.”

Round 3 – Each person introduces their idea one-by-one, and the other members respond with a “Yes, and…” statement, supporting and building on the idea.

  • Example – “Yes, and we’ll save on food expenses, as it’s very affordable to eat in Bangkok.”

When you get to Round 3, you will be amazed at how well (and creatively) the ideas get developed.

Every business starts with ideas, and every business needs new ideas to stay relevant and healthy.  Especially as businesses grow, the environment for supporting and developing ideas often seems to disappear, and “wisdom and experience” shut the ideas down before they ever get a fair chance.  Making “yes, and…” a fundamental cultural value in your organization or team takes courage and work, as it is not natural until you practice it.  Consider starting your next team meeting with the exercise above, and lay the ground rule that before deciding not to pursue an idea, you’ll use “yes, and…” to fully develop and explore it.  Your team, your culture, and your customers will thank you for it.

Lead. Courageously.

Doug's Signature


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I am the Chief Sales Officer at McGraw-Hill Higher Education. More
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