As a law student I spent almost every Tuesday night for three years pretending I was a giant prehistoric crab, tending sheep in a pasture in Denmark, being part of secret spy missions, falling in love in less than a minute, holding a breakdancing pose until it hurt, or panicking in various states of distress. Thankfully, these were all in scenes with my improv troupe and not real life occurrences (student life was crazy, but not quite THAT crazy), but, in those moments, the stories we explored seemed as true as anything we were learning in the classroom.
I never expected that improv would be what taught me the most valuable piece of information I learned while I was a student at Harvard Law, but the rule of “yes, and…” has proven to be vitally important in both building a company and building my life.
The “yes, and…” rule in improv is one of the founding principles of building a great scene. It means that you never negate what your partner suggests, instead, you assume it is true and then think “if this is true, what else is likely to be true?” and build the story from there. In an improv game it goes something like this:
Improver 1: “The mashed potatoes are finally ready for Nana’s 98th birthday party!”
Improver 2: “Yes and, I just picked up my favorite pants suit from the cleaners for the occasion”
The point of “yes, and…” is to agree and add something to the scene that helps define it, solve it, or brings new information into the story (i.e. Improver 2 is still in the early 90’s era of the pants suit). To me, “yes, and…” in the context of the start-up world means to approach every idea from the perspective of “yes we can, and if we did, what would it look like?”. Starting from yes is a way of exploring, vetting ideas, and finding simple solutions in a positive environment that encourages innovation. That doesn’t mean you always say yes at the end of the day (we still subscribe to the lean startup and minimum viable product mentality), but it means that every idea at least gets a chance to be heard. “Yes, and…” doesn’t always mean adding features, it sometimes means taking them away as well. Such as “what if we didn’t do _____” and exploring what that looks like.
It’s an interesting experiment to take a day and approach everything from the “yes, and…” perspective. For me, it makes me realize that sometimes barriers are really only constructs in my own mind, and that the world is full of a myriad of possibilities waiting to be explored. With Swapfish, the “yes, and…” culture has led to an amazing feature set and an innovative and exciting business model.
We’ve all been in meetings with people who start from “no, because…” and with every idea rattle off the million reasons why it can’t work. There are always a million reasons something can’t work, the trick is to find the one or two reasons why it can.
That’s the power of “yes, and…”.