A Thought Exercise to Understand ‘Yes, and’

Imagine you show up to a facilitated session to solve a problem.

There are 8 of you in the room. The facilitators tell choose a team leader using the following exercise.

Your team must plan a four-course meal. On a piece of paper, each person writes down an appetizer, main course and dessert. Whoever can convince their team to use the most number of their courses in the meal is the team leader. You have five minutes.

How ‘Yes, and’ Differs

Alternately, you can have everyone in the room get in a circle. You’re going to plan a picnic. Go around the room once and have everyone bring something to the picnic.


How does this feel different? Did themes crop up? Did you learn anything about people from what they chose to bring? Did you come up with something more interesting or diverse?


In the first scenario, you are limited to 24 ideas at the most. What if 8 different people wanted steak for their entrees? You are missing 7 opportunities for thought diversity. In choosing your dishes first, you are stuck. Then, by arguing over them each person who wants to lead will become more entrenched in their decisions. The first scenario sets up a zero sum game; when you win, I lose and vice versa. Even if you would rather have the lasagna (now that I think about it…) you can’t go with the Bob’s choice without losing power.

In the second scenario, you have a completely flat hierarchy. Each person contributes part of the meal. Each person will also tailor their answer based on the previous answers. For example, if Gina says, “fried chicken,” I can change my “fried chicken” answer to “gravy” to go on the chicken. I am being responsive and contributing thought diversity. I am also building a more complex solution.

In the second scenario, even though you only have 8 items explicitly called out, you retain a nearly infinite number of solutions. For example, what if the last person adds a “tour van” to the picnic. Not only do you have a varied meal, it can also be held anywhere within driving distance. You have introduced new elements of space and time to your solution.

The second scenario also allows for a leader to grow organically as needed. Leaving this as an open ended question allows for greater ideating until leadership is actually needed.

The Zombie Test

How do you know your project is a good idea? Try to let it die. Seriously.

I have had this happen several times in the last year. Things that have gone nowhere for months suddenly resurface.

Take for example this Business Improv for Design Thinkers workshop I keep writing about. It took a full five months from the first conversation to when we held the workshop. I would go through a month or two of radio silence as they worked with their stakeholders and packed calendars. During those times, I could have let this go and no one would have been the wiser. And, given my fear of public speaking, I was tempted. But because this idea continued to bubble up from my subconscious, I kept pursuing this. And eventually, it came to fruition.

The opposite has happened at work with a project that I developed and chased and ran past management, peers, and people all over the globe. Eventually, I was exhausted and opted out. I didn’t see a feasible way to get this thing running without it collapsing under its own weight. Three months later, a chance meeting near the coffee machine resurrected it again. I keep trying to kill it. But people like it so much it claws it’s way out of the ground begging to be chased down again.

So, if you find yourself overwhelmed and burnt out with your extracurriculars and discretionary efforts, just stop putting effort into them and see which ones refuse to die. These are the ideas that have merit.

Active Support: Choosing to Step Down

There is an interesting phenomenon in the Zen Count game. For those who don’t know, Zen Count is when your group stands in a circle and closes their eyes and together, they count from 1 to 21. One person can say each number in order. If two people say a number at the same time, the group starts over at one. As you can imagine, this gets harder the larger the group.

When everyone tries to participate all the time, you never make it. People are talking over each other, interrupting, and getting frustrated. One secret to this game is that when certain people refrain from counting, it gets easier.

But! You say, isn’t improv about being heard and seen and making sure that I can shine? What? What?

There is a phenomenon called active support (this was pointed out to me by Izzy Gesell, a great Applied Improv teacher and public speaker). It means that you are choosing to let go of your short-term needs for the good of the group.

This is what needs to happen in Design Thinking where you have reached convergence points where a single idea must pass through. You can only take one. So, what’s the best approach? Should you argue your idea to the death? Or, should you take your healthy debate and let the group decide on the best idea?

For the good of the group and your own sanity, someone has to step down. It won’t always be you, but it should be you more often than not. If people are always going with your ideas, you’re missing the thought diversity Design Thinking is supposed to promote.

When Your Baggage Has an Identity

Part of a series of posts about the Business Improv for Design Thinkers workshop.

We’ll start with a story about how I stumbled into self-awareness about pre-written scripts.

Last March or so, I went to a full-day workshop on how to become a Design Thinking facilitator. I was working a particularly stressful project at work at that time, so I brought all of my work stress with me on Saturday morning, got on the notoriously unreliable DC metro, waited while they put out a fire in one of the stations ahead of me, showed up late, and was still determined to be the best facilitator in the room. I embarrassingly lost my cell phone, made a big production about finding it (it was in my bag, which I had search eight times) and then sat down eagerly and promptly invalidated several suggestions and tried to push through my agenda. Overall, I was the wrench in the works.

In trying to ‘be my best’ I had lost sight of the point of a Design Thinking session. Bringing my baggage with me overshadowed the collaborative nature of a Design Thinking challenge. This baggage is what I call pre-written scripts.

What is a Pre-Written Script?

Pre-written scripts are how you would act and react normally; they form the basis of your social position, your identity at work, and your fun time persona at happy hour. They are based in how your life is set up. Your scripts serve you well. They make it so you don’t have to redefine yourself socially every single day.

The trouble comes in when your pre-written script is blocking your ability to be effective in the moment. When we bring the scripts into a collaborative or creative environment, we can miss out on great opportunities because we’ve got blinders on. Here are a couple of pre-written scripts that I have seen arise in a Design Thinking Session:


I’m a busy Professional

This script is oh-so-useful to get through your crowded day and packed schedule. To be a busy professional, you’ve got months or years in similar situations, so you’ve developed coping mechanisms, short hand, and decision trees that make it so you can make instantaneous decisions based on historical data. This is necessary to keep business going as usual and absolutely necessary to survive your day.

The Downfall. Design Thinking is an inherently disruptive process. Your coping mechanisms, short hand, and decision trees are designed to maintain the status quo. So, if you come into a Design Thinking sessions using all the same thought processes, you’re either going to end up with an extremely similar, and equally ineffective, solution, or you will come up with a radical solution with a flawed underbelly. Additionally, Design Thinking sessions often involve new groups of people, so if you all come in with this script, your scripts are going to clash.


I’m in Charge…of Everyone

This is a particularly pernicious script mainly because you are probably a manager, supervisor, CEO, or just bossy because you like being in charge and you are good at it. Being in charge gives you shots of dopamine and makes you feel comfortable and safe in your skin. If you’re not in charge, how will anything get done? How will people know what the right decision is? If no one is in charge…are we even going to survive this?

The Downfall. Design Thinking is meant to give everyone equal footing in the design process. People need to be able to come forward and present their most creative ideas and solutions. Everyone needs to be able to take charge when his or her strengths are useful and let other be in charge when another person strengths come to the fore. Natural leaders will always emerge, but the helpful leadership in Design Thinking is the kind that facilitates and brings others forward, rather than the straight up decisive people. Don’t worry if you are the take-charge person. You are vital to getting the developed projects piloted, completed, and thriving. But for now, sit back, have a coffee, and watch everyone shine.


I’m the Devil’s Advocate

You see yourself as the anti-hero. You are brave enough to stand up to ‘anyone, absolutely anyone, I don’t care how senior you are’ and tell them they are wrong. Questioning assumptions is necessary in business and life. You have probably saved your group from more than one disastrous decision. You may have learned that you get a status increase each time object to something…and it’s become habit. People come to you because “you’re a straight shooter.”

The Downfall. There is a common fallacy that ‘devil’s advocacy’ means challenging everything even if you don’t have a valid reason; however, the inherent value of challenging assumptions is only increased when there is a valid reason to challenge. (Point of clarification, a negative/uneasy gut feeling is valid, but questioning just for the sake of questioning isn’t.) You may delight in what you see as healthy debate, but someone else sees as cynicism or posturing. Design Thinking requires psychological safety to function correctly; every person must be able to feel his or her position is considered with equal weight. If you are constantly challenging each assumption and assertion, the psychological safety disappears and people begin to shut down. Save your eagle eye for when it is absolutely necessary.


I’m the 100% Decision Maker

You are one of those people that need to research 18 different types of dishwashers to replace your broken one. In your business, you are known as the person to go to for rock solid facts and decisions based on the highest number of data points accessible. You keep your company in the black by creating well-reasoned, risk-averse recommendations or decisions. You are a realist with a very structured way of thinking.

The Downfall. Design Thinking sessions require pushing through a great deal of steps in a short amount of time. It requires making quick decisions on half-baked information. While this is tough to understand at the beginning, it frees you to make random associations and unconscious choices that lead to novel, innovative and disruptive solutions. The purpose of Design Thinking is to create something new. Using 100% decision-making during this process is likely to lead to slight variations of your previous solution. If it helps, choose to make decisions using an 80% solution (this idea is 80% great for an optimist, or only 20% problematic for the cynic) or choose to trust that the popular decision in your group will be the right decision. Chances are, the idea will change so much through the process that you won’t even recognize it by the end, so your objections would have been for naught anyways.


What Does this Look Like to a Facilitator?

Life. Seriously, everyone has these scripts. You can either let them slowly figure out how to readjust their expectations, or point it out and try to get them to drop at least part of their scripts at the beginning.

How Can Improv Help?

Improv can help by disrupting these scripts the moment you walk in the door. By playing a few simple games, you can jolt people out of their complacency and put them into a collaborative and open frame of mind. Simple games such as Zip, Zap, Zop or Snap Pass are ideal to turn grumpy, overworked individual into open minded, relaxed yet energized innovators.

The Start of the Improv + Design Thinking Workshop

This is the first in a series of blog posts showing how I developed the Business Improv for Design Thinkers workshop for Reflex Improv and OpenIDEO DC (posts tagged as BI +DT Workshop). It was a long process and involved developing the theory behind it and learning how to get a workshop launched.

A little backstory: After taking a few improv classes this spring, I realized that there is a lot of overlap with improv and Design Thinking. Improv’s explicit “yes, and” philosophy is implicitly followed in Design Thinking challenges. It occurred to me, that making “yes, and” explicit in Design Thinking opens opportunities to positively impact the social friction inherent in intensive ideating sessions.

Spoiler alert: I am still taking improv classes and have become an outspoken advocate.

This whole thing kicked off this spring when, completely out of character, I proactively approached one of the facilitators at the OpenIDEO Design Thinking event during the UX/DC 2017 conference. I laid out the basics and asked if they would be interested in an event pairing improv and Design Thinking.

It took over 5 months to get the workshop to happen, but it turned out fantastic. We had 30+ people there, including the facilitators, all whom were laughing for 3 straight hours.  Feedback was great and we’re getting requests to hold it again. During the event, Dan (the other facilitator) and I kept turning to each other in surprise and saying “this is really fun.”

How I developed the Workshop

To begin with, I wrote pages and pages of all the things I thought were related between Design Thinking and Improv. It was unwieldy, at best and I realized I had to narrow focus. Through several iterations, I managed to focus my workshop. Then, I ran it past an Agile trainer. Based on her feedback and my frustration with her feedback, I realized I needed to narrow even further. I had to narrow it much further than I thought to fit a three-hour workshop. A good guidelines is, an interactive workshop can only accommodate 2-3 concepts per hour.

An interactive workshop can only accommodate 2-3 concepts per hour.

I chose to focus on talking about teambuilding and disruptors using games. Because I didn’t know who would show up for this public workshop, I chose improv games that I call “low entry”; this which means a normal person would have to have minimal buy-in to participate. These games can be:

  • Non-verbal – I don’t have to worry about saying something stupid
  • Repetition games – everyone repeats the same phrase, I don’t have to choose words
  • Group games – I don’t have to “perform”; everyone else is doing it too

I developed the workshop using the model my improv teacher uses. Explain the premise, explain the game, do the game, then discuss the game as a group. This gives people usable chunks in context. We also kept the premise as straightforward as possible.

People worrying about standing up and making funny noises in front of everyone aren’t primed to be taking in complicated information.

One of the benefits about this workshop subject is that it is self-reinforcing. We talked about how games teambuild and build camaraderie; throughout the workshop, they felt this happening. People felt more connected to those in the room and felt looser to experiment.

We used the discussion of disruptors to call attention to the mood in the room. Deliberately taking a break after talking about using disruptors to break up low energy. Then, we ran a game that gets people overexcited followed quickly by an exercise to get people into a lower energy state.

I will continue to post more about improv and Design Thinking concepts in later posts.

If you are interested, below is the ad for the 3-hour workshop that was run through the OpenIDEO DC Meetup group.


How can you make Human-Centered Design (HCD) more fun? Let’s face it, thinking for 4-8 straight hours is hard work. What if you had an extra set of tools in your toolkit to relieve frustration, increase energy, and generally get people acting like a team? Reflex Improv and Open IDEO DC have joined forces to bring you a Business/Applied Improv workshop!

We will discuss common hurdles faced in HCD sessions (and in life in general) and guide everyone through improv games that can help remove those hurdles. There is absolutely no improv experience needed to attend. All the improv games are chosen to be easy to pick up and fun to participate in.

  • Participation isn’t mandatory, but is highly encouraged.
  • Introverted? No problem! Oddly enough, introverts love improv games.
  • No prior experience with HCD is necessary.

This workshop is developed and facilitated by Reflex Improv. We offer dynamic, fun, creative and informative organizational improv workshops for the workplace that promote collaboration, problem solving, conflict resolution, design thinking, and creativity. We can get any group working and laughing together very quickly! ReflexImprov.com