It’s been over 4 months since the US went into lockdown, and for those of us who are able, it’s clear that working from home is going to be our new normal for a while. While this change is hard on all of us, it presents particular challenges to those of us running teams. You’re probably asking yourself:
“How can I help my team survive and thrive through so much upheaval?”
If you’re a leader (or want to become one) right now, it’s crucial you embrace the idea of “yes, and.”
I’ve written in-depth about “yes, and” previously, but here’s the nutshell version: “Yes, and” is a concept from improvised comedy, where actors create characters, scenes, and worlds seemingly out of thin air, together, in front of an audience. “Yes, and” means accepting (“yes”) information that has already been presented, and then building (“and”) upon it. It’s the foundation of all improvised comedy, and it’s also a fantastically useful skill in all walks of life, including work.
It's also one of the most powerful tools you can wield in times of change.
Yes, And… And Your Team
So how can you help your team practice this skill? The answer is deceptively simple and surprisingly fun... with games!
The improv games below aren’t just for improving your mood, they also help teams practice their creativity while creating a strong sense of psychological safety and group cohesion. (And improv has other psychological benefits, as well.) Think of these as ways to warm up those muscles so they’re ready when you need them most. And if it feels weird to have your work team play improv games, remember (and remind them) that new challenges require new responses. And they might even have some fun!
Here are 3 games you can start playing today to get your team saying (and loving!) “yes, and.”
This is a great way to teach the basic skill of “yes, and.” I was introduced to this version by Daniel Stillman and I love how simple it is and how clearly it illustrates the concept.
- Break your team up into pairs. If you’re using Zoom, breakout rooms are a great tool to use here.
- Each pair is going to plan a party, together, in 3 minutes.
- In each pair, person A is going to start the party planning conversation. Person B is going to join in, but person B has to start every sentence they say with “Yes, but…”.
- As the facilitator, hop around between the breakout rooms if you can so you can listen in.
- After 3 minutes are up, reconvene the group and ask people to report back on the parties they planned.
- Then, put everyone back in their pairs, but with a new instruction. This time, Person B is going to start every sentence they say with “Yes, and…”. (You can swap A & B at this point so whoever was B last time starts the party planning this time).
- After 3 minutes, reconvene the group and ask about the parties they planned. You should hear a remarkable difference in the end product - people should get much further with their planning, the parties should be more elaborate and ridiculous, and they should end up somewhere very far away from where they started. Even more important, you should hear a real change in how much fun people had doing this and how connected they feel to each other.
Line at a time story
This game is about building a narrative together while accepting what’s come before. It works the skills of listening, building, and creatively collaborating.
Going in order, each person is going to contribute a line to a story that you’re all building together. For example, the first person might start with “Once upon there was a dog who loved cats.” Then the next person might say “All the other dogs used to laugh at him because of it.” And so on.
Go for a few rounds until you feel you’ve told a cohesive (short) story. Switch direction and start with a different person each time.
As the facilitator, it’s OK to gently remind people that they have to honor what came before in the story. There is an unspoken “yes, and” at the start of each line - it can be tempting for people to plan out “a good line” ahead of time and then use it, even if it doesn’t make sense with what came before. The hardest part of this game isn’t coming up with the next line, it’s letting go of what you had planned so you can build something new - a good skill for all of us to practice right now.
Word at a time story
This is both the simplest game to play and the most challenging. While you can only say 1 word at a time, this game robs you of the ability to plan ahead, forcing you to really listen and build on what came right before.
Going in order, you are going to construct a story together, one word at a time.
Each person can only say 1 word at a time.
You can (and should!) use your turn to end a sentence by saying “period”, or another sentence-ending piece of punctuation.
This part can be really hard! People are often unwilling to “waste” their turn on punctuation, even though without it your sentences will make no sense and you won’t make a story. Using your turn on punctuation is actually quite a powerful and vulnerable move, and you may need to remind people of that.
Each word added has to make sense with what came before. As the facilitator, you can back up and have someone choose a new word if they can’t explain why it makes sense.
Do a few rounds, changing the order and starting with a different person each time.
What Did We Get Out Of This?
After each activity, make sure you spend some time to debrief and talk about what people experienced and what they learned. What did people find valuable? What surprised them? Talk about how you can carry the skills you just practiced into your daily work. How can you use these skills to deal with the changes you’re facing?
As important as “yes, and” is for a leader, it’s even more important that you help bring your team along with you. Practicing these skills in the safe space of a zoom call will leave you more connected, adaptable, and ready to say “yes, and” to the next change coming around the corner.