Just Say Yes

It’s actually that easy, getting to new ideas: You just have to say yes.

In our methodology, we call it deferring judgment, the capacity to set your opinions aside, temporarily, and accept a new or odd idea, or an unformed nugget of a something, and take the time to develop it before dismissing it. This is the cornerstone of divergent thinking. And it happens to be the first rule of improv: Say Yes.

If you suggest an idea and it gets shot down immediately, it probably makes you less likely to suggest another one. And maybe your first idea wasn’t that good, but if having it shot down means don’t think your voice is even going to be considered, you might just keep all the rest of your ideas to yourself.

But there’s another opportunity cost. If an idea is dismissed, or not even recorded, then no part of it is ever considered. It came to you for a reason; there’s probably something salient in it. We’ve found that if you can overlook the flaws of a suggestion and play with it for a while, it might lead to a novel and useful idea.

Improv artist Dave Morris explains this well in his TedX talk, and suggests going one step further, to “Yes, and…” His choice of language is important: If you receive an idea openly, and build upon it, then someone else builds upon it, and then you build upon it again, and a few things can happen. First, a lame idea can actually get interesting. Second, a totally new idea might emerge, not necessarily related to the original one, but sparked by one of the “builds.” Or third, it becomes a ridiculous and unusable idea, but if you look for the underlying principle, it might help you understand better what kind of ideas you’re looking for – or not looking for.

It requires a relentless optimism, which isn’t always easy to cultivate. Sometimes it’s easier to do if you set a time limit, say, 30 minutes, during which we’ll say yes to everything. We’ll build and enhance and improve on all suggestions. After the 30 minutes are up, we’ll evaluate what we’ve come up with. A group that can surrender for a half-an-hour will often surprise itself not only with the number of ideas it can generate, but the quality. And the mood in the room shifts considerably. Instead of trying to be right, people try to be creative. And it works with science. Saying “Yes, and…” helps scientists leap into the unknown.

We’re not saying that you get innovation by simply saying yes to everything all the time. The KI team believes in healthy skepticism and serious, candid evaluation that involves pointing out concerns and drawbacks and trying to remedy them. But you can’t even get to those concerns if you don’t let a fledgling idea breathe and grow, at least for a while. So try saying yes for a bit longer than your natural instinct, and see what happens.


Know Further: Using improvisation to innovate. The 3 rules, the 5 rules and the 10 rules of improv. Read more about the history of improvisational theatre here and here, and a concise video history of improv. An intriguing story: the secret history of how improvisation was used in World War II. And what you can learn from being wrong.