During an ill-fated teenage dalliance into acting, I took a class on improvisational comedy. For two credits per week I learned the ins and outs of building a scene, in real time, with my fellow actors.
The key lesson you learn in your first improv workshop is to never say “No.” In improvisational comedy “No” is death of the scene, and negates everything your scene-mate is trying to build within that narrative. “Yes” is always the appropriate response to any question posed to you, and it is from this building block that entertaining (and we hope also hilarious) narratives grow and flourish.
Little did I know that this simple lesson learned in the tenth grade would do me a world of good later on, when it came to running a small team building the world’s coolest startup. When we assembled the RosterBot team for the first time, I gave an introductory presentation on our mission, direction, ways of doing things, and my own personal philosophies of leadership and what it means to work at a technology startup. While I didn’t use the acting allegory (I didn’t want anyone digging up any old VHS tapes), I did find a way to express the same sentiment as it applies to innovation.
I don’t think this is particular to the world of technology startups, but over 25 years of working and socializing with technologists I have come to seperate them along this vector. Four words on a single slide of that (and every future) introductory presentation said it all about the types of people we tend to work with: “Yes if…” and “No because…” I made it pretty clear to my team which one I preferred to surround myself with.
“No because” people tend to be self-appointed experts. If you’ve ever been in a planning or design meeting, you’ve met these people. They crave authority, and their means of asserting that authority is to find a roadblock in something the team is exploring or planning to do. By saying “No because” they instantly come off as the knowledgeable, wise, responsible ones. All attention in the room is diverted away from problem solving to contemplation of your pearls of experience when you use this phrase.
“No because” people snuff the creativity of teams, starving the room of oxygen, whether they mean to or not. More often than not, when you begin to creatively probe a “No because” person, it becomes obvious that they are considering a single or very few reasons for objection to a given idea or direction, and they’re stuck there. In introducing their blocker in this way, they drag the rest of us into their quagmire. Good ideas can become marooned on the rocks of this form of objection. Instead, there’s a better way.
“Yes if” people are oftentimes no closer to a final solution than the naysayers. The way in which they voice the perceived roadblocks identifies that just the same, but does so in a way that encourages contribution. Teams working from a “Yes if” statement can continue to problem-solve as peers, and no self-delegated authority is perceived to be standing in their way. “Yes if” people solve problems in creative ways, invent new things, and find innovative approaches to business opportunities.
“Yes if” people are valuable contributors to problem solving. They extend the plausibility of a solution to any problem, regardless of how ludicrous their “if” condition might actually be. The odds are good, in my experience, that someone will jump in with a slightly less ludicrous means to combat their ludicrous condition. And so, we iterate to solve the problem, jumping from “Yes if” to “Yes if” like lily pads, until the problem is solved.
Every nerd loves the movie Apollo 13 and this one is no exception. In this scene we see the beginnings of the triumph of “Yes if” over “No because”:
The results, as the actual history books show, speak for themselves. The impossible became possible.
If you truly want to break new ground, chase something innovative or simply tackle the hard problems, you’ll need to banish “No because” from any discussions. And reward every “Yes if” regardless of how ridiculous it may seem. The Yeses have it, every time.