Idea sharing is essential in an innovative team. The more ideas are shared in the group the more creative and novel ideas are triggered. And if these ideas build on one another the team will come up with a much more creative and meaningful idea than one team member could have come up with by themselves. But why is it that in some teams it feels like your creativity is diminished? Or the creative ideas are not much better than one individual’s idea. It is because in such teams the members don’t feel safe to participate in idea sharing. How can an atmosphere be created in which team members feel safe to share their ideas? Actors in an Improvisation theater group creates this atmosphere by applying the “yes and” principle. The “yes and” principle means that when your team members shares an idea you accept it (yes the idea) and then build on it. When an idea is not accepted it is called a “block”. The way we often block one another is by saying “yes but”. Most people are more used to saying “yes but” than “yes and”. Every time someone shares an idea and it is blocked by another team member the likelihood that the person will share another idea is diminished. Therefore to create an atmosphere that promotes idea sharing start applying the “yes and” principle.
Right now you might think “yes, but I can’t say yes to all ideas all the time.” Yes and you might be saying this because you are already in a mindset of “blocking” rather than “accepting”. It is true there are appropriate times to block, but they are far less than appropriate times to accept. Try the “yes and” principle for a day and see what happens. The “yes and “principle is more a mindset than anything else. It is a mindset of accepting reality and doing something useful with it.
Let everyone pair up with a partner. Tell them that together they have to plan a company Christmas party. One must start by sharing an idea. The other replies with the words “Yes but”, a reason why it is not a good idea, and then share another idea. The first then replies with “yes but” and so they go back and forth blocking each other’s ideas. After a while stop them and ask them to plan the same party but this time instead of saying yes but they must start their sentences with “yes and”, accepting the other’s idea and building on it. Reflect on the exercise and ask the following questions.
How did accepting feel different from blocking?
How were their outcomes different?
How did they feel about the other person when being blocked or being accepted?
How to build team relationships that promote innovation.
The relationships between the members of an innovative team are based on trust and support. Your responsibility towards yourself is to be trusting and trustworthy, whilst your responsibility towards the rest of the team is to support them. The phrase we use in Improvisation to describe this element is “make your partner look good”. When everyone in the team is out to make the rest of the team look good it creates a safe environment where everyone feels safe to share new ideas. We are so used to just making our selves look good, but if you know that everyone in your team is out to make you look good it takes a lot of pressure from your shoulders and it builds trust between you and the rest of the team. Besides ,everyone in the team will look amazing if there are 10 others making them look good instead of everyone just trying to make themselves look better than the rest.
Here is a fun game from improvisation theatre that illustrates the “make your partner look good” concept very well. The game is called “Yes lets!” For this exercise you need enough space for everyone to move around. The game starts with anyone in the group making a suggestion for an action such as “Let’s climb a tree!” or “lets bake a cake!” Everyone then replies with the words “Yes lets!”, and mimes the action with enthusiasm. At any point someone else can make a new suggestion and everyone replies again with “Yes lets!”
The best way to make your team members look good is by accepting their suggestions and doing the action with enthusiasm. If someone said something like “let’s roar like lions” and just did it by himself, he would look like a fool and probably feel like one as well. What I love about this game is that you don’t just say yes I like your idea; you actually have to accept the idea by doing something with commitment. Often we will say we accept someone’s ideas but it’s just lip service, because we don’t actually take any action. The safety, trust and support that is generated when everyone in the team is committed to making the rest of the team look good, creates a energetic atmosphere in which innovation can thrive.
Make your partner look good story
Last night my wife told me a beautiful story about how a family made their mother look good by accepting an offer and doing something with it. In this story the offer the mother made wasn’t an idea; it was a reality that was imposed on her without her choice. She was diagnosed with throat cancer. In her final week her last wish was to have a meal with her family, since she loved cooking and sharing dinner with her loved ones. She couldn’t swallow the food because of the cancer and therefore had to spit it out after chewing it. Seeing this, her family also spat out their food after chewing. They made her look good by accepting her reality and doing it with her. Accepting other’s reality, whether it is their creativity, personality or hardship and doing something with it is how you show real acceptance and that is how you build trust in your relationships with others.
More on trust
People often tell me that they can’t trust others because the others aren’t trustworthy. What comes first, trust or trustworthiness? People will say others must earn their trust. Does that mean you treat them untrustworthy until they have earned your trust? People will react in the way that you treat them. If you treat someone as untrustworthy, they will act untrustworthy. But what if you trust someone and they disappoint you? That is where grace comes in, because you know you are also not perfect and also not always 100% trustworthy. Accept the mistake and do something with it. The more trusting you are going to be the more trustworthy the people in your team will become.
There must be a lot of give and take in a team in order for the team to be innovative. One person cannot have all the control while the rest just follow instructions. It is therefore a fine balancing act between taking control and giving up control. Taking control is about taking initiative, while giving up control is about letting go of your own idea when it is no longer serving the bigger picture. Some people are natural control freaks (or more commonly referred to as a natural leader) others are natural fence sitters (commonly referred to as natural followers). Both control freaks and fence sitters are often driven by fear and a lack of trust. I believe that the art of leadership is about knowing when to take control and knowing when to let go. If you are a control freak you need to learn to let go and trust others. If you are a fence sitter you need to take initiative and trust your own abilities.
Let everyone pair up with another person and stand facing each other. Each pair should decide who will be A and who will be B. Tell them that A is a person looking into a mirror and B is the mirror. B should therefore copy A’s exact movement. The idea is not that A should try and outwit B by making sudden movements. The idea is that they work together and move like they are one so that an observer wouldn’t be able to see who is leading and who is following. After a few minutes let them switch. A is therefore now the mirror and B the person looking into the mirror. After B had a chance to lead for a few minutes, tell them that they have to now both lead and follow at the same time. They are therefore both looking into the mirror and being the mirror simultaneously. Now it gets really interesting. For it to work both need to take the lead and give up the lead, give and taking control the whole time. When you get to that point you go into a state of flow in which you don’t even know anymore who is leading and who is following. It is in this state of flow that team innovation can truly thrive. You can try this exercise with your partner at home as well. In any healthy relationship there should be a constant give and take of control.
For a team to be innovative individuals in the team must take risks and help the others to feel safe to take risks. Most people are terrified of taking risks because they are afraid of failing and how others will react when they fail. So in order to protect ourselves from others we rather not take any risks. The irony is that some of the most revolutionary inventions started out as a failure. Just think of penicillin that was invented when a scientist noticed that his “failed” experiment was killing bacteria. Or post-it notes that was invented when a researcher of 3M who wanted to develop a very strong adhesive just created a somewhat sticky substance. His colleague accepted the “mistake” and used it to stick his bookmark in his hymn book. In improvisation we say “everything is an offer”, even a so called mistake. Your responsibility towards yourself to help create an innovative team climate is to take risks. Your responsibility toward your team members is to accept their failures and do something with it.
Before you start your next brainstorming session let everyone stand in a circle. Tell them that everyone will get the chance to step forward into the circle, then say anything in the line of “I made a mistake” or “I failed” and then give a big bow. The rest of the group must then give a round of applause. This exercise is called circus bow, because whenever a trapeze artist makes a mistake and falls down into the net, he will make a summersault out of the net and bow towards the audience as if that was exactly what was supposed to happen. Ask the following debrief questions:
How did that make you feel being applauded for stating that you made a mistake?
In order for a team to be creative together there needs to be a lot of interaction and information sharing. This can only happen if the communication in the team is very good. Your responsibility towards yourself is to be fully present and your responsibility toward your team members is to fully listen and be aware of them. Being fully present and aware of your team members is referred to in Improvisation as “being in the moment”.
Next time before you start a meeting first do the following exercise. Split the group in small groups of 3. Tell them that each person must tell the other 2 in the group what they need to say to be fully present. They should start their sentence with “what I need to say to be fully present is….” One of the other must then mirror that persons exact words by starting their sentence with “I hear that what you have to say to be fully present is…” It is important that the person mirroring does not give an interpretation of what they heard, but try to use the exact same words as far as possible. The other person in the group can then add if any detail was not mirrored back to the speaker. Each person must get a chance to say what they need to say to be fully present. The exercise is not so much about saying what you need to say to be present, but being listened to fully without judgment. When we listen to people like this we help them to become fully present. In essence what we are doing is accepting them and showing them that they are welcome and worth being listened to. When last did someone listen to you completely and made you feel fully present? When last did you listen to someone with acceptance and without judgment, helping them to be completely present?