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Home » The Art of Collaboration » Saying “Yes, And …” and Other Improv Techniques That Make You Better at Collaboration

Saying “Yes, And …” and Other Improv Techniques That Make You Better at Collaboration

I wanted to be a standup comedian when I grew up. Or a psychiatrist. 

Alas, neither worked out, though I did end up in a career where I get to do a little of both all the time. I’m rarely ever standing on a stage telling jokes, but I use humor in most contexts, enjoy understanding the psychological root of why we all do the things we do, and use comedic improv strategies as a lever to elevate my collaborations. 

Improv thrives on the unexpected, turning spontaneous ideas into humor that resonate with audiences and keeps them on the edges of their seats without any idea of what to expect. Great improv requires seamless collaboration, where each participant’s contribution is not only welcomed but essential to the performance’s success. 

The Second City is a Chicago based improv group where comedians like Tina Fey and Steve Carell honed their craft, with performances that prove great improv hinges on chemistry and collective creativity in an ensemble of players. Those valuable lessons in collaboration extend far beyond the stage.

In their insightful book, Improvise This!: How to Think On Your Feet So You Don’t Fall On Your Face, authors Mark Bergren, Molly Cox, and Jim Detmar define improvisation as “the process in which something new and exciting is created in a moment of spontaneity.” 

This essence of improv comedy — creating in the moment with others — mirrors the collaborative spirit that can greatly improve your life and work. 

Let’s delve into some improv techniques that can enrich your ability to work harmoniously with others while enhancing your collective output.

Saying “Yes, And …”

The principle of “Yes, and …” is foundational in improv, encouraging participants to build upon their partners’ ideas rather than negating them. This approach fosters an environment where even the most off-the-cuff suggestion can evolve into a brilliant, collaborative creation. 

Like, Wouldn’t it be cool if that western had a unicorn? 

It’s important to to differentiate genuine “Yes, and …” from the more common “Yes, but …” or “Yes, or …” responses, which subtly or overtly dismiss the original idea. Embracing “Yes, and …” means seeing every contribution as a building block for further exploration and innovation.

Embracing Playfulness

Infusing collaborative efforts with a sense of playfulness can unlock new avenues of creativity. You don’t need to aim for nonstop hilarity or punchlines flying like bullets from a gun, but it helps to recognize that  whimsical, off-the-chain ideas are can be stepping stones to great ideas. 

At Sterling & Stone, we make fun part of the job. In our brainstorming sessions, we welcome the most outlandish suggestions and our meetings often include icebreakers exploring personal interests and conversations about movies and TV shows that our storytellers are watching. There’s always lots of laughter, and in addition to bonding, these conversations often adds energy to the brainstorming sessions that follow and inspires new ideas. 

Creating Commonality

From a lexicon that is unique to your group to shared experiences that everyone can reference, a shared language facilitates smoother communication and reinforces the notion that you’re all part of a single, coherent team, navigating the creative process together.

Sterling & Stone has an entire library of shared terms, from “making cheese” (writing 10K+ words in a day) to Umbrella meetings, which is what we call our general update meetings, because Generals in Hollywood have a different meeting entirely and we needed to distinguish between the words. 

Any version of, Remember when X happened will give you a way of either celebrating good things or finding humor in bad things, which reminds everyone of the storms weathered and victories celebrated together.

Balancing Give and Take

True collaboration requires a delicate balance between contributing and allowing space for the contributions of others. Sometimes this means stepping back to let someone else shine, being generous with credit, and staying present to support a partner through challenges rather than rushing in to “fix” things your way. 

A collaborative partnership is less about ensuring an exact 50-50 split of effort and more about fostering an environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Shining the spotlight on your colleagues illuminates the teamwork and casts a glow on your collaborative spirit.

Trusting Your Collaborators

Micromanagement is anathema to true collaboration. It’s much more effective to establish clear expectations, then trust your partner to carry the baton into the next phase of the race, allowing each person creative freedom when it’s their “turn.” Micromanagement stifles creativity like a jar stifles a butterfly; trust allows it to soar.

Committing to Every Scene

In improv, as in collaboration, bringing your full self to every moment is vital. This commitment involves actively seeking solutions, supporting your partners, and fully engaging with the work. 

Every musician in an orchestra must play their part with passion, knowing the collective harmony hinges on their individual contribution. A single discordant note can disrupt an entire symphony, same as hesitation or half-hearted participation can veer a project off course or cause it to falter.

Staying in the Moment

Being fully present will help you tap into spontaneous creativity. This includes active listening, responding to the current discussion, and resisting the urge to plan too far ahead or rush toward your first solution. When you’re mindful, you’re more able to spot opportunities for innovation. 

If you find yourself listening for keywords — or not listening at all — while you wait for a pause in the conversation where you can insert your own ideas, you’re in danger of shutting down the collaborative flow of the discussion.

Mindfulness allows you to fully hear your partners, engage deeply with the flow of ideas, and seize the sparks of innovation as they flicker in the now.

Going with Your Gut

If an idea sparks excitement, it’s worth exploring further, even if it initially seems silly, weird, or irrelevant. Conversely, if something feels off,  your subconscious might be trying to signal that there’s something you’ve forgotten to consider.

Trusting your intuition in collaboration is like a navigator trusting the stars on an open sea — when the winds change or the waves get rough, the most direct route might not be the one that’s been charted. 

Being More of “You”

Collaboration is enriched by the unique perspectives and personalities of all participants. Embracing your individuality — and encouraging your partners to do the same — adds depth and authenticity to the creative process. 

Our quirks and idiosyncrasies often lead to the most memorable and impactful collaborative achievements. When everyone in the team is encouraged to be authentically themselves, the collective work will have a depth that your team might otherwise never achieve.

If you’re looking to dive deeper into the transformative potential of improv techniques in collaboration, Improvise This! by Bergren, Cox, and Detmar is an invaluable resource.

See you next Wednesday!