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Untangling Innovation Nots

The problem with innovation, of course, is that there are rarely rules to guide it. Having a toolbox of tricks to help with the process is critical. Over the next few posts, let’s look at some favorite concepts for thwarting innovation blockers.

MAVRiQ has a few books that constantly provide inspiration to move through the many unknowns of working through innovation efforts with clients and colleagues. One tried and true resource from this sacred cluster of tomes is Peter Sims’ Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries (read an excerpt from the book here). Through case study formats, the reader follows different companies and creative personalities as they move forward in environments where there are often no rules to guide efforts.

One trick worth talking about in Little Bets is the YES/AND vs. NO/BUT rule. Featured in the Pixar case study, the concept holds that by re-orienting language to be additive (YES/AND) instead of critical (NO/BUT), a team can make headway much faster and keep synergy in situations that require innovative results.

Simply stated, Sims observed that by requiring every comment in a meeting or brainstorming session to be led by a YES or an AND, the tone and momentum of the meeting radically changed for the positive, and the quality of ideas increased as well. MAVRiQ has used this trick in meetings over several years and every time the results are nothing short of amazing—plus it makes the meeting fun.

Why does the concept work so well? Think of how teams are assembled in digital innovation projects: Often stakeholders come from many different business units, are of varying seniority levels, and certainly have varying levels of comfort speaking in public. They may come with varying degrees of comfort dealing with change—or worse yet, the ability to think productively if there is no concretely defined answer to a problem. What a mess for the shy guys! And the career-conscious! Left unmanaged, this unbalanced participation dynamic can be counter-productive, and potentially damaging to efforts intended to solve real business problems or create synergy in a cross-functional team. It can also be costly, wasting a company’s time and resources: meetings addressing “innovation” can be easily derailed or labeled unproductive.

A meeting designed to generate new ideas or solutions has to have room for small ideas to grow and mature. Leading a response to a colleague’s shared thought with NO or BUT immediately shuts down the progression of an idea from a first thought into something business-worthy. It can also shut down the courage of a colleague who is not usually comfortable sharing ideas, from then on quietly passing on opportunities to contribute valuable insights to the effort. NO or BUT stymie productive working sessions by stifling participation from the whole group. Innovation needs all ideas from all parties to really show up, as it is the combination of fresh perspectives, inspiration, and connections that drives innovation.

YES/AND inserts a buffer into conversations intended to generate ideas or solutions by allowing voices to be heard. Through this process, an off-the-cuff idea often grows into something real and valuable through an additive process of team contributions and refinements.

It also inserts comedic relief into potentially tense conversations—it’s fun to see those who are used to saying NO struggle to reformulate their response on the fly, and be held accountable by the larger team. Everyone understands bad habits. NO/BUT is a shared one.

Much like drawing with your “wrong hand” makes you see an object in a new way, MAVRiQ has seen the wonders of YES/AND transform a team. There has been the super-quiet employee who became a confident and valuable team participant bringing some of the best information and ideas to the table when YES/AND gave room for expressing and challenging ideas. Or the cross-functional team’s amazement at what they uncovered in a brainstorming session using YES/AND, and their excitement in being a part of the discovery.

The forced constraint of YES/AND gives an open floor for ideas and a positive method of refinement, paving the way for new developments. Inserting the YES/AND rule into meeting protocol allows refinement of ideas that are key to solution-ing, and can lower the barrier to innovative progress in a team setting—it’s a great habit to acquire.