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Want Better Ideas? Then You Should Never Say ‘But.’

“I like your creativity and where this is going, but…”

It doesn’t even matter what your boss says next—she’s already decided that your idea is awful. Your fate was sealed the moment she uttered ‘but.’ The praise before that dreaded conjunction does nothing to soften the blow. As the old adage goes, everything before the ‘but’ is BS.

What if your team removed ‘but’ from its vocabulary at its next brainstorming session? Would that change how it makes decisions or develops its ideas? According to Pixar and the cast of “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” changing the language of brainstorming not only leads to better ideas, but it also nurtures a more collaborative team environment.

The secret? It’s easy. Just say ‘and.’

In improvisational theatre such as “Whose Line,” actors riff off each other’s choices to create hilarious skits and engage the audience. If Colin Mochrie points at the ceiling and claims the moon is falling out of the sky, Ryan Stiles must build upon that choice with something even crazier. If Stiles flatly denies that the moon is falling, the scene quickly becomes awkward and stilted. When there’s no script, no rules, and no limits, saying “and” is the only way for two actors to collaborate on the go.

Inspired by this theatrical approach to creativity, animation studio Pixar uses a technique called ‘plussing’ to moderate its brainstorming sessions. When discussing a new idea for a character or movie concept, team members can only add to the idea. Rather than bringing up all the ways a film won’t work, Pixar employees think of ways to improve and build upon the original concept. By replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’, plussing shifts the conversation from cross-examination to collaboration. If Academy Award-winning films like “Toy Story” are any indication, Pixar is onto something.

Embracing ‘and’ is just as effective in government as it is in the entertainment business. In a rapidly changing world flush with new technologies, the public sector needs a constant stream of fresh ideas in order to adapt and improve. Discussion-enders like ‘but,’ however, shoot down ideas as gently as a sack of bricks without considering their potential. The colleague who suggested the idea will feel the rejection more personally, and become less likely to contribute in the future. Moreover, a work environment that rejects ideas without full exploring them doesn’t foster creativity or innovation. Who wants to put forward that “it’s just so crazy it might just work” idea if no one will give it a chance?

It’s better to bring ‘and’ into a team brainstorm because it allows ideas to become a team effort and structured debate. Rather than ending a discussion with a laundry list of criticisms, the idea is expanded upon by the team as a whole. Whether an idea is embraced or scrapped, the whole team gets to talk through its potential faults and benefits. The team also takes collective ownership of the idea, so no one is slighted if it doesn’t work out. An ‘and’ environment that focuses on options instead of problems encourages coworkers to share their thoughts and ideas without fear of undue criticism.

‘But’ alienates coworkers, stifles creativity, and prevents potentially innovative ideas from getting off the ground. In the same amount of letters, however, ‘and’ can revolutionize how your agency approaches new projects and formulates solutions.

If your agency is suffering from stale ideas and bickering teammates, a change in dialogue is in order. Don’t be a ‘but’ person.

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Donna Dyer

Thanks for the reminder–too often, especially if you’ve been at your job for a while, it’s easy to say that things won’t work–and they really may not have worked 5 years ago, but they might now!

Julie Chase

Processes and procedures come down from on high. The fed has scripted all the what where when and how. You shall follow it. That is why TQM had the lifespan of a butterfly in DOD. A GS 5 at XXX installation has no impact on anything related to his/her job. The myth of innovation is alive and well…..but…. er …hmmmm…. let me rephrase. The myth of innovation is alive and well “and” the reality is we follow what is scripted. Maybe other gov agencies aren’t as rigid. However I do recall reading a post where a very forward thinking young woman left fed service after 13 yrs of being stifled.

Martha Austin

“AND” is a magic word. Not only does it connect the parties in any conversation, it actually opens the door to a higher order leadership skill: the ability to hold 2 opposing ideas in the same space simultaneously. Consider Julie’s comment below, “The myth of innovation is alive and well, AND the reality is that we follow what is scripted.” Simply changing her word in that sentence from “but” to “and” opens up the recognition that we have a mis-match. AND recognizing a mis-match is the first step toward doing something different.

Thanks for opening the door, Lucy.

Dannielle Blumenthal

OK I am going to say what I think here, but/and you are not going to like it.

If an individual employee feels stifled in government, it is up to that employee to manage the situation effectively by finding ways to make a positive difference. Having official boss approval is only one of those ways. Other ways include…well lots of things that you have seen suggested many times no doubt.

What is the boss’s job? Not to pretend that every idea, or even every good idea, is going to be considered. That is not “good management” rather it is a pat on the head and it is really condescending and insulting. Or worse, it is dangerous when management just goes “oh sure” and does not give any direction that would rein in some of the kookier concepts that people come up with and actually implement when one is looking the other way. I could name a few but it’s better that I don’t.

What is the boss’s job, from a positive perspective? I would say that it’s to teach the employee “how to fish,” meaning how to get things done in the system as it actually exists, and then to build on that incrementally and make improvements.

Of course most bosses are not oriented to doing that and so good people either leave or they do something radical in order to make change happen, taking the risk on themselves. Both of those scenarios are bad for government. Move the ship slowly, steadily and together and we can get it done.

My two cents.

Peter Sperry

Dannielle is so right. There are few endeavors more frustrating than working without “top cover.” If the boss does not have the time, energy, inclination or authority to support a new initiative, let the staff know up front. The boss can avoid the “but” word by asking for alternative they can support or suggesting the employee identify potential roadblocks themselves and prepare a revised proposal which includes plans to deal with them or even just suggest they tag the proposal for the “when we have time, money and authority file.” But do not allow the staff to waste their time on projects which are not supported from above. It feels real good the first time, hey your being “given an opportunity” but putting in long hours on something senior executives or outside stakeholders (White House or Congress) will not support becomes very old very fast. Leaders owe it to their staff to be honest, even when it hurts.

Dale M. Posthumus

True brainstorming generally avoids evaluation of ideas. Throw it out on the table, evaluation will be done later. Thus, a word like “but” should be rare.

However, I believe the issue of “but” when evaluation is underway is a matter of attitude. That is, it is not the word, but how it is used. “But” can be negative, especially if it is used to stop the thinking process. On the other hand, it can also be positive, especially when it is used to refine and possibly redirect. Not every idea is a good idea and not every good idea is the right idea for a given situation. I can see “plussing” as quickly taking a discussion into a widely divergent dead-end or being used to “add” to an idea in order to kill it. I have seen “but” used to raise new ideas and potential hurdles. This approach helps to refine an idea or group of related ideas.

Generally, I don’t believe removing one word from a conversation will change attitudes, but working to change attitudes (the ultimate goal of the article) will improve how words are used.