“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.