A couple of months ago I found myself on stage at the London Comedy Store with seasoned Improviser and TV/film star Neil Mullarkey, giving a talk on creativity and collaboration to a packed audience as part of The London Business Forum‘s programme of corporate development offerings. Needless to say that, whilst I have spoken on many platforms, this was a rather unique venue, collaborator and situation that I’d never before found myself in which was both exciting and a little scary. Immediately after the event I went to have coffee with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for some time and, on explaining what I had just been doing, he said to me “How on earth did you end up doing that?” The question stopped me in my tracks. There was no easy answer. As I reflected, I realised that there were a series of events that had led up to the Comedy Store gig – situations where I had said “yes” even though it would have been much easier and less anxiety provoking to say “no“. Situations where I felt rather out of my comfort zone but decided to say “yes” anyway and embrace my emerging spirit of adventure. Situations that were less “Yes, and” and more “Yes…..f*** – what have I just agreed to?”
I ended up at the Comedy Store because I said “Yes” to Neil’s invitation to work with him. I’d met Neil a couple of years previously because I said “yes” to the invitation of a fellow student at Ashridge Business School who invited me to an experimental Business Improvisation Lab that Neil was co-leading. I’d met my fellow student, Asher, at Ashridge because a year earlier I’d said “yes” to Professor Bill Critchley who had suggested to me that I should sign up for the Masters in Organisational Change programme he’d been running for many years. I met Bill 18 months earlier because I’d said “yes” to a spare ticket an old boss had to a seminar Bill was giving on complex change. I was working for this boss because a couple of years earlier I’d said “yes” to an invitation to take on a challenging new change role. Within a few minutes of reflection I was able to trace the exciting event at The Comedy Store back through a family tree of “yes” to around 2007. I drew out the family tree on a napkin and realised that this wasn’t simply a linear path of a “yes” giving birth to a single new opportunity but a plethora of tangental multiple opportunities spawned exponentially from each “yes“. At various points along the family tree I met other people or came across other things to say “yes” to – I soon ran out of space on the napkin! As I looked at the family tree of “yes” I was horrified at how fragile this chain of wonderful events had been. What if I’d said “no” at any point along the way? I remember having some anxiety about each of the decisions I made as they took me out of my comfort zone and I remember how easy it would have been to say “no“.
My friend and colleague at On Your Feet, Robert Poynton, came up with a wonderful phrase: “No kills children!” My immediate interpretation of this was that saying “no” to your kid’s creative ideas kills their childlike creative spirit. Whilst this is true, Rob’s point was rather more profound – “Saying no to an idea not only kills that idea but it kills its children – the other ideas that it would have given birth to had we said ‘yes’ to it” he explained. This rang very true. Had I said “no” to taking on that role in 2007 not only would I have not had a challenging but rewarding couple of years but I would not have met Bill, nor gone to Ashridge, nor met Asher, nor met Neil, nor ended up at The Comedy Store or met a plethora of great people along the way that led to innumerable creative adventures and me starting my own business.
I have adopted Rob’s “No kills children” idea as a personal mantra but also as a helpful principle for my work in corporate innovation. Often it seems that we are premature in our desire to see if an abstract idea will work, scale or have a decent return on investment so we say ‘no‘ far too early. Novel ideas, especially the wacky, surreal and ‘out-there’ ones are very fragile. They need nurturing, love, food and warmth and whilst they may appear ugly or unusual when they are first born, it is only when they start to grow and mature that we can begin to see potential in them. In the early stages of innovation it is often the case that the initial idea doesn’t necessarily end up as a product or service but the chain of thought it prompts or the challenge it presents is the catalyst needed to stimulate the imagination to come up with something special.
One practice that I find helps to prevent killing ideas too early is to treat them as question marks, not exclamation marks. All too often it seems we have a desire to rapidly turn a concept or idea into an action, a decision or a conclusion – an exclamation mark. Exclamation marks have no creative juices left in them to grow. Exclamation marks are dead. An exclamation mark is simply a question mark with rigamortis. The more we can treat ideas as question marks – presents to be unpacked like infinite russian dolls that have further question marks within then – the more our ideas can flourish and turn into something special.
And not only does this keep our ideas alive and growing but it paves the way for many generations of ideas that will be spawned from us saying “yes” more.
What are you doing in your life at the moment that you are particularly excited by or proud of? Grab a napkin and see if you can trace the family tree of “yes” that led you to this moment. You may well run out of space.