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Yes, And…

A book review of “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” by Keith Johnstone.

4 min read
Yes, And…
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Before Growth is a weekly newsletter about startups and their builders before product–market fit, by 3x founder and programmer Kamil Nicieja.

Here’s a quote from “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” by Keith Johnstone:

The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still “balance” it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them.

That’s how running a startup can feel sometimes, isn’t it? Most entrepreneurs aspire to be visionaries who can see into the future, but let’s be real—we often operate more on faith than certainty. I think being an entrepreneur is a lot like walking backward: You learn as you go, and you adapt based on what you’ve already seen, not what you can’t yet see.

Though “Impro” focuses on the world of improvisational theater rather than business management, its insights are surprisingly applicable to startups. The book delves into the art of live performance, where you navigate by reading subtle cues from fellow actors and the audience and adapt your actions in real–time. It advocates embracing uncertainty and seizing opportunities as they come, skills that are as essential in the boardroom as they are on stage.

You’ll have to adapt the book’s wisdom to your entrepreneurial context, but “Impro” is an excellent resource for anyone needing a little boost of inspiration or courage in times of uncertainty. We can explore the book's key principle together, if you’d like.

Yes, and…

The “Yes, and…” principle is a foundational rule in improvisational theater. It serves as a guideline for advancing scenes and building collaborative narratives. When one actor makes a statement or presents a scenario, the other actor is encouraged to accept it (”Yes”) and then add to it with some construction of their own (”and…”).

For example, if one actor says, “We’re lost in this forest,” the other might respond, “Yes, and I think I hear wolves in the distance.” By affirming and building upon the original statement, the actors create a cooperative dialogue and narrative. This not only enriches the story but also fosters a creative and supportive environment.

Rejecting or ignoring the partner’s input—known as “blocking”—is generally discouraged, as it tends to stifle the creative flow and can lead to a stagnant or awkward scene. The “Yes, and…” principle isn’t just limited to improvisational theater; it’s also applied in brainstorming sessions, teamwork exercises, and various forms of collaborative work to promote positive and productive interactions.

In the world of startups, the “Yes, and…” principle can be an invaluable approach to fostering innovation, teamwork, and problem–solving. Just as in improvisational theater, this technique encourages an open–minded and constructive dialogue where team members build on each other’s ideas.

For instance, during a brainstorming session, if an employee suggests developing a new feature for a product, another might respond, “Yes, and we could also integrate it with existing platforms to enhance user experience.” Here, the “Yes” acknowledges and validates the original idea, while the “and” serves to expand upon it, potentially leading to a more robust or versatile end result.

This approach can also be beneficial in meetings where strategic decisions are being made. Rather than immediately shutting down an idea that seems risky or incomplete, using “Yes, and…” can encourage a more in–depth exploration of its merits and challenges. This can often lead to a more nuanced understanding and may uncover innovative solutions that might not have been obvious at the outset.

Moreover, the “Yes, and…” principle can be applied to fostering a positive company culture. When employees feel heard and valued—that their contributions are being acknowledged and built upon—it can boost morale and job satisfaction. In turn, this often results in higher productivity and a more engaged team, essential elements for the fast–paced and often uncertain environment of startups.

Thus, by incorporating the “Yes, and…” principle, startups can promote a culture of innovation, open dialogue, and collaborative problem-solving, all of which are critical for success in a competitive landscape.

Key benefits

Learning a framework for thriving in extreme uncertainty

Johnstone’s book is filled with practical examples aimed at teaching you how to perform without a script. While the initial exercises encourage you to relinquish control and simply start playing, the more advanced ones provide a set of guidelines that equip you to adapt to rapidly changing scenarios.

Johnstone advocates for action over perfection. He encourages you to start with any idea that gets your pulse racing, then to build on it based on the reactions of those around you. He advises against shutting down unexpected responses and instead suggests embracing solutions you haven’t personally conceived. It might sound risky, but Johnstone provides you with tools to create a framework: one that’s flexible enough to accommodate almost anything, yet structured enough to yield meaningful results.

Cultivating on–the–fly creativity and spontaneity

“Impro” adopts a rather forgiving view of creativity. No idea is too absurd to consider; it just might spark an incredible outcome. The book is replete with compelling arguments and hands–on exercises for fostering creativity in group settings and meetings. Johnstone firmly believes that the fear of imperfection shouldn’t hinder anyone from creating something great, funny, or beautiful. This mindset, embedded in his teaching methods, made me wish I could become his student and learn how to apply this philosophy of forgiveness and creativity within the context of a startup.

At the very least, it’s inspired me to consider signing up for improv classes.

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For this week's updates, head over to my LinkedIn profile. In the product world, features under development are often dubbed WIP: work in progress. I offer Week–in–Progress: your concise guide to research, insights, and noteworthy stats on emerging companies and projects. This digest goes live every Wednesday on LinkedIn, so don't forget to subscribe to catch the latest edition tomorrow.

And don't worry—our usual in–depth pieces will continue to roll out on Before Growth, while WIP is designed to be a quick, under–a–minute read!
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Kamil Nicieja

I guess you can call me an optimist. I build products for fun—I’m a startup founder, author, and software engineer who’s worked with tech companies around the world.

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