For the Best Brainstorms, Think "Yes, But, And ..."

In brainstorming sessions — and in improv — no phrase is more valuable than "Yes, and ..." The theory goes that criticism kills creativity and increases hostility. Instead, when someone adds a new idea to the mix, a "yes, and ..." reply can maintain creative flow and foster a positive, encouraging environment. Just ask Tina Fey.

After years of watching this advice cycle through businesses both big and small, scientists have started to think it could use some revision. For more than 15 years, scientific research has actually shown that dissent, debate, and competing views can spur creativity, not hinder it. Positivity is great, but criticism might be, too.

Whoops. Turns out Tina Fey and the rest of us might need to switch up our techniques to brainstorm and improvise better. Instead of "Yes, and ..." maybe we should go for "Yes, but, and ..."

Are You Sure? (T'es Sûre?)

Our aversion to criticism may have roots in "design thinking" and an old ABC late-night special. On February 9, 1999, a "Nightline" segment called "The Deep Dive" examined the creative process on national television. The episode highlighted IDEO, a California company that was developing a new type of shopping cart. This video launched the "design thinking" movement, which highlights big ideas in big quantities and discourages judgment.

Back in 2004 — just five years after the release of that "Nightline" special — Dr. Charlan J. Nemeth from the University of California, Berkeley researched conflict and creativity with other scientists from California and France. Had this study gained more traction at the time, critique might not have gotten such a bad reputation. Unfortunately, "Nightline" grabs substantially more attention than The European Journal of Social Psychology, and as a result, it's taken us more than 15 years to listen to Dr. Nemeth and his team. Better late than never, we guess.

To test whether debate was good for creativity (while correcting for cultural differences), Dr. Nemeth and his team conducted their study in both the United States and France. Participants were divided up into groups of five and asked to solve a problem: How to reduce traffic congestion in San Francisco or Paris. In 20 minutes, they were meant to come up with as many good solutions as they could. Some groups were told not to criticize each other's ideas ("Yes, and ...") and other groups were specifically told to debate and criticize. A control group was told to solve the problem with no additional instructions. After the ideas were collected, each participant was asked to write down any solutions they thought of but didn't express during the brainstorm and any ideas they thought of after the discussion was over.

The findings were pretty straightforward: In both countries, debate was better for brainstorming. As the researchers analyzed their findings, they saw that giving permission to debate and criticize had led to significantly more ideas than did problem solving with no extra instructions — not so for the "yes, and ..." groups.

And although the difference in the number of ideas generated during the session between the debate and the "yes, and ..." groups didn't reach statistical significance, the ideas participants didn't express or thought of too late did: Specifically, the U.S. participants came up with significantly more of these ideas in the debate condition than in the "yes, and ..." condition, suggesting that culture plays a role in the best approach to a brainstorming session.

Dr. Nemeth and the other researchers theorized that contrary to popular belief, encouraging debate and criticism actually makes people less worried about being judged. When criticism is framed as a positive contribution, it feels task-related rather than personal.

It's also possible that the specific instruction to criticize felt liberating to participants. According to the researchers, "An instruction to do something that is normally forbidden — at least considered impolite — may be liberating in and of itself. Breaking rules, doing the 'forbidden,' stating one's mind directly may be very liberating and even stimulating."

Does This Mean We Should Argue?

Not exactly. Even though we might want it to, the research does not show that willy-nilly arguing and spiteful comments are productive. Instead, critique should be used with care and discipline.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Roberto Verganti and Don Norman shared suggestions for how to critique with care. According to them, there are some simple phrases you should banish outright: "This doesn't work" and "That's unclear." Instead, specificity is key. If you think an idea won't work, explain the problem clearly and then suggest an improvement. If you don't understand the idea, be precise about what's confusing, and then suggest possible interpretations.

And here's what researchers seem to think is most important: When your own ideas are criticized, tap into a growth mindset. Listen with curiosity to your colleagues' suggestions, and remember that your idea could be even more powerful when combined with someone else's perspective. Critique could end up being the highest form of creativity.

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Learn more about the power of critique in "The Truth Doesn't Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change" by Deb Bright, Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk August 22, 2019

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