13. Yes, And…

‘Yes, And…’, an element of improvisational comedy, is an effective alternative to negative feedback in academia.
“Peer review” both helps and harms

‘Higher’ academics work in a culture of creative destruction. We cherish our critical skills, our high standards, and our intolerance of mediocrity. Our systems of peer review more often reject than they accept. We tell ourselves that this academic winnowing is justified because it improves our scholarship, teaching, and institutional stature[1], and we pride ourselves on contributing to it. It is said that even God could not get promoted these days (just google ‘why God would not get tenure’).

This system accomplishes academic quality control. But it neither contributes to a positive mental attitude in the junior faculty on whom our futures rely and we strive to develop, nor allows them to do their best work. If they were children, we would collectively be indicted for child abuse. Is it any wonder that junior faculty avoid opportunities for criticism? Moreover, this system trains junior faculty to perpetuate it. As WH Auden wrote[2]:

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”

Is there an alternative?   Yes, and…

Seriously.   “Yes, and…” is an alternative.

“Yes, and…” is an element of improvisational comedy in which each actor in a group actively listens to the contributions of others, and then in turn strives to build upon them (and not contradict or disrupt them)[3]. Leonard and Yorton [3] (p. 24-25) offer the following example:

Someone might say, for instance, “Wow, I’ve never seen so many stars in the sky.”

The actor sharing the scene has only one responsibility at this point: to agree with this and add something new. So that could be something like: “I know. Things look so different up here on the moon.”

That simple statement affirms what the first actor offered and added another idea (i.e., they’re far away from the city – so far that they are actually on the moon). In turn, this affirmation gives the first actor some information to build on and open up a great many possibilities for this scene.

If the second actor had negated the first actor’s offering with something like, “I can’t see a single star …it’s broad daylight,” the budding scene would have stopped in its tracks.

How might faculty development and academic culture benefit from Yes, And?

Leonard and Yorton say of Yes, And… ([3], p. 24-25) [my emphasis added]:

These two words form the bedrock of all improvisation. Creative breakthroughs occur in environments where ideas are not just fully explored, but heightened and stretched to levels that might seem absurd at first. This is where the best comedy comes from, and that’s where invention is realized. It’s a mantra to apply at every level of your work. Work cultures that embrace Yes, And are more inventive, quicker to solve problems, and more likely to have engaged employees than organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly. With Yes, And, you don’t have to act on every idea, but you do have to give every idea a chance to be acted on. This simple idea has amazing power and potency to improve interpersonal communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. In application, these two words are ground zero to creativity and innovation.

Uri Alon uses “Yes, and…” in research[4]:

…saying “Yes, and” made my lab very creative. Students started playing off of each others’ ideas, and we made surprising discoveries in the interface between physics and biology. For example, we were stuck for a year trying to understand the intricate biochemical networks inside our cells, and … we had a playful conversation where my student Shai Shen Orr said, “Let’s just draw this on a piece of paper, this network,” and instead of saying, “But we’ve done that so many times and it doesn’t work,” I said, “Yes, and let’s use a very big piece of paper,” and then Ron Milo said, “Let’s use a gigantic architect’s blueprint kind of paper, and I know where to print it,” and we printed out the network and looked at it, and that’s where we made our most important discovery, that this complicated network is just made of a handful of simple, repeating interaction patterns like motifs in a stained glass window. We call them network motifs, and they’re the elementary circuits that help us understand the logic of the way cells make decisions in all organisms, including our body.

At my institution, we used it just the other day in a career development session with 8 junior clinical faculty in their second year. Their challenge is to form a goal comprising some unspecified combination of patient care, education, and scholarly activity, and parlay this into promotion. When the participants entered the room, the walls were papered with one-sentence summaries of the goals that the previous year’s cohort of associate professors reached to get promoted. These were extremely diverse – so much so that, when the participants added their own goal statements to the wall, it was obvious that these statements (and the faculty participants’ aspirations) fit in. An example of these statements:

I WILL BE PROMOTED TO ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BY becoming a leader in creating and utilizing healthcare technology and informatics to deter obesity

Next, the participants were challenged: “Well, this is a worthy but lofty goal, and it will take some years to reach it. But what is ONE THING you can do today or this week, to reach it?” And so the exercise began with a response from each participant in turn, for example:

I will google ‘healthcare technology’ and ‘informatics’ and ‘obesity’

Yes, and I will actually read one of the papers I find

Yes, and I will discuss it with my colleague, Dr. Jones

Yes, and I and Dr. Jones and few more people will start meeting weekly for coffee and to discuss more

Yes, and I’ll pick the most promising combination and see if it works on my own diet.

Yes, and I’ll meet with my mentor and see how I could begin a small-scale trial

Yes, and I’ll ask my Section Chief for advice and support

Yes, and I’ll begin the trial

Yes, and I’ll present the preliminary results to my colleague who is an expert on this, Dr. Kimura, to see if I can get her interested.

Yes, and I’ll give a presentation to my Section

Yes, and I’ll call my colleague Dr. Escabeche at the medical center on the other side of town and see if I can give an informal talk there.

Yes, and I’ll give a poster at the meeting of the National Society on Healthcare Technology, Informatics, and Obesity

Yes, and so on

Spontaneously, this group of second-year assistant professors

  • Formulated a whole series of small steps towards the goal, each building upon the preceding steps
  • Supported the feasibility of each step
  • Provided confidence and reassurance to the individual whose goal this is
  • In so doing, said nothing critical or negative

and were able to do this repeatedly for every participant in the room.   In 3 minutes these second-year professors became their own faculty developers.


Academic quality control is essential, but is self-defeating if it stifles the very activity it is intended to improve. Work-arounds include teaching faculty to fail productively, managing the antipathy to receiving feedback, gamification (in a subsequent post), and Yes, And.

To Do

√  Yes, and the next time a colleague, mentee, or trainee needs criticism, try out ‘yes, and…’

√  Yes, and when you must deliver negative criticism, first review the literature on how to do so constructively.

√  Yes, and the next time you undertake peer review, ask yourself how you’d like to be treated if you were the peer under review.

√  Yes, and when you must participate in academic winnowing, view it as part of your obligation to help those being winnowed succeed in some way.

[1] The official University of Chicago statement, the Shils Report, states in part:

The function of appointive bodies is to bring to the academic staff of the University individuals who will perform at the highest level the functions of research, teaching, and training and the maintenance of the intellectual community of the University. A university which does not perform at this level will lose its standing in the world and therewith its power to attract outstanding faculty members and outstanding students. Its failure to attract them will in turn reduce the quality of its performance. Every appointment of a mediocre candidate makes it more difficult to bring outstanding students to the university. This is why scrupulous insistence on the most demanding criteria in the act of appointment is so decisive for the University.

[2] http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939

[3] Leonard, K. and Yorton, T. 2015. Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City.  HarperCollins. http://amzn.com/0062248545

[4]https://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown?language=en ; see also http://wws.weizmann.ac.il/mcb/UriAlon/index.php?q=materials-nurturing-scientists

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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