Many visioning processes begin with a guided visualization, where participants close their eyes and listen as they are guided by a facilitator through a series of images and questions. The key is to imagine we have arrived at a specified, fabulous point in the future – where all of our dreams have been realized. It is exactly the way we want it. It is about what we are for – not what we are against. And for most of us, our experience of being in this desired future reality is vivid and visceral. (Note: a few of us experience “visualizations” slightly differently – some of us don’t see pictures in our minds at all. Instead, we see words, or experience a set of sensations.) The experience of imagining that we have arrived at a point in the future – that we are there, right now – can unleash a whole new set of innovative, creative ideas. Click here for a list of 14 questions or elements to weave into your visualization script.
Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit in individuals and across entire teams. “Yes! And…” is a classic, fun improv theatre exercise that interrupts this “culture of critique” and helps groups become more adept at embracing new, creative ideas.
“I can’t believe how hard this is!” exclaimed Vince. “It took all my self-control to not to say “yes, BUT!” The group of civil rights activists, many of them trained attorneys, laughed knowingly. Several had just the same experience. We were sitting in a sunny boardroom in Los Angeles yesterday, debriefing a short exercise we’d just run called “Yes, And…”. If you’re familiar with improvisational theatre or comedy, you’ll know that it’s a powerful training tool, while being highly entertaining in its own right. “Yes! And…” is also one of the most effective, simple exercises I know to help leaders and groups disrupt long-held habits of negative collective thinking in order to generate a more creative, innovative flow of ideas.
The Culture of Critique
Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. This is particularly true for those of us with academic training, or whose work is focused on advocacy or legal strategies. Through our work as change agents, we learn to finely hone our abilities to rebutt, refuke, counter, critique, denounce and generally point out the shortcomings of other peoples’ ideas. We become so skilled, in fact, that many of our critical tendencies become habits – unconscious, almost knee-jerk reactions to the world around us. And those habits get expressed internally, interpersonally, within organizations and across entire movements. Together, they form what I call a “culture of critique”.
Is criticism necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. The critical, free-thinking minds and imaginations of human beings are among our greatest gifts. Those gifts make it possible to talk about risks, to fight oppression, to influence human systems and behaviours so that we are more just, equitable, collectively intelligent and compassionate.
Criticism has its place. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit. It becomes even more of a problem when that habit starts getting routinely expressed across entire cultures.
When critique gets in the way of social change
In fact, the more we aspire to working collaboratively across difference as leaders and movements, the more the “culture of critique” becomes a liability. And it can impede collaborative leadership in several ways:
- Debate vs. dialogue: Instead of dialogue, we automatically veer toward debate. In conversation, we stop listening, often too soon. The energy becomes more focused on ‘who’s right’ than ‘how can we best move forward’.
- Missing the full picture”: As Steven Covey says in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the best leaders “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. If we’re immersed in a “culture of critique”, our unconscious habit will be to counter before hearing, or understanding, the full story of another person’s perspective, missing out on important pieces of the whole truth. That means we also miss out on the full spectrum of potential opportunities to move past sticking points into new solutions.
- Weaker relationships: In the contracted mental and emotional state of “critique”, our focus stayed narrowly confined to our own perspectives, and fails to account for the truths of others. We become less compassionate, less empathetic. The result? Weaker, less trusting partnerships with others.
- Shutting down good ideas: When others experience critique, they more likely to shut down before their own ideas can fully blossom. Worse, people can become habituated to ‘playing it safe’. They become more likely to avoid sharing risky, innovative ideas that might get shot down as being ‘inappropriate’, ‘stupid’, or befall the idea-purgatory of ‘we already tried that.’
What’s more, all of these effects are compounded when those modeling a habit of criticism hold more institutional, positional, cultural or personal power.
Practicing the “Yes! And…” exercise
As facilitators and leaders, we know that both a desire to do things differently, and a commitment to practice, can help replace less helpful habits with new ones. One of the simplest, easiest exercises I know of as a facilitator is “Yes, And…”. It’s also a terrific energizer, as the results are often hilarious. At its heart, “Yes, And” is about fully accepting whatever someone else shares with you – and then building upon it. Here’s one approach to leading it:
- Form pairs. One person is the A, the other the B
- A starts by stating something about themselves or the other person… it can be anything at all. If it’s provocative, all the better.
- B responds with “Yes! And….”, adding to the statement
- A responds with “Yes! And…” and continues building on what B just said
- Run the exercise for 3-5 minutes, depending on the energy in the room
- Debrief as a large group
Watch out for any urge to counter your partner’s statement, either overtly or through sarcasm. Just keep building. Really, genuinely work with what you’re given!
Here’s an example my colleague Michael practiced with me this week. He was wicked, and we ended up laughing so hard we could barely breath. Here’s how it started:
Michael: So… I hear you’ve become a corporate weapons manufacturer! [I gasp inwardly]
Me: [gulping] Yes, and…. I’m really excited about the opportunity to become an internal agent for positive change in the industry!!
Michael: Yes, and… since I know it’s going to be challenging, I have some relaxation techniques I can recommend!
Me: Yes, and… I’m definitely looking forward to us using them together, since I know you’ve just been hired into the same weapons research division as me!”
Michael: [eyes widening] Yes! And….
And so on. Of course, it can be a lot more serious and “real” than that. The point is to practice disrupting the habit of critical thinking, and building up the habit of embracing and adding to others’ ideas, no matter how weird those ideas may feel.
Want to see a real-time example? Check out this improv theatre training video by Avish Parashar and Fred Gleek.
Applying “Yes! And…” over time
There are two keys to this being really effective in the long-run.
Debrief well: at least for the first time working with a group, make sure there’s enough time to really debrief what it’s like. Where was it hard? In what ways? Did it get easier? How did it feel? What did people notice?
Practice it often. “Yes! And..” is a short, useful energizer in it’s own right, especially during meetings after lunch or when group energy is low. It’s also extremely useful as a “drill” to use before, say, a strategy session, or any kind of collective brainstorm involving at least two people.
I confess, after facilitating last week’s leadership training on skillful listening and peer coaching, this little video had me in complete, tears-running-down cheeks hysterics: It’s not about the nail…
In my last post I described Collins and Porras’ 4-part model for an effective vision. One component is a vivid narrative description. I’ve seen relatively few organizations create this, particularly in the not-for-profit sector – but its creation is possibly the most fun and engaging. Here’s a lovely example of a narrative vision statement for what became a Zingerman’s-sponsored Farmers Market in Ann Arbour, Michigan:
It’s the longest day of the year; the sun is at its pinnacle of warmth and light. Throngs of people are milling around the Roadhouse parking lot, amazed and excited at the abundance of locally produced goods, ranging from several gorgeous varieties of tomatoes to handmade soap and artisan crafts, to herbs and plants, plus a very strong synergy of Zingerman’s items—cheese from the Creamery, breads from the Bakehouse, and the ever-energetic Roadshow crew caffeinating all the vendors and customers. Every vendor is selling the best of what there is to offer, growing or producing themselves what they sell…”
And by the way: within just four years this vision had become a full, day-glo reality for the lucky farmers and foodies of Ann Arbour.
Quick: think of an organization or business you know and love. Maybe it’s one you actually work or volunteer at. What’s their vision for success? In other words, what’s the specific statement or narrative that they use to describe wild, vivid, success in, say, ten or twenty years? Chances are they have one – but you don’t know what it is of the top of your head, even if you work there. Or they have one – but it’s so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Maybe it’s just a vague platitude, like “an end to world hunger.” True, it’s not easy to come up with a clear, powerful vision. But the process itself can be a wonderfully creative experience. And once developed, an effective vision can be a rich source of fuel and inspiration for years to come.
Truly great organizational visions tend to have 5 key qualities. And, no surprise – – these are the same qualities of effective social change messages of all kinds:
- Visual: This seems like a no-brainer, but visions should, in fact, involve imagery – vivid pictures, told in words, that literally stimulate the visual cortex of listeners. “In 30 years we will have achieved world peace” is certainly aspirational, but it’s not visual.
- Motivating: Effective visions are emotionally compelling, and deeply motivating. They speak to the heart and gut – not just the head. They inspire people to act, to keep going when the going is tough, to dig down a little deeper because with that extra push, the beauty and power of that collective vision feels within reach
- Achievable: Powerful visions are like big “stretch goals” – their achievement may be well out of our comfort zone, it may call for great acts of courage and perseverance – but it is actually possible to get there. They are, in the words of Ari Weinsweig, “strategically sound.”
- Positive: Effective visions are stated in the positive – what we are FOR, not what we’re AGAINST. That’s easier said than done for many social change organizations whose orientation has been focused on stopping oppression or negative environmental and economic development.
- “Spreadable”: Like any good, ‘sticky’ story, effective visions can be repeated, spread like a happy virus from one team member to another, and beyond. If they are too long, boring, or conceptual (versus vivid and grounded in tangible imagery and action), we can be pretty certain they will sit on shelves gathering dust. John Kotter, author of “Leading Change”, suggests that it should be possible to convey a great vision in no more than 5 minutes. That way, they can be communicated as a regular, cherished practice across all levels of the organization. His research suggests that most companies under-communicate their visions by a factor of 10.
In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to, literally, reach for the moon. Like all great leaders, Kennedy understood that an effective vision will unleash a level of power, alignment and motivation that can change the world. This is the start of a series of ideas and tools to help you with your own visioning process.
In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to, literally, reach for the moon:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
In a mere seven years, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans on the planet to set foot on the moon’s surface. Dozens more followed. Like all great leaders, Kennedy understood that an effective vision will unleash a level of power, alignment and motivation that can change the world.
I’m in the midst of supporting a visioning process for a large civil rights organization. The team has a phenomenal track record, and is now ready to take their work to the next level. Their questions and insights have encouraged me to reflect even more deeply on my own approach to visioning – so organizational visioning is going to be the focus of my next few posts.