By Andrew Deutsch
When I began to perform improv and also applied it to my work life, I realized that the important elements of creativity in the business world are risk tolerance and an open mind. central to creativity are two words that are the core principle of improvisation: “Yes, and.”
Almost everything we say every day is improvised. No one is walking around with a script of what they are going to say that day or how they are going to react to specific situations. If we’re not actively and openly listening and seeing, we will miss important solutions and innovative ideas in business. Active listening and seeing is a process that fosters looking at what we’re doing in a new way and that way is to see with new eyes what something can be.
What stops creative thinking and problem-solving is a response of “you’re wrong!” and “no, that’s a terrible idea!” Who wants to get that response? Not me and not you! However, by learning to say “Yes, and” you can resist the temptation to shoot down creative ideas, which will greatly improve your business culture. Why is this important to your business? Having a free flow of information exchanged generates innovation.
Some of our greatest inventions were the results of mistakes. The creators of these inventions all had a “Yes, and” consciousness. This non-judgmental curiosity was crucial in creating innovations from errors and seemingly bad results. When seen in a new way, these “bad results” actually led to brilliant inventions.
Here are some examples of inventions that are a part of our everyday lives that came out of mistakes.
The Invention of Penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a medical scientist, left a pile of dirty petri dishes stacked at his hospital workstation while he was on vacation. When he returned from his vacation, he sorted through the dishes to see which of them needed to be sterilized. He noticed that there was a dish that was covered with colonies of bacteria, except in one area where there was some mold growing. Around the mold was a circle that was free of bacteria, as the mold had blocked the bacteria from spreading. It was then and there that it occurred (“Yes, and!”) to Alexander Fleming that the mold could be used to kill bacteria. He was inspired to further experiment with mold and invented penicillin, an antibiotic which is effective against many bacterial infections, and has saved many people’s lives. Alexander Fleming won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for the invention of penicillin.
The Invention of the Microwave Oven. Percy Spencer was an American engineer who worked for Raytheon. One day, while he was at work, he walked in front of a magnetron, which is a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves, and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Spencer was not the first to notice this phenomenon, but he was the first to investigate it. (“Yes, and!”) He decided to experiment using food, including popcorn kernels, which became the world’s first microwaved popcorn. In 1945, after a few more experiments, Spencer successfully invented the first microwave oven.
The Invention of Wheaties. One day in 1922, a Minnesota clinician was preparing wheat-bran gruel, when he spilled some of the mixture on a hot stove by accident. It formed into flakes, and instead of just wiping up the mess, he gave the flakes a taste and realized (“Yes, and!”) that the flakes tasted a lot better than porridge. After a lot of tinkering with the recipe, the name of the cereal was changed, going from “Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes” to “Wheaties.” I bet you’ll never look at the “Breakfast of Champions” the same way again!
The Invention of the Popsicle. In 1905, Frank Epperson, an eleven year old who lived in San Francisco, invented the Popsicle by accident. Frank mixed a soft drink from soda water powder and forgot the fruit-flavored mixture on his back porch overnight with a stirring stick in it. The temperature dropped to a record low that night, and the next day Frank tasted the icy concoction on a stick and loved it. (“Yes, and!”) Eighteen years later, Frank Epperson began a business producing fruit-flavored ice on a stick at Neptune Beach, an amusement park in California. He received a patent for his invention called the “Eppsicle” ice pop. Frank’s children began referring to the flavored ice on a stick as a “Popsicle,” so Frank decided to change the name from “Eppsicle” to “Popsicle.” Today millions of Popsicles are sold each year.
The Invention of Velcro. In 1948, George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, returned from a hike with burrs sticking to his clothing. He removed some of the burrs and examined them under a microscope and found a mass of thin strands with tiny hooks on the ends. He saw the possibility (“Yes, and!”) of binding two materials together in a simple way with hooks and loops. It took de Mestral several years to develop the product of two strips of nylon fabric, one containing thousands of small hooks and the other containing thousands of small loops that when pressed together form a strong bond. De Mestral called this hook and loop system “Velcro.” This product was not popularly adopted until after NASA used it in the 1960’s in the Apollo space missions. Today, Velcro is used on a multitude of products, thanks to George de Mestral, who instead of being irritated by burrs, with his “Yes, and” consciousness found them to be a model for the possibility of a new invention.
The Invention of Safety Glass
One day in 1903, Edouard Benedictus, a French chemist, was climbing a ladder and accidentally knocked a glass flask off of a shelf in his lab. It fell and shattered, but to his surprise, the shards of glass still hung together. He realized that cellulose nitrate (a liquid plastic) had evaporated and left a thin film on the inside of the flask, and that this plastic film was holding the glass together. Later, he read a Paris newspaper article mentioning how many drivers in car accidents were seriously injured by the shattering of windshield glass, and then he remembered the image of the broken flask (“Yes, and!”). Benedictus then spent the next 24 hours testing different possibilities for his safety glass, and by the next day he had produced his invention.
After seeing the powerful results of safety glass used in gas mask lenses during World War I, auto manufacturers realized the life-saving value of the product, and it became the standard glass used in windshields in automobiles. So from a “Yes, and” moment created from an “accident,” millions of lives have been saved.
The crucial quality these inventors had was the ability to suspend negative judgment and to look at a result in a new way. In each case, they said through their thoughts and actions “Yes, and!” which allowed them to look at their mistakes not as errors, but as possibilities. This is the creative and curious power of “Yes, and!”