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A Game That Turns Work Into Play

Thriving in times of uncertainty requires thinking on your feet.

Acting fast.

And responding to whatever shows up with calm and with ease. A trainable trait Harvard Business Review (HBR) refers to as a skilled improviser. That’s what I shared on Thrive Global [source: ].

Improvisation is key to organizational adaptability and agility. Leaders and employees who are capable improvisers are more adept at steering their organizations through everything from pandemics to paradigm shifts, HBR’s research reveals.

As I said on Thrive Global,

“Performers learn improv techniques as a way to integrate the unexpected and to respond to one another with spontaneity. Improv exercises are, at the core, techniques for tapping our potential to think and to behave in new ways.

Through improvisation we can strengthen a kind of authentic presence with other people that is an invaluable resource for navigating life and relationships.”

But before you think that we all need to turn into expert improv actors, let’s act up in a different way. Let’s build a game for anyone, anywhere. They say that all the world’s a stage—so this game offers a new stage for your success.

How to Play:

Possibilities often begin with a “yes.” A yes that acknowledges the situation at hand without judgement. A “yes” introduces a willingness to explore a particular scenario, issue, or circumstance. The challenge is getting everyone to start with a “yes”. Which is where this game begins.

Almost like a bow before a sumo match, both players face each other and say, “Yes.” The good news is: nobody has to wear a mawashi (loincloth) in order to play.

Next, the players make one additional statement: “I have your back”. (as in, “I support you - I’ve got your back”).

The first player—the one on the left, for example—makes a statement about something inside the company. A single work issue perhaps, or business challenge. Here are some good examples:

  • “The budget for training in Q2 is tight.”

  • “The Wisconsin warehouse isn’t as efficient as the one in Michigan.”

  • “Last year we broke records in our sales department.”

  • “Our managers could benefit from some coaching on interpersonal skills.”

  • “Our customer satisfaction scores took a 3% dip last month.”

Here are some bad examples:

  • “Josh isn’t really smart enough to do his job.”

  • “The way you conduct meetings is awful.”

  • “All people from California are _________.”

  • “We deserve more overtime and higher wages. Also, someone needs to fire Josh right now.”

Not only do these statements reflect some unfortunate bias, they also represent opinions that don’t necessarily point to a business issue. Personal challenges are not a fit for this exercise (at least, not yet). Some statements here are derogatory, and pretty inappropriate. Plus, the final statement about Josh introduces three concepts, not just one.

Poor Josh.

But I digress.

To reiterate: Player 1 now states a business challenge, and it can be provocative. But the issue is factual. And not diminishing, confrontational or personal.

Player 2 continues the story by saying the two words that begin every reply in this game. That’s right, every response starts here:

“Yes, and…”

That’s the only way to respond. No arguments. Only agreements. And amplifications. Additions. Alternate solutions that expand on what’s given without contradicting the premise.

No rebuttals. No refusals. Accept, and move on.

Notice how the game is played. There are only two steps in the response:

  1. Yes: acknowledge and affirm the statement. Don’t just gloss over what’s been said! Find agreement—because you’ve got their back, remember? You are there to support one another, not tear anyone down.

  2. And: what else can be said, or done, or observed, or acknowledged, about the situation? And points towards what hasn’t been discovered, said or explored. And points in the direction of new ideas.

The cycle repeats.

Player 1 responds with a “Yes, and”. Play continues until new and expansive ideas enter the conversation.

There is no obligation to respond immediately. No time limit on how long it might take you to find your affirmative addition (another way to say “yes, and”—see what I did there?)

Take your time, so that you don’t just add useless observations to fulfill the assignment (“Yes, and the sky is blue '' for example). Just fulfilling some assignment is not playing to win. Create the game, create the solutions, in the time that fits for you.

Victory comes in the discovery of new ways to look at the same old problems.


Player 1: Last year we broke records in our sales department.

Player 2: Yes—and this year our quotas are even higher.

Player 1: Yes—and some sales reps are wondering how to adapt to the new territory numbers.

Player 2: Yes—and we are doing our first off-site sales kickoff in two years—it’s next month in Denver.

Player 1: Yes—and our sales director is letting others take responsibility for managing our weekly sales meetings.

Player 2: Yes—and this distributed responsibility is helping me to take ownership for my territory and reporting.

Player 1: Yes—and these new initiatives are going to help us crush our numbers once again, if we remember to try these three things....

If someone offers an idea that starts with “Yes—and” but doesn’t really provide a positive outcome, the group facilitator will recognize the infraction and ask for a new idea. If you’re not doing this exercise with a group facilitator, then you have to call your own fouls. Remember to do so using the words that matter most.

Improvisation is where innovation happens. Often, in the course of a supported conversation—where two people come together and commit to new discovery—the results can be the “and” that’s missing. What will you discover inside this conversational game?

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