Plus first

In February I blogged about Randy Nelson’s, President of Pixar University, talk about the core skill of innovators being “failure recovery, not error avoidance.”

Before getting to this point, Randy talks about the environment that nurtures creativity at Pixar.  One important element is having a culture where the expectation is that you will “plus” other people’s ideas.  Randy explains this by talking about improvisational theatre, the core principle of which is that you have to accept any idea that’s thrown out by the other actor(s) on stage (you can also hear Emily Levine talk about this at TED) and then build on it.

For example, if you’re an improve actor and you say, “It’s a lovely day today” and the other actor says, “Yes, except for that 20 foot wave that’s crashing to shore,” you have to accept what that actor has said and work with it (so you could say, “Yes, which is why I have this inflatable suit on, just in case.”)

In many professional situations, there’s a real tendency to skip this step and instead jump to the contrary point, the little bit that could be improved, your small suggestion.

All of you smart, critically-minded people out there (you know who you are) ask yourself how often, when asked to give feedback of one sort or another, jump right in to all the little or big changes you think should be made.  This is actually the easy way out: you feel like you’re being helpful, improving the output, and it makes you look smart to boot.  And when you’re talking to someone you like and respect, you assume they know you think they’re smart/capable/etc. and that the thing they’ve just done (the practice presentation, the brainstormed idea) is pretty good.

Try plus-ing first instead.  If something is mostly good, start with that.  And don’t talk in general terms (“It’s really great.”) as this is neither credible nor useful.  Give this part real attention and thought.  Give it as much analysis as you give your (subsequent) critique. Tell the person what’s good.  Be very specific about what you like.

This will accomplish three things: first, it will give the person just as much feedback about what works as about what doesn’t, so she has a chance to amplify and strengthen the best part of what she’s done.  Second, the person will feel good and gain in confidence.

Perhaps most important, it gives you practice at giving positive feedback in an honest, genuine, and specific fashion – which is actually much harder than it looks.

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4 Responses to Plus first

  1. J. Paulo Lopes says:

    Hey Sasha,

    Enjoyed your thoughts on “plus-ing first”. We do tend to put much more thought into correcting other people’s ideas than into adding to them. In that spirit, I would like to add to your post. I believe that this culture of plus-ing is not just a matter of giving good feedback and making people feel good about themselves. Plus-ing first is what makes innovation happen, since innovating has much more to do with adding than correcting. It’s also more about exploring many ideas to their exhaustion (plus-ing, and plus-ing again), than about correcting one idea until it becomes the perfect one.
    I would go as far as to say that in a good brainstorming session, participants should be allowed only to plus an idea for a while, regardless of how good they think it is.
    What do you think??

  2. Sasha says:

    Paulo, thanks so much for this comment. I heartily agree, especially in brainstorming sessions…and think it applies in all sorts of other situations as well.

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