You Cannot Win Engineering

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of Saturday Night Live and improvisational theater. Improv looks chaotic and uncontrolled, but the best practitioners operate under strict rules that govern interactions between players. Some of the most successful entertainers today, people like Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, directly credit what they have learned in improv with making them better at what they do both on and off screen.

Unlike workplace policies that you are probably used to, the rules of improv aren’t meant to constrain you, but to open you up to the ideas of others. Let’s take a look at some of the rules the Mr. Colbert and Ms. Fey live by and see how they can improve team collaboration.

Agree and Say “Yes”.

Here’s Tina, from her book Bossypants, talking about the rules of engagement:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “Yes! The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

The same is true of engineering teams. When one of your teammates has an idea, your first response needs to be affirmative. Take any and all ideas from your teammates as positive contributions and you start from a place of being open-minded and welcoming. Nothing kills team morale faster than someone who says “No, that won’t work” in response to any idea that they didn’t come up with.

It’s Not Just “Yes”, it’s “Yes, and…”

Everyone loves games and games are more fun when everyone plays nicely. Make positive contributions and you will foster a spirit of openness, collaboration and — dare I say — fun. Make it your habit to answer your teammate’s ideas with “Yes, and…” instead of “No, because”. Always offer your ideas, you just are as entitled to be silly and wrong as everyone else. Ideas seldom spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus and the part you’re holding back out of fear might be the thing that makes it work. “Yes, and…” makes you part of the solution; “No, because” makes you part of the problem.

Your Team is the Most Important Person on Your Team

Stephen Colbert went back to his alma mater, Northwestern University, to give the commencement address in 2011. He may play a know-it-all blowhard on The Colbert Report, but that’s clearly not the case in real life. Here’s an excerpt from his speech:

…One of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant.

You cannot win improv.

And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.

And like improv, you cannot win your life.

The software corollary to this is: “You cannot win engineering”.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. If everyone on your team acts as if their teammates are more important than they are, you create an environment of support, giving, and progress that is mutually enriching and productive. You’ll know you have succeeded when no one on your team remembers where a great idea came from. More importantly, no one will care.

When one of your teammates asks you a question, don’t tell them to Google it (which is a bit of a jerk response in any case). Act as if their problems are more important than yours, serve the team by serving them. When you are stuck on a problem, they will treat you the same way.

None of these rules for improvisation will make you funnier or get you a slot on Weekend Update, but applying them to your co-workers will almost certainly make your team awesome. Everyone wins.