Let's Practice: "I'm a Tree"

In every monthly newsletter, I’ll be introducing you to simple group exercises you can facilitate on your own. This month, we’re looking at how to demonstrate the power of “Yes, and, and” to your teams. The following exercise is something you can do at the beginning of your weekly team check-in meeting or in the first five minutes of a daily standup.


Skill: Practicing “Yes, and, and”

Exercise: “I’m a Tree”

Time: 5-7 minutes

# of People: 10-15



At the beginning of your next team meeting, gather attendees together in a standing circle. Let them know that you’re doing a warm-up exercise to get collaborative juices flowing. To introduce the exercise, say:

“This exercise is called, “I’m a tree”. It sounds silly but it’s a really effective seven-minute warm-up for setting a collaborative tone in this meeting.

Let’s form a circle. I’ll start the exercise by walking into the circle and pretending to be a tree by saying “I’m a tree!” Next, someone will join me in the circle, add something to my tree and say something like “I’m a bird!” and rest a pretend bird on one of my beautiful (and pretend) arm branches.

Then a third person will add something to the scene, for example: “a park bench under the tree”.

Once that third person has entered the circle, we prepare to repeat the exercise in the following way: The original person in the scene, in this case me, the “tree”, will take something out of the circle by saying “I’ll take the bird”, leaving only “the park bench”. That person stays and continues to be the same thing. They’ll start a new sequence by saying “I’m a park bench.” Then someone new adds something to the bench scene, (i.e. “I’m a person sitting on the bench”) and off we go!”



The group will be reticent and slow to participate at first, but will quickly get excited by the possibilities they can create together. Encourage people to jump in whenever they have an idea, even if it’s not perfect, in order to support the other players.

Continue repeating these steps for 5-7 minutes or until you feel the group has reached a high-energy stopping place in which to begin the debrief. If you’re short on time, skip the debrief and go directly into the rest of your agenda.


Debrief Questions

  • What was the most surprising supporting idea presented? What was an obvious one that you would’ve guessed? Does it matter how obvious the ideas are?
  • What made it hard to add to a particular idea? Which ideas were easy to build off of?
  • Were you stuck at any time? How did that feel? What did you do to get unstuck?


  • This is “Yes, and, and” in action. Adding a third idea opens up opportunities for unexpected, creative solutions. In the context of this exercise, the group is building out an interesting scene. In a work situation, it means adding additional opinions, ideas and solutions into a idea-generation process.

  • It’s tough being the first person out in the circle waiting for someone to come in to support them. Finding ways to be the “second” to someone’s idea in a real setting is a great way to support teammates or clients and create a collaborative atmosphere.

  • Be on the lookout for people that are great at “seconding” and those that prefer adding the “three” for a big laugh. Typically the funniest part of this exercise is the third idea added (see: rule of threes), but that doesn’t mean it was the most important. Often, the second idea won’t be that funny, but a clear and deliberate choice will dictate the entire direction of the scene and set up a hilarious “three”.

  • Try doing this with more than three people adding to a scene (Remember: “If you can include three you can include seventeen.”)

"Win Win Win" Collaboration

Creating more “Win Win Win” opportunities is my 2018 resolution. “But Dave!” I can hear you saying, “That sounds like meaningless jargon. What are you actually talking about?

“Yes, and” needs a reboot.

The concept of “Yes, and” has been, in my opinion, beaten to death in the business community. That’s in no small part thanks to to consultants and trainers (like me!) who use this concept as a panacea for solving collaboration skill-building challenges.

“Yes, and” implies there are only two people in a collaborative transaction; one to share an idea, and the other to build on it. Why is that wrong? Because 99% of real-world challenges, upon closer inspection, involve multiple parties. These challenges can’t be solved with pairs of neatly organized “call and response” surface-level solutions.

Collaboration at work is messy and confusing. How can we fix that this year?

“Yes, and...and”

My solution? Include a third person. We need to start approaching challenges with a question: “Who is the third person we’re not discussing here? What do they want? What can we give them as part of the solution?”

Why is including the third person important?

1. It forces non-binary decision-making - Boolean, “ones and zeros” logic is built into every piece of technology we have, but that doesn’t mean we as humans have to problem solve like an AI robot. Moving away from binary, Yes/No decision-making helps us think about the ripple effects of our decisions in a more comprehensive way.  

2. It forces inclusion of multiple points of view - It’s simple to focus a team on hitting a single metric or target. It’s much much harder to keep multiple goals in your team’s crosshairs.

Think of it like exercise (metaphor alert!). It’s easy to pick up a weight with your arm and curl it up to your shoulder. It’s much much harder to do the same movement while balancing on one foot on on unstable surface. You get much more out of a workout if you can engage balance, stability and kinetic challenges into the same movement. The same logic applies when building collaborative problem-solving skills with your team.

The more inputs you can bring to the table, the more you’ll build your team’s ability to think dynamically about multiple stakeholders.

3. If you can include three you can include seventeen - How many customers, internal and external, do you have? I’m talking about your team, the cross-functional teams you require input from to approve budgets, your customers, their bosses determining their budgets, etc. How often do you actively think of ways to bring wins to those farther down the list?

If you can think about a third person’s relationship to a deal or solution, then you can start to think about a fourth. Then a fifth. Keep these small stakeholders top of mind and you’ll discover easy wins that come at little to no cost for the larger initiative.

Let’s Practice!

In these newsletters I’ll be introducing you to simple group exercises you can facilitate on your own. This month, we’re looking at how to demonstrate the power of “Yes, and, and” to your teams. The following exercise is something you can do at the beginning of your weekly team check-in meeting or in the first five minutes of a daily standup.

Skill: Practicing “Yes, and, and”

Exercise: “I’m a Tree”

Time: 5-7 minutes

# of People: 10-15

After you try this out, let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear how this approach changes the way you look at the challenges you’re addressing in a particular meeting or collaborative setting.

Joy, Humor and “Getting Over Yourself”: Values-Based Coaching in the NBA

Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich are two of the most successful coaches in the NBA. Kerr won five NBA championships playing for the Bulls and Spurs and now coaches the Golden State Warriors. Popovich won five championships as coach of the Spurs, including two with Kerr as one of his most productive players.

Today, both coaches are widely respected as two of the best coaches in professional sports. Beyond winning together as a player-coach pair, these two men share a similar approach to coaching: Values-based leadership.

Popovich (L) and Kerr (R) share a lighthearted moment before a 2014 regular season game

Popovich (L) and Kerr (R) share a lighthearted moment before a 2014 regular season game

Kerr began coaching the Warriors in 2014. From the start, he built his team’s culture around four leadership values: joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition. To develop this list, Kerr combined his experience as an NBA player, executive and broadcaster with direct input from the Warriors players. The influence of joy on the team’s output is clear - Steph Curry dances after made three-pointers, Draymond Green emotes after every big defensive play and Kevin Durant, a new addition to the team this year, is frequently quoted saying how much fun he’s having playing for his new organization.

Over in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich is heralded as the coach who knows how to spot and develop “character” in the players he coaches. When pressed on how he’s able to identify a strong “character” in a young player, he bristles, saying that character is really a collection of specific, valuable traits that he and his staff can identify. For example, he lists Tim Duncan’s sense of humor as one of the reasons he was such a great player to coach: “Having a sense of humor is huge to me and to our staff because I think if people can’t be self-deprecating or laugh at themselves or enjoy a funny situation, they have a hard time giving themselves to the group.”

Humility is another one of Coach Pop’s key values. The Spurs have a phrase they use to evaluate new players, “Has he gotten over himself?”. The answer helps the coaching staff measure a player’s work ethic, humbleness and acceptance of his role. “Getting over himself” means that a player understands how his skills and limitations help or hinder the team’s ability to win. This concepts drives the way the Spurs attract veteran NBA players in free agency. Year after year their roster grows with superstar talents signing for less than maximum money to play a lesser role (fewer shots, fewer minutes, less media spotlight) for the chance to work alongside like-minded teammates devoted to winning an NBA championship.

Kerr won two NBA championships (1999, 2003) while playing in San Antonio under Popovich

Kerr won two NBA championships (1999, 2003) while playing in San Antonio under Popovich

Joy, a sense of humor, humility. These are the values espoused by highly successful NBA coaches. Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr use these concepts to contextualize the demands they place on the highly-skilled people they lead. These values form the lens through which they evaluate and solve challenges in the complex and highly scrutinized world of professional basketball.

A values based leadership approach also works well for people working outside the world of sports. Here’s a thought exercise you can do to start developing your own list of professional values. The next time you have five free minutes, ask yourself the following:

  • What are the values you use to guide the way you work?
  • What are the common traits and characteristics of your favorite colleagues?
  • Which traits in your colleagues frustrate you?
  • When faced with a challenge, which of your own values help you organize the way you plan your response?

As a personal challenge, try to articulate your own list of 3-5 professional values. If you feel comfortable, do this with a colleague or friend and compare your lists. Do these values line up with the values of the organization you work for? If they don’t, what can you do to start a discussion to bring these values to the forefront of your work?


Improv for Interviewers - A FastCompany Interview

Dave Collins, Founder and CEO of Oak and Reeds, was interviewed in Fast Company on ways to integrate improv into a company's interview process. Below is an excerpt of his thoughts (you can read the full interview here):

Brainstorm the questions you need to ask to get the information you need about the candidate beforehand. Have those ready, but also be prepared to go off-script if the opportunity arises. Collins uses a "question-asking funnel," where the interview starts with very broad questions, then more specific, probing questions are used as various lines of discussion develop. The key is to keep the conversation fluid, listen intently, and to be ready to follow an interesting thread when it emerges, he says.
"What I like to teach in improv is called ‘color and advance,’" he says. Use an open-ended question to get the color that the person will share in the story, then use an "advance" question to drill down into the specific skills about which you need to know.


At Goop, the lifestyle magazine famously founded by Gwynneth Paltrow, CEO Lisa Gersh leads her teams using improv techniques. In an interview with the New York Times, Gersh describes how taking an improv class led to her rethinking the way she runs meetings, divides focused and collaborative time and gains buy-in from executives.


This article describes how Palantir, a secretive data-science company in Silicon Valley, uses improv to craft its corporate culture. The article fascinatingly connects the dots of Palantir's culture (flat hierarchy, small teams and a fanatical devotion to the work at hand) to the rules of improv ("yes, and", a focus on "status transactions" and always deferring individual recognition for the good of the group). The author presents this case study as an example of how improv can be used, for better or for worse, as a cultural glue that helps to retain and motivate employees.

Also mentioned in this article is Keith Johnstone's "Impro", a must-read for anyone looking to delver deeper into the inner workings of improvisation on stage.

End Boring Meetings With Eight Simple Ideas

Take a moment and ask yourself: What was the best meeting you've attended this week? Who was there, what did you do and why was it so good? 

With so much of our time at work spent in conference rooms, it's important to think clearly and creatively about the way we spend our time together at work. Below i've put together eight simple ways you can use basic improv techniques to be more productive, engaged and entertained in your next meeting.

1. While everyone arrives, use a warm-up activity to set a collaborative tone


Meetings almost never start exactly on time, so instead of silently checking your email, why not use those first five minutes productively? In groups of 3-4, challenge teams to come up with as many ideas as possible for this year’s company holiday party. For the first two minutes, every sentence during the brainstorm must start with “yes, but”. For the next round, all sentences must start with “yes, and”. After both rounds are done, discuss as a group how changing “but” to “yes” altered the way you worked together. 

2. During the meeting, assign points of view

If your meeting involves brainstorming or providing feedback on ideas, try assigning “roles” to participants. Normal titles like “CFO”, “President”, “Finance Director” or more creative roles like “Elon Musk”, “The Queen of England”, or “An Excitable Eight-Year-Old” allow people to step outside their own experiences to think about how other people might perceive an idea. This technique encourages outside perspectives and new ideas that may not otherwise make it into the conversation.

3. Turn your challenge into a story

In eight sentences, you can tell the beginning/middle/end of any business objective by filling in the following blanks: “Once upon a time...Every day...But, one day...Because of that...Because of that...Because of that... Until, finally...And, ever since then…”. Try writing a few different versions out loud as a group and see if you can spark a new line of thinking on your KPIs and goals. 

4. Take turns asking “dumb” questions

We often say “there are no dumb questions” but still find that nobody asks any questions for fear of, well, looking dumb. Take a moment the next time someone explains a new or complex topic and propose that everyone in the room ask at least one “dumb” question. This helps mask any embarrassment and may provide important answers people might otherwise never receive.

5. Acknowledge that body language is part of a meeting’s dialogue.

If someone is learning back in their chair, staring off into space, or checking their phone, these are clear indicators that they are not engaged. When this happens, pause and check in with disengaged attendees and ask what they’re trying to say with their body language. “I noticed that a few of us are not engaged in the discussion, is this topic valuable for you?” is a way to address this kind of issue. Conversely, if people are making eye contact, leaning in towards the speaker and nodding their heads, acknowledge these behaviors and confirm that what you’re seeing is in line with what you’re hearing. Connecting the dots between what people are saying with their bodies and with their words helps to ensure that all meeting participants understand and agree to the decisions made in the room.

6. Help virtual participants feel included by describing the room

It’s very easy to lose track or forget about the people on the phone. Remember to regularly verbalize what’s going on in the room to make sure that remote participants are aware of the current mood and energy. Quick comments like “Everyone seems to be nodding”, “I see a lot of smiles around the table” or “Omar just brought in a delicious looking burrito and now we’re all jealously watching him eat it” help remote participants contribute to the conversation in more precise and productive ways.

7. Brainstorm “bad” ideas

Brainstorm Bad Ideas

The next time you and your team are stuck on a tough problem, try a “reverse brainstorm”. As a group, write down ten terrible ideas that would only make the problem worse. Often these terrible ideas are just a tweak or two away from a creative idea that would actually solve the problem.

8. Create an agenda and send it out ahead of time

I know this isn’t improv, but it seriously works! Every meeting needs an agenda, and if you’re struggling to come up with one, you probably don’t need to meet. Often the most productive meetings are the ones that never occur.