Verganti, R., & Norman, D. (2019, July 16, 2019). Why criticism is good for creativity. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/07/why-criticism-is-good-for-creativity (May require registration or payment.)
One of the most popular mantras for innovation is “avoid criticism.” The underlying assumption is that criticism kills the flow of creativity and the enthusiasm of a team. Aversion to criticism has significantly spread in the last 20 years, especially through the advocates of design thinking. (In 1999, in the ABC Nightline video “The Deep Dive,” which ignited the design thinking movement, criticism was stigmatized as negative.) In IDEO’s online teaching platform, the first rule of brainstorming is “defer judgment.” To make this rule even more practical and straightforward, others have reworded it to say: “When a person proposes an idea, don’t say, ‘Yes, but…’ to point out flaws in the idea; instead, say, ‘Yes, and…’” — which is intended to get people to add to the original idea.
We challenge this approach. It encourages design by committee and infuses a superficial sense of collaboration that leads to compromises and weakens ideas. Our view, the product of years of studies of and participation in innovation projects, is that effective teams do not defer critical reflection; they create through criticism.
We therefore propose a different approach: the rule of “Yes, but, and.” To explain how this rule works, let’s first discuss why criticism alone (“Yes, but…”) and ideation alone (“Yes, and…”) do not work.
The rule of “Yes, but.” The problem with this rule is that ideas, even if truly exceptional, often have major flaws. This is especially true for the most innovative ones because they dive into unexplored spaces. If someone uses the existence of a flaw to kill the idea, a great innovation may be missed.
The rule of “Yes, and.” The notion of building on an idea, rather than criticizing it, in order to maintain a creative flow might sound like a good thing. Yet without critical feedback, you would hardly understand why your original idea did not work. You would perceive the new proposal as an unrelated diversion or, most likely, a different conflicting perspective. And the team would miss the opportunity to dive deeply into the original idea. It’s moving forward without progress.
The rule of “Yes, but, and.” We suggest combining the best features of criticism with the best of ideation. When you propose Idea A, a colleague first addresses what he perceives to be a flaw in it, provides constructive feedback (this is the “but”), and then suggests a possible way to overcome or avoid the flaw, yielding Idea B (this is the “and”). Then you do the same: You acknowledge Idea B, provide a constructive critique, and develop a new, even more improved result. Others can jump in with their critiques and proposals during the process. This kind of constructive interaction encourages a deep cycle of critical dialogues that can lead to a coherent, breakthrough idea.
Note that the “but” anticipating the “and” is essential. In order to build on your idea, your colleague does not just add a new improved proposal. First, she provides a critique, which enables you to receive precious and specific information, see weaknesses in your half-backed idea you couldn’t spot yourself, and therefore learn. You and the entire team will then be ready to dive deeper into the next iteration. It is the combination of “but” and “and” that creates real progress, enabling the team to see both positive and negative components and allowing each iteration to go even deeper into the analysis.
To create breakthroughs, it is necessary to leverage the contrasts that come from critique instead of escaping them. In her research on the power of dissent, Charlan Nemeth shows that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas; rather, they stimulate them. Progress requires clashing and fusing — not compromising or postponing — different perspectives.
Francesca Gino rightfully maintains that criticism works only when it leads to enhancing and improving an idea. A key element in this process is respectful listening and acknowledgment of the talent and abilities of colleagues. When the “but” becomes an attack on the other idea (or even worse, on the other person), then the result is detrimental. Adding “and” to the “but” fosters constructive and positive criticism, turning it from an idea-killing phrase into a way of expanding the flow of creativity rather than stopping it.
Critique, Creativity, Curiosity
The rule of “Yes, but, and” must be performed with care and a significant dose of discipline. Here are a few simple guidelines.
First, when you critique another’s ideas, you need to tap into your creative mind as deeply as possible.
- When you see a weakness in the idea, don’t simply say, “This does not work.” Rather, first explain the problem and then propose an improvement that would make it work.
- When you do not understand the idea, don’t simply say, “That’s unclear to me.” Instead, first point to the specific spot that is unclear and then propose possible alternative interpretations: “Do you mean X or Y?” This helps all participants to see more detailed options.
- When you like the idea, do not just take it as it is. Instead, search for possible improvements and then push forward to make it even better.
Second, when you listen to someone’s critique of your idea, you should try to learn from it. A practical way is to listen carefully to the critique, be curious, and wonder, “Why is my colleague suggesting this contrasting view that is not in line with what I see? Perhaps there is an even more powerful idea hidden behind our two perspectives.” The critique becomes a positive force, focusing the team on overcoming its weaknesses and enhancing the original idea.
The secret of criticism in innovation lies in the joint behavior of the participants. Those offering criticism must frame their points as positive, helpful suggestions. Those who are being criticized must use critiques to learn and improve their ideas. When conducted with curiosity and respect, criticism becomes the most advanced form of creativity. It can be fascinating, passionate, fun, and always inspiring. Let us combine “Yes, and” with “Yes, but” to create the constructive and positive “Yes, but, and.”
Roberto Verganti is a professor of leadership and innovation at Politecnico di Milano, a board member of the European Innovation Council, and the author of Overcrowded. Designing Meaningful Products in a World Awash with Ideas. Don Norman is a professor and director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design. He previously was a vice president at Apple.
Here is a wonderfully witty (and informative) YouTube video by Jonah Lehrer explaining why the no criticism rule is wrong, discussing the scientific evidence. (It is fun to watch and only 2 minutes, 20 seconds long.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgPIkx2JyQU
(Thanks to Nathan Crilly of the UK's University of Cambridge for telling me about the film)