Kathy Madison, Comtech Services

Did we have fun at this year’s Best Practices Conferences in Burlington, VT?  “Yes, And…” we also had many opportunities to fine-tune our management skills via several interactive sessions. The keynote speaker, Bob Kulhan, had us on our feet, shaking our hands, simulating a roller-coaster and collaborating with other participants most of Monday morning.  The energy he brought to the opening session was a driving force through-out the conference.

The theme of Bob’s presentation was how to incorporate improvisation into day to day activities, such as, stimulating creativity and innovation. He defined improvisation as:

  • Reacting – being focused and present, the moment
  • Adapting – reacting within parameters or to achieve a specific objective
  • Communicating – we never operate in a vacuum

Through several role-playing improvisation exercises, Bob was quickly able to show us some of the barriers to effective collaboration, including: difficulty making novel associations, ineffective problem-solving language and/or processes (i.e. one person talking non-stop, allowing no questions), fear of being judged or not conforming to pressure, and inappropriate mental and physical states (uninterested, tiredness, lack of passion, too excited, etc.) To address these barriers, we learned the value of starting a conversation with “Yes, And…” instead of “Yes, But…”. We were also reminded that energy is a choice and that negativity is contiguous.

Bob provided several tips for conducting meetings, with one of his favorites being: “always stand up”.  People are more inclined to participate when standing and are less likely to become disengaged. He couldn’t stress the importance of “standing up” enough, he said he’s even seen organizations that have removed the chairs from their conference rooms!  He encouraged us to stand at our next team meeting, especially with conference calls, he said we’ll know when people on the phone are standing and we’ll be amazed at the difference it will make.

To tie everything together, Bob shared the importance of divergence and convergence when you are in a collaborative decision-making meeting. You need to allocate time for first creating choices, i.e. diverging, and then time for making choices, i.e. converging. It doesn’t matter how long you spend on each activity, it’s just important that you separate the activities.  When creating choices, allow everyone on the team to contribute ideas BEFORE challenging or running with those ideas. This process will encourage new ideas and keep the creative juices flowing more smoothly than if each idea is shut down as they are presented.

In the final discussions, the following key action items rose to the top as being immediately applicable:

  • Set “ground rules” for meetings to help meeting participants distinguish between meetings with different purposes and to clarify the separation between divergent & convergent thinking portions of the meeting.
  • Utilize “Yes, And” as a tool during internal team meetings, and key stakeholder meetings, to increase inclusion, empowerment, creativity and ownership of ideas and processes.
  • Use physical warm-ups, to infuse energy (which is contagious) and increase mental performance at the start of key meetings.

Bob ended his session by asking the participants to list some of their own take-a-ways on flip-charts. Some of those take-aways were:

  • “Yes, And” increases creativity, efficiency and communications
  • “Yes, But” increases conflict, fear, time wasted and dis-engagements (i.e. shut down)
  • Energy is a choice. Energy increases mental prep, communication, positive attitude and open-mindedness
  • Active listing leads to mutual respect which promotes a high-trust environment and encourages participation
  • Enter into conversations with an open mind, no agenda or judgment. Let everyone brainstorm without editing or filtering
  • Separate divergent and convergent activities
  • Practice “Yes, And” with people outside of work, especially with family members
  • Move More!

During many of the presentations that followed the keynote, we heard the speakers fielding questions with “Yes, And…” even in the Goat Market, which allowed participants to get advice on some of their own challenges.  Other sessions included talks on adaptation, innovation, collaboration and negotiation; 15-minute roundtable discussions; and a brain-storming session on how to engage better with colleges and universities who are producing our next generation of technical writers. We also had two roll-playing sessions led by Dawn Stevens who incorporated many of the keynote’s ideas.

In the evenings, the fun continued. We started the conference with a welcome reception overlooking the beautiful sunset on Lake Champlain and during the last evening we went to a local comedy club. At the comedy club, we were entertained by small troupe of improv artists who enlisted the help from several of our conference attendees. Who knew writers were such great actors! The troupe ended their performance with a short skit about our industry in the 50s… even using the phrase “technical type-writerist”!

Yes, this year’s conference was a success… And…. we hope you’ll join us for next year’s Best Practices Conference slated for September in the Seattle Area.