I would like to tell you a story. I was in Germany just before the first lockdown, invited by a large international outdoor clothing company. They invited me because they had realised, as an organisation, that while being recognised as one of the world’s most ‘sustainable’ companies, who have pioneered good practice and who do amazing work supporting environmental campaigners around the world, they were not, in their daily actions, acting as though this is a climate and ecological emergency.
On the first evening we did lots of exercises and activities together, and the next day, we did an exercise I called ‘The Walk of What If’. I divided them into groups of 6 and together they went out for a walk in the snow and the mountains where we were based. The invitation was to come up with as many ‘What If’ questions they could in response to the overarching What If question “what if, in everything that it did, this company were to act as though this was a climate and ecological emergency?”
There were though, I told them, just two rules. The first was that they were not to feel constrained by ‘What Is’, such as current budgets or development plans, rather to think big and bold and ambitious. The second was that when someone suggested a What If question, no-one was allowed to respond by saying ‘yes, but’, only ‘yes, and’. ‘Yes, but’ is where good ideas go to die. Those two words shut down possibility. You will all have encountered it when you suggest good ideas: “yes, but it’s too late/too idealistic/too expensive/just not possible”.
Yes and, on the other hand, opens up possibilities. I learned it from studying theatrical improvisation. Someone makes a suggestion, inviting the other person to build on their idea. One person might say “what do you think of my hat?”, even though they clearly aren’t wearing one. ‘Yes but … you’re not wearing one” would shut down any further creativity. Saying “yes and it’s amazing… what does that handle on the side do?” opens up further explorations, and trust between the actors. ‘Yes and’ takes us to places that could only have arisen through the trust and co-operation of those involved.
So our friends headed out into the snow, suggesting What If questions that were then met with Yes And responses. After an hour they came back in an almost altered state of consciousness. It was quite something! And they returned with armfuls of What If questions. By the end of the day we had taken several of those ideas and worked them up into initiatives the company could initiate tomorrow. I was left with a profound sense of how different it feels when we create a culture of ‘Yes, and’, and of what it would be like to live in a ‘Yes, and’ world.
What if the next 10 years actually turned out OK? What if they were 10 years of the most profound, exquisite and delicious change, and they were remembered as the years of a Revolution of the Imagination? What if we actually did this?
The final thought I want to leave you with comes from US climate change journalist Eric Holthaus, who wrote in an article last year, “All this probably feels radical right now. In 2025, it won’t”