Pixar and Plussing

In improvisational theatre, one of the cardinal principles is that you “accept every offer.” What this means in practice for improv performers is that they simply go with the situation they are given and work with it.

Imagine if Mina says to Zak, “The weather forecaster is calling for an overcast sky and a thirty percent chance of a world destroying meteorite for tonight and tomorrow.” To which Zak might reply, “I heard that. Fortunately, the temperature will be warming up with that meteorite. The high tomorrow should be 230 degrees.” Accepting this line, Mina might respond by saying, “It’s a good thing that we installed that central air and got the ice maker working.”

Of course, this is a silly exchange. The point of this example is to show that nothing is too silly to work with for improv performers using the “accept every offer” principle. How much harder would it have been for Mina and Zak to create a skit, if Zak had not taken up the path of Mina’s original statement. If he responded with “What a stupid forecast,” the exchange would have stopped right there.

Many times when we are having conversations, it is hard for us to restrain our desire to be critical (in the sense of evaluating what is being said against our own standards) and to disagree with a small or trivial point. When we do that, we often kill the discussion and shut off the flow of ideas and thoughts.

At Pixar, the animation studio that has brought out blockbuster computer animated movies such as Finding Nemo and the ground breaking Toy Story, they have adopted and refined the “accept every offer” concept in order to develop story ideas and keep the conversation and flights of imagination going during the creative process. Their version is referred to within the company as plussing. The refinement is that they tack an “and” on to the “accept every offer” technique.

As an example, consider the situation where a director is working with an animator on a scene. The director may not like much about the entire sequence. However, she will identify one aspect of the scene she does like (perhaps the movement of the main character) and then say “I like how Huck’s body twists as he swings the bat and what if he were to smile as he does that?” Now the animator has some feedback to build on. Notice that “and” does not imply judgment as the word “but” would have. Rather, “and” opens up the possibilities for discussing ideas and thoughts.

I believe this is a very powerful technique for encouraging the sharing of ideas and for allowing concepts to develop. In the initial stages, creative ideas are fragile and the individuals proposing them are very sensitive to judgment and criticism.

I will be trying this technique out at my office and I challenge you to try using it, too. Please share your thoughts on plussing and the results of using this technique in the comments section.

(This post borrows liberally from the section on plussing in the book Little Bets by Peter Sims. I would encourage you to read this book for some wonderful suggestions and techniques for developing great ideas in organizations.)

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