Getting to Yes, And

Wendy Smith: Both/And Thinking


Wendy Smith

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Kelly sits down with Wendy Smith, the Academic Director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the University of Delaware where she is also a Professor of Management to talk about a new book she co-wrote with Marianne Lewis, “Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems.”

In talking about both/and thinking, you introduce the idea of finding your mule. Talk about that.

“Oftentimes, when people ask what's the benefit of both and thinking, they think there's going to be this ideal creative integration and we call it ‘the mule.’ because the mule is this biological hybrid of the donkey and the horse: the best of the donkey, the best of the horse. And, in some ways, that's your ideal. So, in the book, we talk about creative geniuses often bring together opposition to come up with their best idea.”

So there is a section of the book where I was seeing a complete parallel to how Second City creates its shows and the mastering of paradoxes and dualities. We have a set of rules that consistently shifts as the context shifts.

“Part of being able to live in both/and is having boundaries and having dynamics: being able to have some structure, some boundaries, some scaffolding to hold us together. And constantly being dynamic, because these paradoxes are shifting and moving over time. What that looks like is exactly what you're talking about: we have some rules, we have some clear boundaries, we have some guardrails. And those boundaries and guardrails actually allow us to be more creative and try new things and be experimental. So we're playing with that duality of structure and dynamism or change structure and change stability and change to allow us to live in these paradoxes.”

In improvisation, we teach the practice of being comfortable in your discomfort and that seems to be a big part of navigating paradox.

“Navigating paradox is hard. I don't want to make it seem easy at all. It leads us to be defensive, it introduces uncertainty, and, oh my goodness, during the pandemic, I saw this just bubble up how anxious and uncomfortable we all got with uncertainty or mental health challenges. We see this with leaders, with having to navigate ongoing competing demands of their staff. It's hard and one of the things that we know is that in order for people to navigate these paradoxes, it's not about getting rid of the discomfort that exists - it's about being comfortable in the discomfort. That's what we talk about: there's the emotional piece, which is, how do we create the conditions to be comfortable in the discomfort of living in paradox?”

Follow Wendy on Twitter.

Photo credit: Kathy Atkinson

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