How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity

Improvisation 26
In Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration The Second City Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton say that:

We are at our happiest and most successful when we are working as improvisers. When we are fiercely following the elements of improvisation, we generate ideas both quickly and efficiently; we're more engaged with out coworkers; our interactions with clients become richer or more long-standing; we weather rough storms with more aplomb, and we don't work burdened by fear of failure.

When we are in full improviser mode, we become better leaders and better followers; likewise, we hear things that we didn't hear before because we are listening deeply and fully in the moment.

When he interviewed Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, Adam Bryant learned that when hiring the company looks for certain qualities that go beyond coding. Such qualities are “the ability to process on the fly,” a “willingness to relinquish power,” “ease with creating space for others to contribute,” and “individuals who can learn how to learn from failure.”

They are the qualities of an improviser, and they can be learned:

practicing improvisation is like yoga for your professional development — a solid, strengthening workout that improves emotional intelligence, teaches you to pivot out of tight and uncomfortable spaces, and helps you become both a more compelling leader and a more collaborative follower.

Even better, these qualities are fully transferable to your life outside the office. The benefits of improvisation can extend to your personal relationships, whether with your partner, your family, or your friends.

The book is divided into eight chapters, and includes a back story on the writing collaboration.

1. The business of funny

Sets the stage for the seven elements of improv that follow. This is something we don't typically learn in business school, yet we want to fill the room with truth and trust:

Laughter can be part of that. The one piece they don't teach you in business school is the role of laughter and humor, [yet], I can't think of a single important contract, acquisition, sale, event — for that matter any hiring or firing that I've done — when there hasn't been some humor in it, or some laughter.

[…] professional success often rests on the same pillars that form the foundation of great comedy improv: Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration.

2. Yes, and: how to make something out of nothing

The first element is the bedrock of all improvisation:

Creative breakthroughs occur in environments where ideas are not just fully explored, but heightened and stretched to levels that might seem absurd at first.

[…] Work cultures that embrace Yes, And are more inventive, quicker to solve problems, and more likely to have engaged employees that organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly.

It's not about acting out on everything, but giving every idea a chance.

3. How to build an ensemble

We work as sales teams, executive boards, retail staff, to become competitive, and yet:

little attention is paid to building, maintaining, and developing ensembles.

The consequences of that oversight are all around us, from the conference room full of smart people more interested in showing off their brain power than actually solving a problem to the leader who takes credit for success and dodges accountability for failure, to the individual who whitewashes all of his or her problems.

Many great performances and stars developed out of ensembles.

4. The co-creation story, or audience want in on the act

The sum of co-creation is greater than its parts:

dialogues push stories further than monologues.

[…] in our increasingly connected world, co-creation is fast becoming a fact of life. Unfortunately, it is not usually taught or applied in the very corners where it is needed most.

5. Change is hard: comedy and improvisation make it easier

Authenticity paves the way for shared truth:

Rather than pretend that problems and failure don't exist, strong leaders and organizations acknowledge what is not working. They encourage team members and demonstrate their respect for the organization by questioning the status quo, challenging assumptions and traditions that may not be working, and calling out the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear.

[…] comedy and irreverence are lubricants that encourage people to reconsider long-standing beliefs that may be holding them back.

As in everything, mastery is in learning to navigate the fine line between respect and reverence.

6. Using failure

More than an abstraction, failure is:

something we commit to every time we walk on stage. 

[…] by acknowledging the mistake and incorporating it in the narrative, something new and unexpected happens that makes the audience go wild.

Too often we are told that failure is not an option, but the opposite is true. It's vital to give failure a role in your process. The biggest threat to creativity is fear, especially the fear of failure. By deflating the negative power of failure, you erode fear and allow creativity to flourish.

Failure should be baked into the creative process, a necessary, even interesting means to an end.

7. Follow the follower

When Peter Drucker introduced the concept of the knowledge worker and the idea of flat organizations, American theater and improv pioneer Viola Spolin proposed “Follow the follower:”

as a more active and dynamic way to provide leadership while working within and ensemble. It is a principle that gives the group the flexibility to allow any member to assume leadership for as long as his or her expertise is needed, and then to shuffle the hierarchy again once the group's needs change.

[…] Leadership is more about understanding status than maintaining status. In other words, it's about recognizing the great power that comes in giving up the role of top dog on occasion.

8. Listening is a muscle

Listening is critical to many parts of business:

Many of us believe that we are good listeners, but there is a huge difference between listening to understand and listening while waiting for a chance to respond. One enriches and broadens our perspective; the other feeds our need to be right and in control of the conversation.

[…] most of the world operates in the listening-to-respond mode. 

Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton say:

When people no longer feel limited to saying what is right or polite — when they are given freedom to express themselves in public, without inhibition or fear — that's when the funny happens.

The book teaches us how to use the tools of improv comedy to communicate more openly and honestly, especially during the most difficult conversations.


[image by Wassily Kandinsky]