"…despite all the planning, processes, controls, and governance, business is one big act of improvisation."
When most of us think of The Second City, we jump to the famed improvisational theater in Chicago that brought us the likes of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and a host of SNL cast members who make us laugh every week. We certainly do not readily associate the work of The Second City with business skills; however, in Yes, And, executives from The Second City, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton show us how improvisation is an essential element in building successful businesses today. Improvisation spurs creativity by building on individual contributions, being open to ideas, leveraging strengths of the ensemble, listening and knowing when to follow. Throughout the book, the authors share improvisational exercises that can help us excel in uncharted circumstances and create a masterpiece from scratch.
The greatest improvisers are fantastic listeners
"Listen at every level – to the words, the emotions, the intent of the other or others. Be completely open to them, bring nothing preconceived or prepared to the moment. Listen then speak only to what you’ve heard. Do that, and you can’t go wrong."
Being a great improviser requires us to master the art of listening. I mistakenly believed that great theater improvisers entered the stage with a basic agenda; however, Yes, And revealed that the art of the craft is based not on pushing preconceived content, but on listening, building on others’ contributions and sharing the responsibility of moving the scene forward. Improvisational listeners arrive prepared, but they quickly let go of ideas that don’t work and move in sync with ensemble members, clients and the environment.
Get outside your head
"…self-consciousness smothers our ability to communicate effectively. But an individual who is steeped in the practice of listening can keep the demons of self-doubt at bay when this happens. It allows them to focus on the ideas and other people in the room, not on themselves."
As a person with type A personality, I revel in thinking ahead, brainstorming worst-case scenarios and making contingency plans, partly because I am afraid of not having a solution when one is needed most. While improvisation does not suggest casting away careful planning, it does insist on letting go of control over certain situations and being present. For example, in meetings I am guilty of planning my response while colleagues are still talking. Improvisation demands that we suspend that kind of distraction and devote our full attention to the speaker. Doing so can help lead the dialog to unexpected solutions and will signal to others that you value their contributions.
One of the improvisation exercises Leonard and Yorton suggest to build listening skills is called Last Word Response. In this exercise, two individuals converse, but each individual’s response must start with the other speaker’s last word. The authors give this example:
Person 1: Boy, I love hot summer days. Can’t wait to go for a run and jump into the pool after work.
Person 2: Work has been hard lately. I’m really struggling to connect with my new boss.
By needing to hear the last word of your partner’s sentence in order to begin your own response, this improvisation exercise forces you to stay in the moment and listen all the way through. You can’t check out or craft your response because you have no idea how your partner will end the conversation.
Become fluent in speaking without words
"Improvisational listeners are more effective listeners because they go into every conversation looking to build on what the other person offers … they understand that their advocacy is grounded in and improved by what is actually being said by others."
One of the most memorable stories in Yes, And that the authors describe is working with an advertising company having difficulty retaining clients. In the post-mortem, executives found that their employees lost business because they were misreading clients’ signals. To help really hear people, Leonard and Yorton suggest refining our ability to read physical cues or micro expressions through an exercise called the Gibberish Game. In this exercise, two people have an entire conversation in gibberish – made up words and sounds – while a third person translates what they are saying by reading their expressions and tone of voice. Taking the skills and principles from this exercise, the advertising company was able to make a turnaround. By becoming an improvisational listener who reads physical cues, we can begin really hearing others, even when they don’t articulate feelings or thoughts in words.
As a part of my training at business school, my classmates and I participated in a Second City Works improvisation workshop. The exercises challenged me in the right ways, and Yes, And provides a fantastic overview and extension of that improvisational philosophy. The exercises Yes, And contains are particularly helpful for leaders to use with their ensembles and for individuals to mull over in everyday interactions. Tell us if you’ve loved improvisational training as much as I have and how you are still using it in practice today.