Jun 17, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail.
I was out with a friend when he announced that he was taking an improv course. He can be pretty humorous, but no one would mistake him for George Carlin. Or even Jerry Seinfeld. So, as politely as I could, I asked, “Why?”
His answer was surprisingly insightful: “Because improv comedy is about teamwork,” he said. “It’s about working together to build rapport, conversation, and a story that is engaging and compelling for the audience. If one member of the team tries to steal the spotlight, then the whole story unravels.”
He went on to say: “If I can become better at engaging and building on the ideas of others around me, then I will ultimately be more successful in my work.”
He seemed to be addressing one of the biggest challenges we all have as owners and managers; that is, building positive consensus in the face of individual dissent.
You know what I’m talking about: those brainstorming naysayers who pop up like jabbering jack-in-the-boxes with their bold proclamations like “that’ll never work,” “that’s too hard,” or “we’ll never be able to afford to do that, so why waste our time even trying?”
As an entrepreneur, nothing is more painful than hearing the words “no” or “can’t.” So the notion that improv comedy could somehow relieve my pain was enticing.
I immediately did what all inquisitive minds do these days: I Googled it. I searched the rules of improv comedy to see if I could re-purpose those principles to fit the world of business.
Naysayers beware: what I found is that ‘Yes’ is the new ‘No.’
I came upon many concepts from the art and discipline of improv that closely relate to business. They are similar because improv, like business, thrives on lively conversation, clear communication and seamless collaboration. Ultimately, both arts hinge on tapping the talents of all team members to generate bold, original ideas.
Consider a few of these rules and how they can practically apply to your work: The first rule is to agree. Ban the word ‘no’ at your brainstorming and ideation sessions. No is a full-stop. It not only quashes specific ideas, but discourages the flow of conversation in general. It makes people think, “why open my mouth to express an idea when somebody in the room is automatically going to say no to it?”
Learn to say yes to all new and different ideas. On a practical level, write all of the ideas down on Post-It notes and stick them on the wall in thematic groupings. For example, you might group them as ideas that relate to new products, new services or new processes. Or you could group new ideas by the functional areas of the business that they will impact most – sales, marketing, R&D or administration.
Once you have dozens of ideas on the wall, it’s time to use the second rule of improv: Say “yes, and…” Agree with the idea, but then add some new twist of your own. This is how we add value and substance to these original, random ideas.
Break the full team into four or five mini-teams and assign them to work on one of the identified groups of sticky notes. Their task is to review these ideas to see if they can be fleshed out, built on, embellished or combined. Bottom-line: their role is to take the original slew of ideas and translate them into three to five clearly articulated opportunities for the business to consider.
This process is not just about innovation – it’s empowering for your team as a whole. It demonstrates that everyone’s opinions, ideas and insights matter. It helps your team think more freely and openly, and not be afraid to voice what sounds like a radical idea. Crazy, stupid things such as “what if we could slip the power of the original supercomputer that filled a whole room into our coat pocket?” Some things may never happen in our lifetime, but others may surprise you and lead to offbeat new opportunities.
“Yes, and…” is powerful and empowering. It enables your team to generate a wall full of ideas and then narrow them down to more manageable numbers.