company culture

Want to build a better team? Consider the rules of improv

Originally published on June 10, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail.
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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.

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What do eBay, Coke, Proctor & Gamble, GE, Whirlpool and 3M have in Common?

04_11_14_NYInnovation

Recently these companies, and others, participated in the Unleashing Innovation Summit in NYC which I had the pleasure of attending.  There were organizations from around the globe that came together to focus on innovation with an emphasis on people and culture.  It was great to see innovation thought leaders discussing this very critical issue and have them reinforce what I have believed and practiced for over 15 years.  There was lots of sharing of experience on what worked and what didn’t when adopting an innovation focused culture.

So What’s Working…

From the group of participants it appears that companies are doing a good job at identifying the opportunities to address and are managing through the process of innovation rather well.  In their approach, large companies are striving to emulate small company’s entrepreneurism.  Companies are forming non-traditional partnerships and looking within their organization to their employees for solutions to improve the customer experience.  As an example we heard first hand about the success and challenges overcome in the design and launch of Coke Freestyle.  From the experience I have had leading change initiatives, leaders traditionally find the process improvement portion to be the easier part, mastering it more quickly.  This appears to hold true in the evolution of the adoption of innovation.

Today’s Challenges…

From case studies, fireside chats and storytelling we learned that the challenge of ingraining innovation into the culture was a difficult one facing many companies.  Also, the majority of companies are still grappling with the vulnerability of risk.  While we all understand the benefits of “fail, fail fast and fail often” it is still difficult to successfully make that part of an organization’s culture.  A culture where employees are not punished for making mistakes appears to still be a rarity.  Some of the successful cultural initiatives to overcome this we heard about included Innovation Day at United Health Group, Viz Kitchen from eBay and the BASF Cultural Ambassador program as forums to involve employees and even in some cases customers in the innovation process.

As a change leader I’ve found that fully delivering a cultural change takes effort and time.  The effort put forth in ensuring all of the moving parts align can be daunting but pays big dividends.  And affording the needed time to not only do it right the first time but in allowing employees to adapt and adjust is not something you can fast forward through – there just aren’t any short cuts to quality change.

The Future…

For me, the signs are clearer now than ever.  Organizations are looking within for ways to better delight customers, engage employees and impact their bottom line.  For companies wanting to do this through innovation the biggest challenge appears to be fostering a culture of innovation.  For us innovative change agents, our time has come!

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Delivering on Your Brand’s Promise?

Being a Leader

Getting the most from employees starts with giving them what they need. This doesn’t include a chorus of Kumbaya and a round of group hugs but it does mean investing time and energy into understanding them. And here’s the amazing thing that happens when you invest time in your employees, it pays dividends.

Harvard Business Review has indicated that highly engaged employees, on average, are 50% more likely to exceed expectations than the least-engaged. And companies with highly engaged people outperform firms with the most disengaged folks – by 54% in employee retention, by 89% in customer satisfaction and fourfold in revenue growth.

And here’s the other amazing benefit of working to ensure your employees are engaged. Employees nowadays are looking for more than just a j-o-b. They are looking for an experience. And not just any old experience. They want something meaningful. And so do customers. Disney Institute and McKinsey Company recently released a report indicating that companies that focus on giving their customers a consistently exceptional experience enjoyed a 2 percentage point advantage over their peers in revenue growth and an increase in employee satisfaction and engagement of 30 percent.

And while not every company has the resources to be able to offer programs like giving employees time to work on creative projects of the employee’s choosing, I’d like to believe that every company can invest in attracting and developing strong leaders to drive employee engagement.

How do you make this happen in your organization? It starts by opening your mind, looking at things with a fresh set of eyes and asking questions. The innovators will look for better ways to do things and those brave enough will take action.

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