By: Jay Reid
Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton’s Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration - Lessons from The Second City has a very long title. It also covers how seven practical elements of improv (Yes And, Ensemble, Co-Creation, Authenticity, Failure, Follow-The-Follow and Listening) can help you become a more compelling leader and collaborative follower. Below is a list of my seven favourite quotes, exercises and otherwise interesting bits.
But first a disclaimer... The idea of applying improv techniques to business are not new. A quick Amazon search of “business improv” yields books dating back to 1998 on the subject. So why do we need this book? Think about how rapidly we communicate today and how fast industries are disrupted as compared to 20 years ago. Our increasingly unpredictable business world is growing into improv rather than out of it. This type of education is becoming less of a nice-to-have and more of a need-to-have.
“We’ve announced the opening of a permanent Second City Theatre in Montreal three times over the last 20 twenty years. To date, we have never opened a theatre in Montreal.” (pg. 140)
Who doesn’t love a good corporate failure story when you know the group made it on the other-side? The chapter, “Using Failure” begins with a list of Second City blunders and six failure tips. Leonard and Yorton recommending failing publically, together, fast, free of judgement, with confidence and incrementally.
Another Second City blunder dates back to the 90’s when Adam Mackay (Anchorman, Funny Or Die) and Brian Stack (Conan) rented out a storefront theatre in Chicago. However, this time actors wouldn’t go for comedy, instead they would exclusively improvise dramatic scenes.
“Sound pretentious? It was...One favourite moment was when Del Close, a much-revered Second City alum and teacher, showed up to the performance. Just as the house lights began to dim he found out the show was going to be dramatic improv...which propelled him from his seat and out of the theatre just as the stage lights were ascending.” (pg 141)
This chapter examines how practicing improv can help you stay present, balance giving and taking and how to build an ensemble versus a team. Teams - a number of person’s forming one of the sides in game or context - imply competition where as ensemble - all the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is consider only in relation to the whole - implies a group unto itself with shared-accountability.
I took to the section called; Surrendering the Need to Be Right - probably because I’m admittedly sometimes this person. Anyone else?
“Take a moment and think about the most difficult people you have encountered, be it in your office, in your family, as an organization or at an event...Chances are they had an insatiable need to be right and rather piss off everyone else than surrender an inch. These people are destructive; they keep innovation at bay.” (pg. 75)
“In the course of improvising with an ensemble you quickly learn that nothing works if you cling to your ideas of what’s right, true or funny. (pg. 80)”
Exercise to build Ensembles: Talk Without I
How to play: Pair up and have conversation about anything at all - without using the word “I”. See how this helps speakers focus on being aware of each other.
“According to Forbes columnist Glenn Lopis, 85 percent of what we know we learn through listening, and 45 percent of our wordays are spent listening, yet humans only listen at a 25 percent comprehension rate. More alarming Lopis finds that only 2 percent of professionals have taken any formal training in listening skills. It’s hard to imagine such a nonchalance about a foundational skill all of us need...” (pg. 195)
Exercise to Build Listening Skills: String of Pearls
How to play: Form a line of at least 4 people. The person at the front of the line is given a starting sentence (ie. “I drove my car into the car wash and forgot to close my windows.”) and the last person in line is given an seemingly unconnected ending sentence (ie. “I’m now a big Argos fan.” The people in the centre of the line each improvise one sentence in order to connect the first and last lines through a cohesive progression. This helps people to listen closely and think hard about other contributions.
“We get hatemail at Second City. But the difference between our company and yours is that we’re likely to frame that hate mail and put in on display in our lobby…” (pg. 132).
In my experience as an improv teacher, people new to improv mistakenly assume it is synonymous with ‘winging-it’. Improv is not a replacement for esoteric knowledge or a way to hide the truth. It’s most often the opposite, a practice of trust and open communication.
This section highlights the importance of dialogue inside your ensemble and with your consumers in developing new products and processes. Second City’s free Improv Set is used as example of how they receive real-time feedback with it’s consumer in developing new material in an environment where failure is accepted. The Improv Set is free. Co-creation requires the eradication of fear, relinquishing control and moving to the notion of ‘find the idea, not your idea.’
“This concept can be a hard sell, because when an ensemble is engaged in co-creation, ideas no longer belong to the individual who came up with them.”(pg. 86)
Exercise for Co-Creation: Thank You Statues
How to play: Form a circle. Have one person step into the middle and strike any pose. The next person enters and strikes a complimentary pose. The first person says “Thank you” to the second and joins the circle again. Rinse and repeat. This exercises creates a judgement-free zone, where members focus on supporting others ideas.
6) Yes, And
This improv concept of acceptance and collaboration can be applied effectively in overcoming objections, conflict resolution, ensemble-building and brainstorming. What’s less talked about is what Yes And isn’t and how it can be applied dangerously. It’s important to realize these are improv tools not rules.
Example of an anti-Yes And:
“Yes And...Go Hang Yourself: Sometimes you can see when people’s actions are clearing going to take them to the brink. If you don’t like them, simply Yes And their idea. That way, you can ruin them without ever being blamed for not being a team player.” (pg 48).
7) Follow the Follower
This section examines the change-dynamic improvisers adopt wherein leadership roles are in constant flux. Great improvisers are vigilantly aware of when to lead, when to follow and when to get out of the way. So too are great leaders.
“If you have to demand respect, you never had it in the first place…” (pg. 187).
This book is a living example of the rapid pace of change and how business is an act of improvisation. The authors dedicate five pages to sharing Second City’s relationship with the Norwegian Cruise Lines and since the publishing in 2015 this relationship has ended. No doubt, Second City will find a way to adapt to this and any other unforeseen events, thanks to their well-honed improv toolkit.