Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration
Kelly Leonard & Tom Yorton
Improvisation is essentially about accepting an idea – the ‘Yes’ and adding to it – the ‘And’, regardless of what you may at first think of it, and regardless of who first contributed the idea. The concept behind Yes, And is that if we apply improv thinking we can generate ideas more quickly, we work as a team (or more accurately an ensemble) more effectively, we are better listeners, we weather storms more easily, and we aren’t burdened by a fear of failure. In contrast, ‘No’, or ‘Yes, But’ thinking, are popular in the world of work because they allow one party to maintain control of an idea or conversation.
The more we work with folks from the business world, the more we have come to understand that despite all the planning, processes, controls, and governance, business is one big act of improvisation” Kelly Leonard & Tom Yorton
Second City is the world-renowned improvisational comedy theatre and school based in Chicago. It launched the careers of celebrated comic performers such as Tina Fey and John Belushi and has fine-tuned the art of improvisation. Through this book, the authors have attempted to share some of their approach, using examples from organisations they have worked with and their own successes and failures, to help people understand the benefits of adopting an improvisational mind-set.
The seven core elements of improv are:
- Yes, And: When people are building on and supporting each other’s ideas quickly, they tend to filter and judge less, and when you take off filters at the early stages, you allow ideas to go to new places
- Ensemble: The subtle difference between a team – forming one of the sides of a contest – and an ensemble, where all the parts are working together, without hierarchy
- Co-creation: Highlights how important dialogue with customers and each other is in creating new products, processes, and relationships. It’s about finding the idea, not your idea, ceding control, and eradicating the fear of failure or of looking foolish
- Authenticity: Aiming for a respectful but irreverent leadership so that people are unafraid to speak the truth to those in power, and challenge convention. For example: project management company Basecamp conduct product ‘roasts’ to point out design and production flaws so that they can constantly improve. Second City organise a funny but very honest staff revue show which has brought about real improvements in staff conditions. Another company issues an internal newsletter featuring senior management slip ups to make staff feel it is OK to admit when things have gone wrong
- Failure: Teaching us that not only is it okay to fail (everyone does at some point), but that we should always include it as part of our process; for example, providing a platform for new ideas, and letting staff know that their job isn’t on the line every time they take a shot and miss
- Follow the Follower: which gives any member of the group the chance to assume a leadership role
- Listening: Active listening is the Yes – to excel in improvisational listening, you also need the And. Listening well is about learning to stay in the moment, listening to the very end of the sentence, and knowing the difference between listening to understand and listening merely to respond
Some improvisation examples to try out are:
Last word response – a listening exercise
Pair people up and instruct them to have a conversation about anything at all, business-related or not. The only catch is that participants must begin whatever they say with the last word spoken by their partner.
Exposure – getting rid of fear through focus
Divide your group into two lines, facing each other, ten feet apart. Ask the group to just look at each other. Give this some time, and once there is notable fidgeting and discomfort, have them look somewhere else in the room, to complete a counting task (eg bricks, ceiling tiles). The team will note that when given a clear focus/task, any discomfort they felt will quickly disappear, which shows them that when they are feeling uncomfortable in any environment, having a clear focus on a task will help them through.
Thank you statues – enhance ability to voice ideas without fear of judgement
Get the group into a large circle. Ask for a volunteer to go first, and they then step into the circle to strike any sort of pose. Once he or she is set, another participant steps into the middle, taps the person on the shoulder so that they know to move back to the circle, and the second participant then assumes their own pose. The first person will say ‘thank you’ and take their place back in the circle. After a couple of rounds, the group picks up the tempo so that things move more quickly. Eventually, they stop tapping the person out and just go one-by-one to the middle and take a pose that builds on those of others already there, ultimately creating a statue. When two people are left in the circle, ask them to name the statue that has been created.
Wikipedia and Linux, the open-source operating system, are two brilliant real world examples of Yes, And thinking – where people have built on what has gone before. While the book alone may not fully equip you to establish an actively listening effective ensemble it does at the very least provide enough ideas to get the ball rolling. The fun will surely follow.
** About the authors Kelly Leonard is executive vice president of The Second City. He has overseen productions with many notable performers including Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Leonard co-founded Second City Theatricals, and has collaborated with organisations like The Chicago Tribune, Norwegian Cruise Line and Lyric Opera Chicago.
Tom Yorton uses improvisation to help business professionals in his role as CEO of Second City Works. Tom formerly worked in senior advertising and marketing roles at Ogilvy & Mather, Sears and 3Com. Yorton writes and speaks widely on his undying belief in the power of improvisation and humour to improve individual performance and transform organisations.
** Reviews “Accepting and building on what others have initiated, Yes, And is the best teamwork advice for the stage or the boardroom.” Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter
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Author: Kelly Leonard & Tom Yorton