Using the Power Of Improvisation to Boost Organizational Momentum
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Episode 56 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio, Episode 56: Using the Power Of Improvisation to Boost Organizational Momentum. This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth, On the web at www.businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement, Incorporated, and right across from me is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. As always, I am just so happy to be together with you again for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. If this is your first time listening, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of success. So Pam, you just returned from a pretty powerful experience. Tell us about that.
Pam Harper: It really was. I was at Michael Port’s Heroic Public Speaking Live Event − which was down in Ft. Lauderdale − and it was last week, which was in February.
Scott Harper: Yeah. I had below zero, and you had seventy degrees. It was a wonderful experience.
Pam Harper: Yes. What a powerful experience it was. First of all, I’m a big believer that you always have to keep learning.
Scott Harper: Right.
Pam Harper: Public speaking and connecting and performing is something that we can always get better at in so many ways. Michael Port, incidentally, is the author of the book Steal the Show, which is a book we’re going to be talking about in an upcoming book pairing episode.
Scott Harper: That’s right.
Pam Harper: One of the big things that we learned, among many, was about the power of improvisation. I never really thought about how many ways we improvise in life. As I was sitting there, I was thinking about an incident that happened a while back, where I was working with a group … I was consulting to a company that was in the process of accelerating on their journey of growth through collaboration − and this was a big change in the company.
Specifically, I remember that I had been talking with a number of groups in the company about some different things that they were going to need to be learning and communicating differently among themselves. One particular group was very resistant to what I was talking about. As we were going along, I could start seeing arms crossed. Now this was something that had been very well received in other sessions, but in this particular group there were a lot of people who just sat there in this U and they had their arms crossed and frowns on their faces, and it was looking very, very bad.
Scott Harper: Not a receptive audience…
Pam Harper: I thought, “I have a choice here.” I’m either going to keep on going with what I was going to talk about or I was going to stop and I was going to look at them and I was going to find out what was going on. I made the second choice, and I was so glad I did. It was not exactly what I thought they would say, but it was important.
Scott Harper: What did they say?
Pam Harper: What they said was, “We think you’re a spy.” I said, “What?!” This was a group that was filled with people who were pretty down to earth, and I was able to joke with them a little bit. I said, “You’re right. I am. Why would you think I’m a spy?” They pointed to a window in the room and they said, “That looks like a one-way mirror, and I bet you that people are sitting in there looking at us.”
Scott Harper: Was it?
Pam Harper: Actually, of course, it was just a window with curtains.
Scott Harper: Okay…
Pam Harper: I said, “No, that’s not it at all. What in fact is happening though − you are right. I am talking about more than just the topic.” In fact, the leadership wanted to understand more of some of the issues and concerns that were going on across the company. I said to them, “Look, I’m here for you and there is legitimate learning that can take place, but at the same time I am trying to get information. I’m trying to find out collectively what’s going on, what your views are about various topics.” I said, “If you’re willing to share that with me, I am willing to take this over to the executive team, and we can talk about it and then they can do something about some of the things that they need to know about.” The people looked at me and I looked at them and they said, “Okay.”
Scott Harper: Wow, so by dropping agenda and getting off of your set talk and really listening and eliciting and being authentic, it sounds like you broke through − well I know you did − you broke through that barrier and really got to a higher level of performance.
Pam Harper: It was very exciting in a way, because when they started working with me, not only was I able to understand more of what was going on, they were able to gain something because it was real learning that they could have in terms of communication and collaboration. That was all there. I was able to take this over to the executive committee, and they took action; this was a group that really cared about making things happen for their company. We were able to significantly boost momentum in the organization this way.
Scott Harper: Now thinking about this sort of unintentional improv that you did, when you were back in the context of the Heroic Public Speaking Event and the improv session you went to there − how did you bring that together? What insight came out of that?
Pam Harper: We have to be willing to drop our agendas. I had done it instinctively, but how often we can make these conscious choices? So rather than just pushing information out of people − and that point was made at the conference − rather than just pushing the information out, we have to engage so it’s a flow between us and the audience, and the audience and us. We have to work together and wecan build something much greater than any of us individually could do.
Scott Harper: Really, being more aware of the elements of improvisation and how you can build and be conscious of what it takes − being present and building on the person or people you’re working with − that really can help.
Having talked about this now that you’re back from the event, it seems very relevant for us now to revisit a conversation we had back in Episode 44 with Kelly Leonard, one of the luminaries in the world of improvisational theater. He’s co-author of the best-selling book Yes And: Lessons from the Second City, and he’s also the president and CEO of Kelly Leonard Productions. He’s also aligned as creative advisor with Second City Comedy Club in Chicago, where we used to visit fairly frequently when we lived in Chicago.
He’s worked there since 1988, so is very experienced in the world of improv. He’s worked with Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler and many, many others that are household names now, and he founded Second City Theatricals, the division of the company that develops live entertainment all over the world. You can see more of his biography on growthignitersradio.com, Episode 56.
It occurred to us that digging deeper with Kelly about the power of “Yes, And,” and the power of improvisation really is appropriate now, with our higher awareness of this really important skill.
Pam Harper: You never stop improvising…
Scott Harper: You never stop improvising. So with that, let’s go back and revisit our conversation about the Power of Yes, And with Kelly Leonard. Let’s listen…
Pam Harper: … Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper, who’s missing today. Scott’s still out sick and I’m improvising with Kelly Leonard of Kelly Leonard Productions and The Second City about the power of improvisation in business as well as in entertainment. Kelly, how can people find out more about you and your various ventures?
Kelly Leonard: They can find me still at www.secondcity.com. I’m on LinkedIn, and also on Twitter @KLsecondcity.
Pam Harper: Okay. There are a lot of good things that are coming up. I was checking on the website just yesterday, and it looks like a full range of offerings that are there.
Let’s go back to our conversation. You were saying, we don’t learn about this kind of improvisation in school − not as much as we need to anyway. So what does it mean to say “yes, and?”
Kelly Leonard: Yeah; “yes, and” is ground zero for all improvisation, and the idea there is that we actually live in a “no but” culture. People love saying no, and no is really a tool for people who are acting out of fear or want control. Conversely saying yes is great, but it’s not the only thing. What you have to do is you have to affirm and contribute. You have to say “yes, and” if you want to create an innovative, creative culture.
Pam Harper: What would be an example of that, Kelly?
Kelly Leonard: Say you’re in a brainstorming session with your staff, and someone comes up with something that sounds like a silly idea. When you shoot down that idea immediately − “no, that won’t work; nope, bad idea,” − you’re not just shooting down the idea you’re shooting down the person. There’s every reason to believe that that person will not offer up another idea because they don’t want to look silly or stupid in front of their boss or their co-workers. The reality is that no great invention ever came out fully baked, and no invention for the most part didn’t sound incredibly stupid at some point.
There are so many stories about how accidents turned into successes. I mean, the iPod was trafficked around to tons of people before Apple picked up on it. No one thought that was a good idea. I do tons of these talks to different business groups and when we talk about “Yes, And,” invariably there’s a guy in the back who raises his hand that says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. If I Yes, And everything I won’t get any work done.” What we’re not saying is that you “Yes, And” jumping off a bridge. What we’re saying is that if you are involved in the act of making something out of nothing. Right? Just think about it, very broad.
Pam Harper: Right.
Kelly Leonard: In the act of making something out of nothing, you have to − if you want the most abundant amount of ideas − you have to at least “Yes, And” at the beginning. Give it 15 minutes, just 15 minute just to “Yes, And,” and at that point you’re going to see more people contributing; more ideas are going to come up. By the way, one of the things that you do when you Yes, And a lot is it makes it a lot easier and faster to say no, because everyone feels that they’ve been heard. You see all these ideas on a white board. You can start killing off the ones that really don’t work, and it’s all fine. Egos are held in check; people are excited because they are at least being heard. You get to better ideas when you Yes, And.
Pam Harper: So, “Yes” in this case really means “yes I’ve heard you, I accept your idea…”
Kelly Leonard: That’s it.
Pam Harper: And not necessarily that I agree with the idea.
Kelly Leonard: Right, exactly. And then the “and” part is “and where else in our collaboration can this idea go?” We have a phrase that “we’re not looking for your idea, we’re looking for the best idea.” What that means is that a lot of invention, a lot of stuff that gets made − many hands contribute to them. We all know that. I mean, people don’t do the stuff − rarely do they do it just by themselves alone. If a lot of people are involved in making something happen, you should have them all contribute at a certain level together to make that happen. It’s really about control. A lot of bad leaders don’t want to “Yes, And” because they don’t want to have other people get credit, or they are afraid that they won’t be able to control the outcome. You never control the outcome in business − you can’t. The markets change, times change, things change. We live in a culture of change. That’s why the improvisers toolkit is so important, because it’s change-oriented.
Pam Harper: That’s a good thing.
Kelly Leonard: Its behaviors are about real human behaviors and real markets, and you have to learn how to pivot when you’re an improviser − and guess what, if you’re a business person you got to know how to pivot.
Pam Harper: That’s definitely true. Is there anything else that we should know before we talk about something else? As far as what it doesn’t mean.
Kelly Leonard: Yeah, right. This is the interesting thing about Second City − is that we have such an affirmative and powerful and positive training module to create content that is very edgy and very challenging and sometimes very dark. That’s what happens on a Second City stage. One of our great mottos is “Dare to offend” at the Second City. We’re not pollyannic about the fact that one needs to say no all the time in business. We’re just saying that if you want to be an innovative business you have to start with “yes, and.” What you shouldn’t do is go straight to no.
Pam Harper: This is a good foundation − and in the book, you talk about the difference between building and ensemble − which I understand is very important in improvisation − versus teams per se. I can understand a bit about how it would benefit the Second City, based on what you’re saying, but how would it benefit other types of businesses?
Kelly Leonard: In business we ask a lot of our business teams or business units, and yet we don’t equip them with all the tools they need to be successful as a group of people working together. In improvisation there’s all these rules about ensemble-oriented behaviors − how do you get the most out of your group that’s improvising on stage? It’s all behavioral science essentially, so you can translate that to any working environment. One of the adages I love that comes from our work is we’ve all heard the term “your team is only as good as its weakest member.”
In Second City we’ve changed that. Our saying is “your team or your ensemble is only as good as its ability to compensate for its weakest member.” The distinction there is what you’re not doing is putting the onus just on the weakest member − on the individual. You’re putting the onus back on the team or the ensemble, because at any given time, one of us is going to be the weakest member. No one person has all the answers. No one person is good at everything. I’m going to be the weakest person at a certain point, and at that moment when I’m the weakest person what I really want is the power of the group to take me forward rather than be ostracized. The reverse happens so often in business − that when someone is not good at something they are shunned. That’s just psychologically dumb; it’s not good. It doesn’t build stronger, more resilient business people at all.
Ensemble behaviors − and we talked a lot about it in the book − are things sometimes that are just as simple as showing up on time, and knowing the importance of showing up on time, and what that means with regard to respecting the time of the rest of the group. Then it gets granular and deep into other kinds of ensemble behaviors, but we are huge believers in the power of the ensemble.
I can tell you … I’ve worked at Second City so many years, and I’ve produced so many shows. What separates a great Second City show from a not great Second City show is when there is a bad ensemble member − when there’s someone inside that ensemble who doesn’t believe in the power of the group, who doesn’t exhibit and model good ensemble behaviors − that makes the product less good.
Pam Harper: Now, the other thing I thought was interesting about the concept of ensemble that you talk about in the book is that it’s a great way to deal with the issue of having all the right talent…
Kelly Leonard: Right, yeah.
Pam Harper: That’s a really interesting thing.
Kelly Leonard: It is. The other thing aspect of business when you’re looking to build an ensemble, like we build the cast, what you don’t want is everyone who thinks the same way. What you don’t want is everyone who has the exact same skill set. Because there’s power in matching introverts and extroverts; there’s power in diversity; there’s power in different kinds of gender. You know, when we look at the Second City cast, we’re looking for writers and clowns and singers and actors, and it’s rare that one person can do all of that. You look to balance out your group, and diversity is a huge part of that − and that’s very broadly − all kinds of diversity. I think that that is something that a lot of businesses look at as an onus rather than something that’s actually an important attribute for your company. You need to be diverse; if you want to reach the broadest audience, make sure your own audience is diverse inside, and you get the better shows and you get the better products.
Pam Harper: Absolutely, and the other thing that I see in this is so often when we’re working with clients, the issue is one of talent acquisition − “Oh, we’re so dependent upon this particular person.” What you’re saying that I really like is that you really focus on the value that the whole ensemble brings, which means that your talent… − I mean you’ve had so many that have gone on to other things, and you weren’t captive to that one person.
Kelly Leonard: Exactly, and that’s something that I really had to learn over time. Because when you’re working with Stephen Colbert or Tina Fey and decide to leave, it’s not a great feeling because you know what they bring to your team. But what happens it that they go, and the ensemble is still there, and someone new steps into that role and they do great. That’s been basically the premise of Second City since 1959, and it’s the reason that we’ve thrown out so much great talent. You’re starting with people like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and now you’re producing people like Amy Poehler and Keegan-Michael Key. It’s like, “What is the ingredient to success there?” It was because the ensemble was the important thing and it never left, and we didn’t try to own our talent. We basically gave really talented people a series of rules and behaviors that made them stronger.
Pam Harper: One other thing Kelly is you talk in the book about the power of co-creation, which Scott and I have championed in our work. Can you tell us about how the Second City co-creates with its audience, and the parallel that goes with say applying it to any other kind of company?
Kelly Leonard: Sure. You asked earlier why we wrote the book, and one of the reasons that I didn’t mention at the time was you wake up one day and you realize that your business essentially is the way the world works now. What does Second City do? We create short form content interactively − that’s what we do − and like, “Oh, that’s YouTube;” that’s Google; that’s everything now.
When we create our shows at Second City through improvisation we are asking the audience for suggestions. But then we’re also using their real time response to gauge whether things are working or not, and we re-improvise scenes a number of times to get the material right, and it’s all based on the rhythms and the response that the audience is giving us. Living in the world today, so many brands are realizing that no matter what thing they make or what their business is, that they are in conversation with their audience. Maybe through marketing, but maybe through developing the very product that they use. When you look at what Second City has done over the years, we’ve created a model for co-creation; we’ve created a model for being in conversation with our audience as a way to develop our content but also spread the word of our content.
There’s a number of things that go into that; probably the biggest is realizing that if you’re going to be developing your content with an audience you’re going to be showing them not just your successes, you’re going to showing them your failures. That’s a dirty word, the “failure” word, for a lot of businesses, but he fact is there are ways to use your failures as a powerful addition to the process of creating your content.
Pam Harper: Sure − you’re learning from it.
Kelly Leonard: Yeah, you’re learning from it, and you just have to … You’ve got to do some stuff. You got to fail fast; you got to fail together; you got to fail in context, and there’s ways of doing that that are not going to put your brand at risk. They’re just going to help you make your brand stronger.
Pam Harper: That makes a lot of sense. We’re going to take another quick break and when we come back we’ll speak more with Kelly Leonard about immediately useful steps for bringing the power of improvisation and yes, and thinking to your own company. Stay with us…
During this holiday season Scott and I want to thank you for being part of the Growth Igniters Radio Community. This has been amazing as a learning experience for us, and we want to hear from you out there about the value you’ve been getting from what we’ve been producing every week since February of this year. Go to www.GrowthIgnitersRadio.com and click “contact us” at the bottom of the page; who knows − you might see your testimonial up on our website.
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Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two settlements I have been talking with Kelly Leonard of Kelly Leonard Productions and the famous Second City and author of Yes, And about the power of improvisation and co-creation in businesses and organizations of all kinds. Kelly − can you tell us again how people can find out about Yes, And and about all the other ventures, between Kelly Leonard Productions and The Second City.
Kelly Leonard: Yup − you can head to SecondCity.com where there’s tons of information on the Second City and Second City Works, our corporate arm. You can follow me on LinkedIn, and I’m on Twitter @KLSecondCity.
Pam Harper: We’ll also put a link under resources for this episode page − that’s www.GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 44, so people can go and visit that way as well.
Back to our conversation. We are at the point where we ask our guest about three pieces of immediately actionable advice so that as soon as they’re done, we want people to put down their iPhones and say, “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do right now.” What’s the first thing that you might suggest for putting the power of “Yes, And” to work?
Kelly Leonard: I’ve heard people say that they’re not getting enough creative ideas out of their employees − not enough ideas. The fact is if you have people who work for you – all ideas coming from people − you’re not getting to the people enough to get the ideas. So what we recommend is creating short but inclusive brainstorming sessions every single week, even multiple times during the week. Let’s just say it’s 15 minutes − people across different silos and different parts of the business − bring them together to collaborate and come up with ideas. And the key there is, you can’t say “no.” For that 15 minutes, every idea has to be listened to, every idea has to be said “yes” and to, and then see what happens. Because I think a couple of things are going to happen. First of all you’re going to have more ideas − you’re going to have more good ideas, but you’re also going to have employees who are more excited to come to work and contribute even more ideas. That’s the first one.
Pam Harper: Okay. Let’s talk about the next one.
Kelly Leonard: The other one is about creating a culture of innovation. Innovation doesn’t just happen because you send a memo. You got to have a culture that speaks to that, and that’s all about what I call creating failure modules. You would have to have places where bosses and employees can model their failures. For us, we do it as part of our nightly improv set where we’re testing up material late at night. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s free. It’s easy and fast to fail. What are other ways that companies can do it?
Some like to celebrate their bad ideas by doing roasts at the end of the year where they make fun of all the terrible business decisions that a bunch of different people have had. To sharing our epic fails sometimes is a lot of … It’s fun but it also shows specially younger employee that successful bosses failed plenty of times and so they shouldn’t be reticent about coming up with new ideas for fear of failing. You can have fun with hate mail, and have fun with the way people have negatively interacted with your brand as a way to sort of getting the truth. That’s where the comedy part of this comes in, because a lot of comedy is about uncomfortable truths and anyone in business have to deal with a lot of uncomfortable truths.
Pam Harper: Kelly, how do you make it safe for people to do this? Because some of the things you’re talking about are really edgy.
Kelly Leonard: Some of them you can just do internally.
Pam Harper: Okay.
Kelly Leonard: When we’re talking about a culture of innovation, it really is about what’s going on inside that business that’s not allowing it to externally be as innovative. That means that internally people have to feel that it’s okay to come up with challenging ideas, and some of those are not going to be good, because if we don’t succeed 100% of the time. In improvisation itself, a 30% success rate is fantastic, and a lot of people I think would say to themselves, “Oh man, if I’m at my job and I’m only succeeding 30% of the time I’m going to get fired.” That’s probably the ratio you’re at, and it’s maybe even less − look at a baseball player. If he’s hitting 30% of the time he might be going for title, a national batting title. There are internal ways you can contextualize failures, and there’s some external ways that are possible. That is trickier, but that is something that Second City does. We’ve been doing for, man, for over 55 years − presenting these late night improv sets which are sometimes people’s favorite part of the show, and yet the failure rate is really high on those.
Pam Harper: What’s the difference between a failure where you say, “This is really a failure; we can’t do anything with it,” and maybe an idea that has a germ of some possibility to it − it’s just not quite so successful yet?
Kelly Leonard: Yeah, in our world when we create a show and put it up and it gets terrible reviews and no one comes, that’s a failure. That’s not a failure you want to repeat, and that’s not a failure that anyone is enjoying. The kinds of failures that we look to embrace at Second City are small, they’re portable, they’re fast and they’re part of the process to getting to the end. They’re not the end; we’re not saying we want to fail, what we’re saying is we are going to fail along the way so why not have places built into our process of creation where those failures are allowed to sort of exist and be dealt with out in the open.
Sometimes they can reveal themselves to be mistakes that are worth paying attention to. Maybe along the way a little failure will show you that, “Oh, what if we went this direction instead?” That’s happened a lot I know in my business career.
I remember one of the earliest examples of that that I had was when I was director of sales in Second City. A group that had been booking regularly, it’s a big group like 100 people, came to the show had terrible experience. They didn’t like the show, they spilled drinks on them; there was a problem with what they got charged, and this person said, “I’m never coming to Second City again,” to me.
I really was, “What do I do? How do I save this client?” I offered up, I said, “Look, you know, we made a big mistake. If you give us one more chance I will comp your tickets for as long as you want to come to Second City − free tickets.” They ended up coming back, they had a great time, and when I made the offer for the comp tickets the next time, they said no, that they’d be happy to pay. It was sort of like, “Okay, a little risky, there’s a big chance of failure there,” but I steered into it, I steered into the failure and got them as what was a lifelong client.
Pam Harper: That’s a wonderful story. Do you also find that the more that leaders in companies or clients are willing to exemplify and really go with this concept that people around them in their ensemble feel more comfortable doing it themselves?
Kelly Leonard: Completely. That’s vital. That’s a huge part of leadership. The leaders that I admire and the ones who I find are the most successful carry with them real human traits that are relatable. That’s how they’re leading; they’re leading by example. And part of that example is, “I fail; I fail often. You are going too as well. Don’t let it keep you inert and don’t let it keep you static. Use your failure.” Absolutely modeling these behaviors is essential because they are otherwise meaningless − they are word on a paper.
Pam Harper: Okay, for all you leaders that are there who are listening, you’re the ones who are going to set the stage here. Kelly, we have time for one more quick idea. What could somebody do, I mean literally right now, that would enable them to practice “yes and” concepts?
Kelly Leonard: Yeah − there are variety of improvisational games that when you play them in groups, they improve certain kinds of skills. My favorite one is telling a story one-word-at-a-time. So let’s say you got five people in your particular group − what you do is you gather them together and you say, “We’re going to tell a story but we’re going to have to have to do it one word at a time − each person saying one word at a time.” What happens in the playing of the game is that it forces you to listen, and it forces you to cede control, because sometimes the word you have to say is “the” or “and;” you’re not going to get the adjective, because you got to keep the story going. And the story can get screwed up, and sometimes people going to say two words and they have to go back.
Playing games like that − improvisation games − I would say it’s like yoga for your social skills. It gives you a tune up in an area that is vital for people who want to be creative and innovative. They have to listen, they have to be empathetic to others. These games strengthen those skills. Playing “one word story” will make you a better listener, it’ll make you more empathetic person and it’ll bring the team together.
Pam Harper: That’s a great example. In fact, one of the things I really liked in your book is you had a number of these games in the back of the book. People can open this up and choose from − there were have to be at least ten of them that you could choose from and take with your groups and practice. I just love it.
So Kelly, any final thoughts about this whole concept of improvisation in business?
Kelly Leonard: I think the most important thing is to realize that we’re all human beings, whether we’re entering our home or entering our business. We have human being traits and what improvisation does is takes a very specific aspect of our humanness − the part of us looking to collaborate and build things together − and we have skills building and we’ve got practices and methodology that make individuals just better at that. And that’s an important ingredient. It’s not the whole thing. It’s not going to deliver everything to a business, but it is going to help with your people inside your business in make them better contributors.
Pam Harper: It’s a starting point, and it keeps everything going. Kelly, thank you again for being our guest in Growth Igniters Radio.
Kelly Leonard: Thanks for having me.
Pam Harper: To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media to find out upcoming episodes, or open a conversation with us go to www.GrowthIgnitersRadio.com and select episode 44.
Until next time, this is Pam Harper wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to discuss − How can we start using the principles of improvisation to increase creativity and collaboration in our company today?