We knew any presentation by actors from The Second City, Chicago's world-famous improvisation troupe, would be funny. But who knew we would walk away with key insights into creating a collaborative work environment?
Yet that's exactly what happened after we participated in an exercise led by Second City actors Colleen Murray and Mark Sutton at our recent Client Summit. Murray and Sutton asked us and the 200 other participants to break into groups of three for an exercise that taught us a valuable lesson about the power of positive reinforcement in fostering creativity and innovation.
The exercise started off with an imagined scenario: plan a memorable company party. One person in each group was designated as the party planner. Their task? Come up with some creative party ideas. The other two members were instructed to listen to each new idea, but then reject it and explain why. The negative responses had a chilling effect on the person pitching new ideas. Even the most creative types gave up after four or five ideas. They lost their ability to come up with anything in the face of all that negativity.
Next, Murray and Sutton instructed the three-person groups to rotate roles. Now a new person pitched ideas while the other two listened. But this time, instead of rejecting the ideas outright, the listeners were instructed to use a more subtle "yes, but…" response and share why the idea wouldn't work. Again, it was a frustrating experience for the idea givers, who quit after trying a few times and getting nowhere.
Finally, the groups were instructed to rotate roles again. This time the two listeners were to use the phrase "yes, and…" to acknowledge, affirm, and build on the idea. The "yes, and…" response made all the difference. Ideas flowed. The groups generated innovative, creative approaches that none of the individuals would have come up with on their own. The increase in energy and collaboration was palpable as the room buzzed with animated conversations, laughing, high fives, and every other behavior you would expect to see when people are genuinely engaged with each other.
What's the response to new ideas in your department? Do people feel compelled to say "no" and explain why an idea won't work? Or are they more subtle, using a "yes, but…" approach? Or are you fortunate to work in a department that uses the most affirming "yes, and…" response? What's the impact on creativity and innovation within your team as a result?
If you want to use the techniques of improv to improve your team's creativity and collaboration, apply our three key takeaways from the Second City session.
Focus on making your team members look good. What's right about their idea? How could it work? People with big egos aren't very good at improvisation because they constantly want to look better than the other person rather than work with the team to bring out the group's best. As Murray and Sutton explained, new team members often try hard to come up with funny lines and insert them into that night's show. Even when the new team member is successful in wedging in a punch line, it rarely gets the kind of laugh the newbie had hoped for. Usually, something completely unexpected and spontaneous gets the biggest laugh. But that only happens, Murray and Sutton explained, when the actors focus on making their fellow cast members look good, instead of trying to steal the spotlight for themselves.
Another exercise we participated in was listening carefully to what our improv partners were saying—especially to their last word. That's because we had to start our sentences with that word after they finished. We were amazed we could put aside our concerns about what we'd say next as we really focused on what our partners were saying. This exercise drove home how working together to keep the conversation going creates a profound communication partnership that's rarely experienced at work.
Listening, affirming, and collaborating requires time and attention. It can be hard work. Too often, people aren't communicating as much as they are taking turns having separate conversations. That's not good for improv and it's not good for collaboration in the workplace either. By saying "thank you," or "I understand," or "tell me more," you bring out the best in people—which brings out the best in your group.
The funniest moments in improv occur when cast members focus on others and create space for something new and unexpected to happen. That's when one plus one equals more than two. When we focus on others and encourage their best, we set the stage for the magic of creativity, innovation, and collaboration.