Rule number one in improvisation is that when you are tasked as a group to make something out of nothing, you can’t start with the word “no.” You also can’t simply say “yes.” To build something original as a team, you must begin with “Yes, And.”
Because great original work isn’t easy. In fact, it most often emanates from some discomfort. This can be a real physical discomfort that pushes us to innovate a better wine bottle opener or more comfortable mattress; or it can be a societal discomfort, how do we feed more people or how to we provide a better education for those without access to well equipped or well staffed schools.
These are all real world, tactical issues. But the fact is, most working human beings are part of teams and groups that are also tasked with some level of original thinking. New slogans, new software, new processes or new methods of employee engagement.
A “Yes, And” approach does a few things.
- It speaks to an individual orientation of not only accepting someone else’s idea, but building on that idea – even if it might seem a bit crazy.
- It also speaks to a group orientation, with broad participation and increased value on every contribution.
In some ways, “Yes, And” makes “No” a whole lot easier.
The fact is, people are not practiced at working well in groups. Except for the occasional team building workshop, there is no group “warm up,” no group “practice” before we set off on our collective working day. This would seem unfathomable in sports. No team practice? You won’t win.
At Second City, we call our teams “ensembles.” And there’s a reason for this. The ensemble is an orientation, a guiding practice, a methodology that various individuals move in and out of all the time. Indeed, that means the ensemble changes – sometimes dramatically so – with each addition and subtraction. But the same “Yes, And” principles apply.
Here’s another thing about ensembles. We’ve all heard the adage that “we’re only as good as our weakest member.” We don’t buy that. We offer, instead, that “an ensemble is only as good as it’s ability to compensate for its weakest member.” In our world, the onus isn’t put back on the individual, it’s put back on the group. Because at any given time one of us will be the weakest member. And it’s at those crucial moments that great ensembles reveal themselves.
And what about leaders?
We have some thoughts on that as well. We were leading a workshop for The Spertus Institute in Chicago, covering some basic improv exercises. We began playing the game “Follow the Follower,” which is a silent game in which an individual is picked to be leader, and the rest of the group has to imitate their movements until the individual – in silence – successfully hands off leadership to another. The rest of the players need to keep keenly aware to recognize the new leader and begin following their lead.
Dr. Hal Lewis, who runs the center, pulled me aside and said, “You know you’re teaching Peter Drucker’s theories on management. This is all about a flat organizational structure.” I nodded in agreement and then went home and looked-up Peter Drucker. Hal was right.
There’s a great improv phrase, “All of us are better than one of us.” Great leaders know how to lead and how to follow. In Sydney Finkelstein’s terrific book, “SuperBosses,” he calls this kind of leadership, “hands on delegation.” Leadership operates in a dynamic that is decidedly non hierarchical in nature. Leadership is a practice, not a position. We’ve all seen amazing leaders who are nowhere near the top of the corporate food chain. Just as we have seen singularly terrible leaders who are running the show.
Our lab for understanding this work is about 60 years old. We’ve been actively beta-testing these theories in our classrooms and on our stages for decades. Just recently, we made the initiative to move from anecdote to actual. We are teaming with the Center for Decision Research (CDR) at the Booth School to test out our improvisational theories and practices with a broad swath of scientists and researchers.
I really like the language that we put in our proposal with the CDR: “This research initiative examines improvisation in a more expansive sense: as an elemental feature of human experience in an inescapably dynamic and social world…In essence, we can make it possible for people to practice being unpracticed, and thus to encounter life’s many such moments with greater courage, resilience, and success.”
Editor’s note: Kelly Leonard has served in executive creative roles at The Second City in Chicago for nearly three decades. He has developed productions with such talent as Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Keegan Michael Key, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Steve Carell and more.
His book, “Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City” – about the seven elements used in improvisation and how these elements can be used in business to improve creativity and collaboration – was released by Harpercollins in 2015.
Kelly has presented at The Aspen Ideas Festival, TEDxBroadway, Chicago Ideas Week and The Wharton School of Business. He currently hosts the podcast, “Getting to Yes, And” which has featured conversations with Dan Pink, Christie Hefner, Mike Birbiglia and more.
He agreed to write a guest blog for Janus Dialogs for which he has our enduring gratitude.