Can We Co-Create Change?

Improv co-create change

Yes, And … It’s Actually More Lasting That Way

Change is hard. Anyone trying to break a habit or start a new one can testify to that. But talk about organizational change and watch entire teams lock arms and block any attempts to disrupt the status quo and the resistance is compounded tenfold, even when the group recognizes and knows that they need to change. Why is that?

It could be that we aren’t in the habit of considering alternate views and perspectives in our daily life. We tend to see and favor what we know. That carries over into business and is exacerbated when you add company history, groupthink, and “the way we’ve always done it.” We rationalize that we barely have time for ourselves. We might believe that we have an open mind and say all of the right things. But when push comes to shove, “us and ours” is what really matters. We defend it. The minds and ears shut. Any semblance of agility or willingness to change is jettisoned to protect our position. That’s to everyone’s detriment.

Stopping At What We Know Leaves Us Short of a Change Solution

We stop at what we know to be true because it has worked for us in the past—why go farther? We find one way and run with it.

Creative fields, and improv specifically, know that there is always more than one solution to any problem. When other views are seen, explored, and added to the solution, the results are always more diverse and inclusive. That makes them inherently stronger as well. What’s required is a quick way to help people search for and visualize alternative solutions and viewpoints.

See Things Differently Through Improv

Improv exercises are designed and created specifically to improve team mental and decision agility, increase trust and support, and enhance open communications. That’s what makes improv theater work on stage and what makes students of the art able to apply it effectively to everyday life, and especially business. You want examples you say? Here are just two specific exercises that come to mind and relate especially well to agility and change.

  1. Take that Back. Participants improvise a scene based on a suggestion. On a specified cue, bell, clap, command, the speaker must rewind and replace their last statement with something different and continue the scene from that new point. This forces the players to stay in the moment, get out of their head, and really listen for the next set up.
  2. Emo Op. Working in pairs, participants start a normal conversation. Once underway, the facilitator will suggest different emotions such as angry, sad, irritated, exuberant. The conversations continue, but now reflecting their new emotions. This teaches how perception impacts our communication, and how to deal with change.

While these might seem like small steps that could never bring change to a large organization, that’s where you would be wrong. Small steps, repeated over and over is exactly how big changes are made. That’s what gets the ball rolling. Institutional change requires communication, collaboration, and the ability to see other possibilities. That’s precisely what improv training provides.

Why Your Brainstorm Was Mired In Fog

Brainstorm mired by fog

Brainstorming sessions sound like a great idea. People imagine that they’ll get the best minds together, everyone will throw out great ideas, magic will be created, and they’ll arrive at newest, best-est idea ever as a team.

The fact is that this is almost never what happens. Instead, there is a lot of awkward staring in a silent room. Maybe the expected person will contribute some nonstarters,  someone else will ball-hog the air in the room, and another will play defense in support of their idea. The result is more of a wet blanket of fog rather than a downpour and flood of ideas. That’s not what anyone signed up for. And it’s not productive.

Improv Fuels Better Brainstorming Output

The principles of improv are ideal for brainstorming because they enable creation in the moment to further the ideas presented.  What many people fail to realize is that while the improv they’ve seen on stage might be created in the moment, there is a structure and principles that guide the creation. And practice. Lots of practice. Because the artists embrace the principles, they can run with it and make it look easy. Here are four thoughts from improv to be aware of before your next brainstorming session. They create a foundation for inclusion, awareness, and moving creative ideas forward.

This is our idea – Realize from the beginning that this is going to be our project, not your project. It’s “we,” not “I.” There’s a saying at the Second City, “bring a brick, not a cathedral.” That encourages participants that they need to bring an idea or thought, not a fully formed production. Allow space for the group to add their expertise and perspective to reach the best final product, or they’ll stop contributing.

Let go of the wheel – If you try to steer this thing you’ll wreck it. Improv and brainstorming sessions should have a natural flow. It will and should bump up against the edges of what’s acceptable and realistic. If it doesn’t, you and the team aren’t there yet. Trying to wrestle control will keep you from pushing ideas to where true inspiration and insight flourish. That’s not to say they can’t benefit from guidance, but trust the process. Give this horse his head to run.

Make it a safe place – Some of the ideas and paths are going to fail, but everyone has to overcome any fear associated with that fear.  You need the off-base crazy ideas as well—they just might be the catalyst that takes the idea a leap further and sets it apart. And they need to be presented and heard without judgment. Starting with the mindset, “what if this was a good idea—where would it go next?” and Yes, And-ing what comes next allows the team to explore it together without judgment.

Set the stage for success – Not considering the group dynamics and structure is one of the biggest barriers to success. No professional troop would throw a newbie onto the stage of the main act cold. It’s the same with your business team. When you’re teaching new skills, you break the process into smaller and manageable steps. For brainstorming that might require time in smaller groups and attention to the balance and make-up of the groups. Pushing associates out of their comfort zone is is key to getting the best ideas, but push too hard too soon and they’ll shut down and not contribute.

Improv A Better Brainstorm

The result of an improv-based brainstorm is that more people are included, invested in the project, and contributing. Employers get the full benefit of the creative minds they hired. Associates get to do what they enjoy most. And the number and quality of ideas will surpass by many factors of those created in meetings stuck in a brain fog without improv.

Inclusion and Improv—Where the Top and Bottom Meet

improv improves inclusion

Inclusion-ing the Best Ideas from Anywhere

“The best ideas can come from anywhere.” Everyone has heard that phrase, and most agree with it, at least publicly. But before a great idea can be acted upon, it needs to be presented. Then it needs to be heard.

Unfortunately, those two ideas—risk-free sharing and active listening—often don’t co-exist in a corporate hierarchal structure. Many don’t share their ideas because it’s not their place and fear that they won’t be accepted. Some at the top aren’t willing to listen, believing that leading is dictating what must be done. The most innovative and agile business environments are inclusive and have steered clear of this trap. But if you don’t have that culture now, how do you get there?

Improv Necessitates Inclusion

The basic tenet of improv, “Yes, And,” requires inclusion and that the participants work together. Instead of saying “no,” which effectively crushes the direction, they “Yes, And” what their partners give them. The result is that ideas continue to build and are explored deeper. Here are some ways that improv can teach any organization to become more inclusive.

Participate Positively – Your partners are counting on you to “Yes, And” (never “no” or “yes, but). You have to say or do something, anything, or else it’s over prematurely. And nobody wants it to be over prematurely.

Listen Actively – Building from the previous, you have to actively listen to what’s being laid before you in order to build the scene. If you are listening to respond and formulating something clever, you’ll miss key points. How smart is that?

Direct Collaboratively – Studies show that the best performing groups don’t have defined leaders. Because the lead in improv continuously jumps from person to person organically, anyone forcing themselves as a “leader” will block the flow. Grabbing the spotlight doesn’t work here, sharing does.

Act Empathetically – While improv encourages spontaneous interaction, becoming aware of how your actions impact those around you is critical. The goal is always to make it work. What you give is important. How you react and reach out help others when they need it, even more so.

Receive Graciously – What your partner presents you is known as a “gift” in improv. It’s what enables you to contribute to the scene. Like all gifts, we hope we get a really great one,  but that’s not always the case. Regardless, make the most of it. That’s how you’ll set up your partners for future success.

Fail Collectively – Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Things go off the rails and crash. It happens, but it’s a good thing—and in improv, no one person’s fault. Used iteratively, groups can start where the previous idea came unglued, repair it, and move forward, together.

The New Smarter Ensemble

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” That truism has been born out time and again, from the collective intelligence of crowds to sports where collective-minded ensembles defeat individually-minded teams with superstars. Recognizing these facts and applying the improve principles above can enable any organization to have more engaged associates and increase innovation.


Why the C-Suite Hit Snooze on Your D&I Initiative and “Woke” Alarm

Why your diversity and inclusion initiative failed

Diversity creates more resilient organizations. Inclusion builds more agile teams. And C-suites everywhere hear the alarm bells ringing—and smack the snooze button again, and again. Why aren’t your diversity and inclusion initiatives getting the urgency they deserve? It could be any of the following.

1. It’s Not Lit And They’re Woke

Kidding .. what does that even mean? But it could be that the language you use to describe the diversity and inclusion initiative doesn’t resonate with your audience. If it isn’t speaking their language about the business initiatives they care about, they’ll tune it out.  “Because it’s the right thing to do,” might not enter into a business person’s field of vision. That is until it impacts the bottomline—and it ultimately will. Talk about their immediate responsibilities for innovation, agility and stronger teams. If you’re talking to those who value being “woke,” they already get it.

2. Not Funny. Not Different. Not Fun. Hard Pass.

Roll out “another Powerpoint step by step methodology to tell me blah, blah, blah that I already know” and watch the eyes glaze over. If they show up. You’re not going to get buy-in. Everyone certainly has better things to do than listen to platitudes from the rah-rah expert of the day repeat what the last one said that didn’t lead to any actionable change. You can’t bore your way to change. Said another way, you can’t impact change until you have their attention, and to get their attention you need to do something different. Talk about how you will impact innovation, agility and build stronger teams

3. Welcome to Your Roast

It’s like a bad high school cheer: “You say ‘diversity,’ I say ‘everybody but me.'” That’s what other’s thoughts might leap to when they hear diversity: “more of everybody but those like me.” To them, “Please, let me sign up for a couple of hours of how I’m ruining the world by my existence,” is not an attractive invitation. For many in the C-suite,  any of these settings could look like a trap—and they’ve spent a career avoiding those. They can easily rationalize their choices by saying that they need to focus on business activities they see as priorities. You know, like innovation, agility, and stronger teams.

Improv Makes Way For Innovation, Agility, and Stronger Teams

Improv isn’t like traditional diversity and inclusion training. It uses exercises that highlight the team as a whole and promote active listening and others’ focused awareness—key steps toward creating a diverse and inclusive environment. It brings everyone together in a safe environment where they can “Yes, And” their way to a better workplace environment for everyone, one where unusually high innovation, agility, and strong collaborative teams are the norms.

What can Improv do for your business? Find out at The Second City Works.

How Diversity Succeeds Where Monocultures Fail

Monoculture prevents innovation and diversity

Improv Makes Way For Diversity

Fact: monocultures will always be susceptible to catastrophic collapse … no exceptions. Monocultures take vast resources to resist the constant pressure of change and maintain that singular state. That might be great for a farmer and his crops (for a while) but it’s the death of agility and innovation in any environment.

Diversity Is More Than Societally Correct, It’s Smart Business

Diversity makes things stronger and more adaptable to change (NOTE: it also makes us smarter.) That applies to nature, business or anything. In nature, the Ash trees are a great example. One small change—enter the Emerald Ash Borer—and Ash trees everywhere are in peril. In business terms, you could think of them as disrupted, with dire consequences.

What Are You Sowing?

So, about your business environment—what do you see? If your business has one defined type, a monoculture, well it was nice knowing you. Change is going to happen, either to your business, your customers, or through stronger competitors. Studies show that diversified teams are more flexible, adaptable to change, and better at innovative problem-solving.  Top to bottom diversity helps to predict the organization and weather shifts from all directions.

On the Masters of Scale podcast, Sheryl Sandberg implored that diversity has to go past racial, national, age, gender, the expected examples. While all of that is important, you also need diversity in personality.  “If you are a white male who likes to code and sci-fi movies, you probably don’t want your whole team to be that,” she says. You need personalities that will drive like the devil in spurts and others that will be the calm in a storm. You need input from the center and from the edge.

Improv Fosters Diversity

All of us is better than one of us. That’s a key phrase that improv uses to build ensembles that are able to share, discover, succeed and fail together. All of these components are critical to building an organization that is others’ focused, recognizes divergent opinions, and is able to innovate and thrive on the global business stage.

The problem is that the benefits of diversity—the edge opinions, the inherent cultural insights, the different perspectives—won’t grow in the wrong environment.

Improv Provides Safe Growing Zones

It takes concerted action and trust in knowing that it’s alright to push the envelope. Trust provides the confidence and safety that their contributions are valued. Businesses that are trained in improv principles report the following:

  • More engaged employees
  • Deeper customer insights
  • More effective collaboration
  • Increased team productivity
  • Faster innovation
  • Improved global communication
  • Inclusive leadership

Improv Yes, And You Can

Improv can seem like a deceptively simple way to tackle big issues such as diversity, but that’s what makes it effective. It’s not “making it up” as you go. It’s about applying a defined set of principles, beginning with “yes, and …” (the cornerstone of improv) in situations that you and your team can learn and practice to become more effective at handling any number of situations in life and business.



Improve Bad Conversations With Improv

Improv can minimize bad conversations

Bad conversations cost businesses untold dollars every year—how much are they costing you? How much of the verbalization in your last meeting was actually beneficial to the cause? Seventy percent?  Sixty percent? Lower? The odds are if you actually timed it, the number would be startling. (You could appropriate this website for your purposes and give it a whirl next meeting.)

The result of these bad conversations are stone walls, hurdles and no’s that make communications take forever.  Worse, they don’t lead to useful conclusions. Unfortunately, many of the culprits don’t even realize the effect that they’re having. Instead of working Yes, And that could move things to the next step, they throw out the stop-strips and slow things to a crawl. Here are some of the major offenders.

Real-time Fact Checker – This person stops every conversation to re-assert, “actually” that they know more or better than whoever is talking, usually interjecting a point that is not critical to the conversation. Example: Oscar from The Office.

Aggressive Agreer – What’s the problem, they agree, right? Wrong. This person one that agrees with what was said, but has to add their own, unnecessary point, becoming almost contrarians while agreeing. Example, you say. “The sky is blue.”They say, “It’s not as blue as it used to be.” That’s not the point.

Swirler Twirler – What if … this person could make up their mind? Your meeting would be a lot shorter and move from one point to another. The swirler twirler continuously restates opposing viewpoints “to make sure we covered all of the bases.” We did. And we did it again. And again.

HEAR WHAT I SAY!! – Bring the oxygen tanks because this person is going to use all of the air in the room and you’re going to know it. How? They’re never going to cede the floor. They’re going to talk until the time is up.

Say It Again, Sam – This person waits until the meeting has reached a conclusion, then restarts the meeting by repeating what was said previously as their own thoughts. Step, by step.

Silent Denier – Think that person that hasn’t added anything to the meeting isn’t listening? Wrong. They’re waiting until the meeting is over so that they can tell everyone privately how they disagree with everything that has transpired. But they’re not going to speak now.

Teach An Old ____________ New Tricks

But there’s hope. Improv techniques can shake these aspiring conversationalist into patterns that move things forward. How? It starts with “Yes, And.” Like any change in human behavior,  becoming aware of what is verbalized and what the intended audience hears and experiences is the first step. The exercises that are the basis for improv bring these out in a natural and non-threatening way with guidance from seasoned practitioners.

The results are that conversations continue to a conclusion quickly. This can enable groups to explore more ideas and discover if they’re viable or doomed to failure. By allowing for multiple iterations, organizations find the agility and transparency that are the keys to success.

Improv Exercises In Practice

Here are some examples of how improv exercises could Yes, And the bad conversationalist above into a more aware and others’ focused state.

The Real-time Fact Checker –  Exercise: Take that Back

Aggressive Agreer -Exercise: Follow the Follower

Swirler-Twirler –Exercise: String of Pearls

HEAR WHAT I SAY!! –  Exercise: Word at a Time Story

Say It Again, Sam – Exercise: Last Word Response

Silent Denier – Exercise: Thank You Statues

You can find instructions to these exercises as well as more examples and case studies in the excellent book, ” Yes, And” by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton.