Improv Leadership

I’ve been enjoying Jonah Lehrer’s book on creativity, and something jumped out at me. In the chapter called, “Letting Go,” Lehrer describes the approach to improvisation at Second City, the premier comedy/improv school in America (with alumni that includes John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and many others):

Lehrer writes that the students “begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and . . .’ The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before. They need to instantly agree—that’s the ‘yes’ part—and then start setting up the next joke.”

Often leadership can devolve into a monologue: the point leader knows “the script”, and they simply dictate their vision and directives to the audience (the staff or team), who then respond accordingly. Needless to say, there is not much creative or collaborative about this environment, and even the most talented leader is missing out on the creative input of the audience/team.

But true collaboration—and all the benefits that come with it—involves embracing the “Yes, and …” philosophy of improvisation. Basically, this means a leader must…

  • confess that he or she does not have the “end of the story” written already; the other participants (team/staff members) are full contributors to the reality of the plot
  • choose to stimulate the improvisational creativity in a meeting or rehearsal by “never questioning what came before”; this means that suggestions and ideas must be accepted and built upon and only very rarely squashed
  • realize that even ideas that seem too far outside of the box can still be agreed to, understanding that improvisation is a process, and even though you may say, “Yes” to that idea, the “and” part means that it is open to change (a reality that the idea contributor needs to own as well)
  • acknowledge the fact that—even though they still have the option to say, “No,”—if they do so they risk squashing the creative process (there will be times this is okay, but discernment is necessary)

Though this culture can be uncomfortable for some contributors (after all, not everyone is comfortable playing improvisational jazz), it can be an amazing creative tool. If you are seeking to increase the level of collaboration and creativity on your staff or team, try embracing this “Yes, and…” philosophy to your meetings. Let the ideas flow and morph and change, and watch the energy level grow and rise from your staff.

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