Taking a cue from masters of improvisation like Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert can help you stay flexible. By applying the basic philosophy of improv theatre to business, known as the “yes, and” principle, you can unlock your company’s untapped potential for growth.
“It’s how two performers who’ve never met before can create a successful scene in seconds,” says Lisa Linke, a 15-year improv veteran and a facilitator at Second City Communications, the corporate training division of the world-famous improv theatre in Chicago.
The strategy is comprised of two essential actions, she says. First, saying “yes” to the circumstances by going with the flow acknowledges, affirms and validates what the other performer says. Then comes the “and,” when you add your own perspective to give the scene forward momentum.
“If I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you just say, ‘Yeah…’ we’re kind of at a standstill,” explains Tina Fey, an alum of The Second City, in her popular memoir Bossypants (Reagan Arthur Books, 2011). “But if I say, ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures,’ now we’re getting somewhere.”
Here’s how adopting the “yes, and” principle can help you come up with new ideas to adapt and grow your business.
Say “yes” by accepting reality.
While it’s natural to resist new, unfamiliar circumstances, such as the departure of a valuable employee or an industry-wide technology shift, change is inevitable. Instead of complaining about what you can’t control, giving in and saying “yes” to your company’s new reality empowers you to channel energy into developing a creative response.
The best examples of the value of saying “yes,” Linke says, come from businesses that infamously said “no.” Remember record companies? “The music industry fought and fought against moving to online music sales, and in the interim Apple stepped in by creating iTunes,” she says.
On the other hand, the founders of user-review site Yelp embraced the power of “yes, and” by pivoting from their original idea. The company was founded in 2004 as a service to help friends share local recommendations over email, but it didn’t take off as the founders expected it would.
They did notice, however, that users were gravitating towards a feature that allowed them to write reviews of local businesses. Instead of holding tight to their initial intention, they relaunched Yelp the following year as an online review service. Today, it attracts over 100 million unique visitors per month.
Say “and” by collaborating to create something new.
The “yes, and” philosophy can also come in handy when hunting for potential solutions to a difficult problem. Leaders who cultivate a collaborative environment can yield surprisingly original ideas from their team. When employees believe their ideas are valued and accepted, they are more willing to take creative risks.
“Acceptance isn’t the same as agreement,” Linke says. “You can say ‘no’ to an idea in a way that continues the dialogue and makes people feel acknowledged and validated.” By first making sure someone knows they’ve been heard, she says, they’re more likely to listen to your view. And you’re more likely to learn something you didn’t know.
“Sometimes we expect to bring a solution to the table all by ourselves, fully formed and wrapped in a pretty bow,” Linke says. “But we have a saying in improv: ‘Bring a brick, not a cathedral.’ ”
The maxim is designed to remind performers that the real power – and fun – of creating with a group is inspiring each other. It doesn’t happen when one individual introduces complete ideas (cathedrals) and forces others to go along with them. Instead, the best ideas come when each person contributes something small (bricks), and the group uses those components to build something greater than the sum of its parts. “By not attempting to control every single thing, we create something none of us could have envisioned on our own,” Linke says.