Improv to Innovate?

We’ve all heard about the value of high performance teams – those groups of people working together who make Superman’s tall leaps look like child’s play. Last week I learned about a new group – Ensembles – that make high performance teams look like beginners. Ensembles create an environment beyond teams, where reduced inhibitions allow creative solutions to flow freely, support between members builds true trust, and the entire process creates tremendous energy.

The Second City has turned out some of America’s best comedians during its 25 year history in Chicago. John Belushi, Martin Short, and Mike Myers are just three of the dozens of recognizable names to play the stages on Chicago’s north side. The organization prides itself on its unique brand of improvisation. Now, The Second City is helping business leaders get more from their organizations by applying the same improvisation basics to situations at work.

The team from The Second City opened one of their theaters to the MENG organization to show us how we can put their ideas to use in our lives. They gave us four ideas that can help all of us improve our work with people around us and move us closer to working as an ensemble.

Second City ChicagoThe first of these was the drive to eliminate the fourth wall. In the improv world, the fourth wall is the separation between the cast on stage and the audience. Much of The Second City’s success derives from their ability to actively engage the audience in their routines. The cast prepares ideas and basic storylines, but key areas are left blank in order for the audience to contribute their ideas; like the subject of the blues song the cast will sing or the contents of an imaginary box. These contributions allow the audience to share ownership of the skit and have a vested interest in its success.

The same ownership and vested interest can exist in the workplace. Leaders must set basic direction and lay the frameworks for success, but it’s critical that we all work to tear down that fourth wall and involve as many people as possible in building the organization’s future. Engaging these people improves the ultimate decision and facilitates execution of final plans.

The second lesson was to always accept what is given to you. How often do we answer questions or comments with “yeah, but”? The “but” almost always stops the discussion in its track and closes the possibility of building on the original idea. Instead, accept what you are given by replying “yes and…” Just that simple change validates the idea and starts to build momentum for the conversation and the thought process.

Another hindrance to the free flow of ideas is the way we approach suggestions and solutions. Often we can find ourselves in positions where we try to prescribe a particular solution, rather than looking for the best solution. This can happen when we tell people what they should do, rather than suggesting solutions. Language again plays a critical role and the words “Have you thought about this?” can make a huge difference in how your suggestion is received.

Finally, the best results always come out of an atmosphere of support. Improv artists at The Second City work as part of an ensemble. Their ability to support, encourage, and push each other produces cutting-edge results. Individuals work to take the best from each other’s ideas and look for ways to reach new heights, and pick each other up along the way. The ensemble truly understands that the group is only as good as its weakest player.

How much better could your organization perform as an ensemble? Your group can reach its potential by pulling coworkers into key decisions, accepting and building on the ideas already in motion, creating a free flow of ideas, and establishing an atmosphere of trust and support. That sounds like a terrific place to work!!


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