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What We Can Learn from Improvisation & the "Yes, And" Rule

The Second City Steve Carell, Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and David Razowsky Photo by Jennifer Girard

The Second City
Steve Carell, Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and David Razowsky
Photo by Jennifer Girard

Sample Scene:

A: Businesses are trying to be more innovative.
B: Yes, and they're searching other fields for creative tips to help teams best collaborate.
A: Yes, and they've turned to improvisation to help teams think quick on their feet.
B: Yes, and this helps to generate fresh, profitable ideas.

This scene could go on and on, but you get the idea. Basically, we just focused on the improv rule of "Yes, and," which requires that scene partners never negate what someone has said. Instead, all players must work together to build something - one line at a time.

It's a simple exercise often implemented in improv classrooms around the world, most prominently in Chicago where three theatres (The Annoyance, iO, and the famed Second City) all teach and perform improv nearly every night of the year.

But you might be surprised to discover that each classroom is not filled solely with SNL hopefuls. More often than not, the majority of classes are composed of lawyers, teachers, executives, and the like - all hoping to gain more confidence, improve their public speaking abilities, become more collaborative and of course, prove to their friends and family that they really have been funny all along.

To take advantage of this trend, many major corporations have branched out into the improv business by hiring improv theatres and their performers to conduct office workshops, retreats, and tutorials.

But why would major corporations want to play games, you might be ask?

Because improvisations skills can be excellent tools for nurturing, expanding and building not just your imagination and creativity, but also your ability to collaborate as part of a team or ensemble.

Here's what you can expect when playing the "Yes, And" game:

First, two individuals must begin a scene. One person will say something (anything really), and the second person will continue the scene by building upon that statement with "Yes, and..." The scene simply builds from there, until it ends or some calls "scene."

The point of this exercise isn't to perform a brilliant, genius, hilarious scene. Instead, it's main purpose is to force players to face their fears in a nurturing way. To face the fear of looking foolish, or of saying something stupid. To face the fear of failing. All by accepting the fact that you will say something stupid. That's the point. You will look foolish, but so will everyone else. And you can't fail, but there is no way to measure success.
All you do is listen, react, respond.
Again, and again, and again.

By practicing this exercise, the fears being to melt away. They lose their power. And enable people to communicate more openly - a necessary ingredient for true collaboration. It has to be okay to fail, to mess up, to have a bad idea, to ask provocative questions, to stand up, and be noticed. And playing improv games is a way of going to the gym for these impulses. Because in the made up world of improv, there are no consequences - only absolute freedom to explore, create, fail, and rebuild.

So how can we ingrain this sense of creative liberty into our corporate culture?

Level the playing field.

Think of your organization as an ensemble. Some members, such as department heads and executives, might have grander parts with more lines in the scene, but they're not superior to the other players, as everyone is simply meant to serve the work as a whole, rather than their own egos.

Encourage open dialogue.

Mix up the roster for team meetings. Have open conversations between the sales team, directors and new hires to share knowledge, opinions, and creative concepts. Do this, and you'll achieve much greater success, not only as a group of individuals, but as an agile and powerful team.

Don't punish bad ideas.

Encourage the generation of all ideas - good and bad alike. And by following the "Yes, And" rule, you will be able to give all ideas a chance, if only to learn more about why they aren't true solutions to the problem and why.

Give permission to fail and learn from mistakes.

Choose to nurture an environment where experimentation and new ideas can flourish, and where mistakes and failures are not only learning experiences, but a stepping stone to the next idea.

All it takes is the courage to play.