using improv to foster creativity in teams

I recently started studying improv at the Second City Training & Education Center to further develop my creative thinking ability.  Although I’m only a few weeks deep, I can already see how the skills learned in those 3 hour laughing sessions can be translated to the business world.  The simple lessons oflistening and teamwork to truly accept new ideas, can go a long way in tackling marketing slumps, product innovation or business solutions.

The students at Second City are not all trying to hit the Sony Center main stage, score a spot on SNL or write the next prime time comedy. They come from diverse backgrounds, eager to build their self confidence, presentation skills, creative thinking ability and to just have some good ol’fun.  All of us have different view points,  different inhibitions and different gut reactions, that when properly utilized result in some very funny and creative ideas.

We all know coming up with innovative ideas can be challenging. Some of us are extremely gifted and have a constant flow of ideas, whereas for others it’s a bit more grueling to tap into our inner artist. It doesn’t help if you’re put in a team that’s really a group of individuals working in the same room.

While at London Business School, as a Master’s in Management student, I studied Entrepreneurship, a very team based course.  The first few weeks of the semester were focused on how to develop new business ideas using different strategies. One of those strategiesconsisted of imagining a world where resources were infinite with no limitations. We were asked to brainstorm as a team, what idea would you use to solve a specific issue or what would you make more accessible? The sky’s the limit. Reach for the moon. And so on. Sometimes reaching the most obscure and extravagant ideas was difficult due to our social norms and ingrained physics of reality. We hit a brick wall that we needed help climbing over.  The challenge was worsened when everyone tried to jam in their idea, hesitant to truly accept their team members. Or worse, when ideas were compromised to try to please every member of the group, resulting in a mediocre solution that was far worse than any idea on its own.

At the Second City, one of the first lessons taught, as all actors know, is the tactic of always responding with “Yes and…” to strengthen our teamwork capabilities. The exercise consisted of forming into small groups and responding to the following question, three different ways.

If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?

1) “No and…” Where the first individual says the first idea that pops into their head and the next individual begins by saying “no and”. The second individual then continues to add to the first persons’ story with their own idea. Each consecutive person must add on to the story in the same manner, always beginning with the same “no and”. This grew boring, stale and exceptionally annoying all too fast. Each of us were simply stating our own ideas, cross armed to the ideas of the team. We weren’t utilizing our ability to work as team to create something truly innovative. Could you imagine how boring an improv show like this would be?

2)”Yes but…” This response was a bit better in fostering creative ideas and moving the team forward, but it was basically the polite way of saying no. You felt like you were a better team member and you got the satisfaction of stating your idea. Evidently, this is the most favored response in the workplace. Feels like a win-win, but it’s actually a lose-lose. 

3)”Yes and..” Finally the fun part. Where you are to accept the individuals’ idea fully and then roll with it without restriction or a predetermined direction. By doing so, a supportive open team was quickly built and we trusted that our ideas, no matter the strangeness, would be accepted. Ideas were born that would have otherwise never occurred to us on our own. Ideas were zig-zagging up and down, left and right.

Though this approach cannot be used to tackle all your business problems, it’s another effective strategy to help foster creative ideas.  The exercise of ‘yes and’ can be effectively used in a business setting to remove the risk of strong personalities or personal glory getting in the way of the creative process. The key is to actually listen to your team members’ ideas and be willing to truly accept them, to take your team in a new direction. We all think we are great team players, that’s what our CV states… so it must be true. However,  next time you’re put into the drawing room with your colleagues, see how many people are actually saying “Yes but…” or straight up “No and…”. You’d be surprised.