As an entrepreneur, you have to improvise and adapt quickly to survive and thrive in the face of the unpredictable challenges of the market. But this improvisation a not a comedy, although there are some distinct correlations, in relation to reacting, adapting, and communicating. In business and in comedy, you win most often with “Yes, and …” instead of “Yes, but ….”
I definitely learned a few things about how to improvise effectively in business from the classic book, “Getting to ‘Yes And’: The Art of Business Improv,” by Bob Kulhan, who is a master of the art in both comedy and business. Kulhan is a professor at the Duke University School of Business but was trained in improvisation by some comedy greats, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
He draws on cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics to show the rest of us in business how to think on our feet and approach business challenges with fresh eyes and mental agility. From my own perspective of many years as an executive and startup advisor, I recommend his improvisational keys to improve the culture of your business:
- Don’t be afraid to try, and fail, before you succeed. You can’t learn and adapt quickly to the changing needs of your customers and the marketplace if you are afraid of failure. As in comedy, you have to take risks, think outside the box, and be willing to face some brutal feedback, to find the path that works, all with a smile on your face.
- Tell your team what you want, plus why and how. Be explicit on your intent. Team members can’t help you change if they don’t clearly understand where they need to go and how to get there. There is no set formula for change in business, so you need to improvise with a positive message. Everyone is turned off by a “Yes, but …” response.
- Always acknowledge ideas and add to them. This “Yes, and …” phrase is an improvisational technique long used to move people forward. Make sure everyone understands the power of this phrase when sharing opinions and suggestions, and in holding people accountable. Teach them how to actively observe and listen to input.
- Get buy-in through participation and feedback. By openly requesting and rewarding feedback, you are demonstrating that you value employee input and you want to include everyone in the decision process. Team involvement encourages everyone to buy-in, in spite of the work it entails, because they feel personal ownership in the business.
- Build team trust through shared experiences. Teams need to bond, and that can start with an off-site structured event. The key is not only to have everyone in the same place but to have them share a memorable experience in a place that will connect them further in the future. Bonding is always enhanced through team recognition and awards.
- Routinely schedule team exercises and challenges. The message here is that practice makes perfect. We see this in the Olympics and professional sports. You and your team need to be well-oiled, and able to work together automatically before you can hope to react quickly to changes in the marketplace. Improvisation does require training.
- Leaders must be the example. Entrepreneurs need to walk the talk, be consistent, passionate, and accountable for their actions. No matter what happens, you must be the model of the “Yes, and …” approach – always communicating the need for change, and leading the charge to listen, learn, and adapt. Business culture is set by leader actions.
- Empower your team to initiate the change process. Ownership is essential in creating an inclusive environment. Empower your team to help you create and protect this culture. Don’t let blame rear its ugly head. Make sure they have the resources and the education to get change done with you, or without you. They need a level of comfort to improvise.
- Remove those who refuse, or undermine the team. A smaller team working well together is much more effective than a larger dysfunctional team, just as it would be in a comedy troupe. Often, it’s in the best interest of the team, the company, and certainly the employee to part ways or move to a new team before permanent damage is done.
- Be tenacious to make required change happen. The leader who is a tenacious implementer of change will always follow-up on the initiatives started. You can cause “change fatigue” by jumping randomly from one idea to another, with no follow-through. All change needs to tie back to the basic principles, values, and objectives of the business.
Who would have guessed that the techniques practiced by comedy troupes would have such applicability to businesses? It’s just another example of the value of thinking outside the box, and reframing of disciplines from one domain to another. Are you using that level of thinking in your business? The future of your business may depend on it.