The Yes Blog

Improv: Change Your Mind

What would you say if I told you there’s genius in you?  What if I told you that there’s genius in everyone you work with?

You may doubt it.  I believe it.  My experience bears out my belief.

Imagine there’s a Ferrari in your driveway.  You drive it every day, but you firmly believe that only first gear works.  It can only do about 20 miles-per-hour.  You’re convinced this is true.

You’d never shift out of first gear.  You’d never drive faster than twenty.  You’d even be jealous of the neighbor’s Hyundai and its incredible capabilities as it easily passed you doing forty.

Now imagine your business, your company, with a fully functioning Ferrari engine under the hood. What if every person on the team brought five gears of confident genius to the party?  Communications would flow.  Innovation would soar.  Employees would thrive, and morale would be high.  Clients would say, “wow,” and return again and again.

We’ve convinced ourselves that the Ferrari in the driveway is actually a golf-cart.

“I can’t improvise.”  “I’m not creative.”  “I’m not quick enough.”  I hear these things at the start of almost every theater improv course we teach.

It’s flat-out false.

You are a creative genius.  How do I know?  Well, you’re reading, from which I deduce that you are the proud owner of a working brain, and the human brain is the most powerful computer on earth.  For every bit of data that goes in, an association (creatively constructed by your pre-conscious mind) comes out.  The only thing that distinguishes the “creative” among us from those who aren’t is that the “creative” among us give our attention to those associations and bring them into conscious thought while the “un-creative” haven’t learned to value those associations, to bring them forward in the mind, and to express them.

Creativity is not a fleeting, ephemeral quality reserved for the lucky few. Creativity is a habit and a skill.  And like any habit or skill, it can be developed and honed.  Creativity can be applied to any problem, in any situation, to any relationship.  Creativity is the life-blood of any business, and the disease which squelches it is “NO.”

“No” starts internally.  Too often, we tell our own creative impulse, “no,” before it’s even been allowed the full attention of our conscious mind.  “No, that’s not a very good idea.”  “No, that’s stupid.”  “No, I can’t say that.” “No, that won’t work.”  “No, that’s too risky.”

By saying “no” to our creative impulses before they’ve even taken a breath, we train ourselves that the engine of creativity inherent in us all is useless and should be squashed before it’s allowed to make fools of us.  We train our conscious mind to ignore it.

Then we start to judge the creative machine in others as well.  We hear a game-changing idea from someone else, and we say the same things: “No, that’s not a very good idea.”  “No, that’s stupid.”  “No, you can’t say that.” “No, that won’t work.”  “No, that’s too risky.”  And by summarily rejecting the ideas of others before their ideas are allowed to breathe, we train them as well to ignore their creativity, or at least to keep their ideas to themselves.

“No,” for many of us, is a deeply ingrained habit.  We don’t even know that we’re doing it.  We don’t know that we’re doing it to ourselves, and we don’t know that we’re doing it to others.

“Yes,” by contrast, is the engine of creativity.  Say, “yes,” a few times to your creative impulses, and your pre-conscious association-making mind will love it.  Having been rewarded with yes, your mind will ramp up the pace and the volume of the ideas it supplies.  You’ll have fresh ideas flooding through you.  Say, “yes,” a few times to the ideas of others, and they’ll reward your acceptance with even more ideas.

Theater Improv is great “yes” training.  That makes it great business training as well.

A central tenet of Theater Improv is an idea called, “yes, and.”  YES, I accept your input as valuable and relevant.  AND, I will expand upon it with my own perspective – inspired by your input.  It is an incredible, spontaneous feedback-loop of collaborative creativity.

How does this work in a business setting? The other day, I was in a Red Robin restaurant and saw a promotion advertised on the wall: When the Seahawks score from the red zone on game-day, everyone there gets a free burger if they come back in on Tuesday.  I imagine the marketing conversation went something like this.

“Let’s do a promotion to drive more business our way from Seahawks fans.”

“Great idea.  Let’s build somehow on the suspense of the game.”

“Ok. When the Seahawks score, we give out free burgers.”

“That’s a lot of burgers.”

“When they score from the red-zone.”

“Perfect, but we want people to come back, even when it’s not game day.”

“We give them a voucher for a free burger, but they have to come back to get the burger itself.”

You can see “yes, and” at work here, with each idea accepted and refined or elaborated upon.  Of course, I don’t know if there was a room full of people discussing this marketing campaign like this, but the conversation happened – even if it was one person having the conversation in her own mind.

This is a great marketing idea, certain to bring Seahawks fans in the door on game-day, and it will encourage them to return to cash in their vouchers (and spend money besides on drinks and meals for their families).  But the conversation could easily have gone another way.

“When the Seahawks score, we give out free burgers.”

“Yeah, right.  We’ve got a bar full of people watching the game, say thirty people, and the Seahawks score six times.  That’s one hundred eighty burgers, six per person.  Those customers are now full to the point of being sick.  They haven’t bought any food.  And we’re losing money.  Forget it.”

“Yes, and” is a business tool that creates possibility.  It hones good ideas into great ones.  It ignites genius.

But that’s not all it does.  In order to effectively operate the tool of “yes, and,” you’ve got to be actively, attentively listening to others – in every situation – from the perspective that what they have to say has value and merit.  Imagine doing business with a company where every time you spoke, expressed a desire, voiced a concern, asked for a consideration—every time—you were met with the attitude that what you were saying had value and merit.  There are companies that hold this idea sacred: Nordstrom for instance. Sure, they carry excellent products.  But it’s the experience of being valued as a person, not simply as a dollar, that keeps people coming back to shop there.  Nordstrom’s team is known for it.  They value human interaction.  They receive even customer complaints as opportunities to improve relationships and their company.

Many of us have trouble maintaining that posture consistently.  We take criticism personally.  Fear of the unknown makes innovative ideas scary.  Improv training is like going to the gym to build the muscles of embracing possibility and capitalizing on potential.  It literally changes your mind.  The more you practice “yes, and,” the easier and the more automatic it becomes.

Neuroscientists say, “The neurons that fire together, wire together.”  This means that every time I hear a thought, and my response is “yes, and,” the neurons that create that response become physically connected to the neurons that recognize a suggestion.  It becomes easier and easier, not only to say “yes” to the ideas of others, but to your own ideas as well.  Your mind is changed at a cellular level.

“Yes, and” is the single most powerful tool that I have as a theater director, as a teacher, as a manager and supervisor, and as an entrepreneur.  And I’m not alone in that opinion.  The best business schools in the country (Harvard, Duke, Columbia, MIT and many more) have added Theater Improv training to their MBA programs.

Consider adding Theater Improv training to your professional development arsenal.  Spark lucrative innovation. Build teams that operate like clockwork.  Harvest the full potential of your people.  Develop agile, intuitive leadership.  Train for quick, purposeful, in-the-moment thinking.“The capacity to creatively improvise is an important factor that differentiates successful companies — or teams — from those that are not successful.”

          John Kao, Harvard Business School Professor;  Innovation Advisor


“It was as if the three-hour improv session finally, after many years, broke something in my brain loose. I gave the best presentation I have ever given and felt very ‘present’ and in control as I gave it.”

          William Gordon III, President and CEO, Tetragenetics Inc.


“After [improv training], I could keep up with the rest of my team, and I suddenly felt so much more alive than I had in years.”

         Amy Marquez, senior user experience designer to fortune 500 companies