One Tool. A Competitive Advantage.

By Aaron Schmookler, Adam Utley, and Rachel Lionheart (in collaboration)


Most leaders, when asked, say that their team has the skills it needs to perform better than average. When asked specifically about communication, however, they say it needs to get better.  When asked about teamwork, they say it needs to get better.  When asked about innovation, they say it needs to get better.  When asked about the ability to cope with the unexpected and with change, they say it needs to get better.

This article will arm you with a powerful tool for making work on your team better indeed.

Would you like communication, teamwork, innovation and coping with the unexpected to improve on your team?  Do assumptions gum up the works of effective communication? Does fear prevent people from communicating when they first realize they’re likely to miss a deadline?  Are your people satisfied with the status quo when you know growth is essential for outpacing the competition?

Incremental improvements at work often take too much work for too little return.  But our clients easily make substantial improvements to communication, so they reap unprecedented cohesion on their teams, enjoy lucrative innovation, and take change in stride. You can make strides too, with a single tool from Theater Improvisation.

Why improvisation? Life isn’t scripted. The unexpected happens. Change happens. And Darwin can tell you, if you don’t adapt to change, if you can’t respond relevantly to the unexpected, you won’t survive.  Most companies do ok with the unexpected. Most companies respond ok to change.  But ok is not going to bring your dreams for the future to fruition.

The tool I’ve promised, and one of the principles we teach in our workshops, is BE OBVIOUS. Webster says obvious means, “easy for the mind to understand or recognize, clear, self-evident, or apparent.” Once you and your team try it, you’ll agree… BE OBVIOUS is a superpower.

“Originality is born in the associations individuals make. Innovation is association. Collaboration, in a culture of contribution and obvious communication, accelerates the process.”

We coach our clients to BE OBVIOUS in a few distinct business arenas–the three C’s:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Conflict management.

Collaboration is communication. And it works best with a constant flow of ideas to build from — a flow of ideas generated by each all team-members. No idea can be formed in a vacuum. No ideas are born from nothing. Every idea in the history of ideas has been inspired something else. You can’t stop ideas from coming.  Blockages of ideas don’t exist–only blockages of expression, of communication.  Fear stops the communication and proliferation of ideas.  Fear of failure.  Fear of ridicule.  Fear that one’s idea is not original enough…

Keith Johnstone, improviser extraordinaire, says, “The more obvious you are, the more original you appear.”  So many simple but profound business opportunities are lost in striving to come up with “clever or disruptive ideas.”  One idea leads to another. Give attention and voice to your idea, no matter how simple, and it will lead to another idea, either in your own mind, or in the mind of a collaborator. Speak the obvious associations your mind is making, and they will lead to others. If your collaborators do the same, you follow one idea after another, down the rabbit-hole, and into Wonderland.

Consider the Post-it note.  On the face of it, this was a failed attempt at 3M to create a strong adhesive. But upon encountering this “failed” adhesive, someone spoke what was obvious to them, and this lucrative use for a weak adhesive is now found in nearly every home and office in the country–indeed around the world.

Take one of the most successful toys in history — the slinky.  It too was a failure, intended to stabilize ships’ instruments.  The inventor, dejected, put it on a shelf. His wife later knocked it off, and saw it’s remarkable stepping ability. And a toy was born.

Take the case of a truck which got stuck under too low an overpass.  Engineers, police, and towing professionals scratched their heads, trying to devise a strategy for removing the truck that would not destroy the bridge, or further damage the truck. Evidently, it took the obvious observation of a ten year old boy who said, obviously, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tires?

Originality is born in the associations individuals make. Innovation is association. Collaboration, in a culture of contribution and obvious communication, accelerates the process.

Conflict is communication.  Conflict on a team often results from one team member judging the ideas and contributions of another.

“Let’s open an office in Siberia.”

“What…..That’s just stupid.”

The Siberia office idea generator is likely to feel defensive and either shut down or fight.  Witnesses to the interaction are likely to perceive an unfriendly environment for their own ideas and clam up themselves. And it needn’t be so blatant as this to degrade the ‘culture of contribution.’  Something as seemingly bland as, “Really?  Siberia?” is enough to shame people into silence, or gird them for battle.

BE OBVIOUS has the power to completely transform the interaction from one that degrades relationships and productivity to one that builds them.

“Let’s open an office in Siberia.”

The knee-jerk judgment that that is stupid results from an earlier thought.  Maybe, “Siberia’s really cold.  Siberia’s really far away.”  So, instead of, “That’s just stupid,” the OBVIOUS response to “Let’s open an office in Siberia,” is, “Siberia’s really cold and really far away.”

Now, there’s information in the room that can help everyone, the original speaker included, to assess the idea’s merits in their own minds.  The relationship has not been degraded.  The fight or flight response has not been triggered. The environment still welcomes new ideas. The idea generator may respond, “I thought of Siberia because real estate there is very cheap.”

Then someone else may respond, “Well, the real estate in North Dakota is pretty cheap too.  And it’s not as cold, and it’s not as far away.”

And then building on that, someone else might add what’s obvious to them. “My family is in North Dakota, and I’ve been wanting to move there.”

And in one fell swoop, you’ve got a location for the satellite office and the person to spearhead its opening.  A bad idea is refined to a good one, and other ancillary problems are organically solved along the way.  And relationships are strengthened in a process that breeds group pride in its accomplishments.

Many of you may know the story of Kitty Genovese: She was stabbed to death in 1964 outside her apartment in New York City while bystanders stood by–didn’t even call the police.  This failure to respond has been widely cited as evidence of the heartlessness of New York’s citizens and the general degradation of society.  Social science has since shown us another explanation.  Bystanders likely did not call for help, not because they didn’t care, but because each person presumed someone else would surely call.  Someone else surely had already called, was on the phone even now.  With this diffusion of responsibility, each individual can shrug off personal responsibility.

Who among us has not had a work-project fall to the same fate as Kitty Genovese.  Some detail critical to the success of the project has been overlooked.  Bob knows he’s never heard anyone discussing the obvious problem that the building design the whole team has been working on has no front door.  No one will be able to enter the building.  But doors aren’t his department.  Cathy’s seen the door problem too.  But she’s windows.  Bob and Cathy both assume, “Surely someone is on it. Someone knows, and even though I haven’t heard about it, obviously, someone is fixing this.  Then the design goes to the client.  If the firm is lucky, the client notices and says, “There’s no door.” And the firm suffers embarrassment and delay. If the firm isn’t lucky, the building is erected from the drawings… without a door. And the firm suffers humiliation and is never hired again. All because each person in the chain presumed that it was so obvious that there must be a hidden solution.  Often, the obvious goes unspoken because people are afraid of the ridicule that may come from saying what’s clearly obvious to everyone, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.”  Or they’re afraid of being embarrassed by demonstrating their own incompetence or ignorance of the obvious by saying something that shows they’ve missed what’s as plain as the nose on their face.  “Duh!  The door’s. Right. Here.”  This is an extreme example, but we’ve all wasted work because no one spoke what was obvious to them.

How do you get people to speak what’s obvious?  Get full commitment from everyone to BE OBVIOUS, and to WELCOME the obvious from others.  Will there be redundant communication?  Sure.  But in places that matter, we all install redundant systems.  We drive carefully AND wear seatbelts.  We lock the car AND set the alarm.  We save our files on the local server AND to the cloud.

With a BE OBVIOUS culture, Kitty would still be alive.  And with a BE OBVIOUS culture in your company, projects are delivered on time and under budget.  BE OBVIOUS gets your back.

When everyone has committed to BE OBVIOUS, each person has the responsibility to respond to every obvious need. Not to personally address it, but to at least mention it to the relevant person.  Every manager, every team leader, every executive I’ve asked would rather hear too many times about a growing crisis in the company than not to hear about it at all.

BE OBVIOUS starts with a willingness to say what is plainly and immediately on your mind, beyond the trap of judgement, and build off of the information that surrounds you, in the environment, from your coworkers, from clients.  It takes open-mindedness, commitment to transparency and practice to create a functioning habit in your burgeoning culture of contribution.

The Audacity to Thrive.

Problem is, most business training is ineffective, boring, powerpoint lecturing yak-yak that accomplishes nothing.  It espouses systems or techniques designed to help ensure success.  And the systems work.  There’s nothing wrong with the systems they teach.  But there’s nothing wrong with the systems that are already in place either.  Informational training about systems and best practices is painting a house on fire if the mindset and habits aren’t addressed.  It does nothing to close the gap between what we know we should do and what we actually do, because the knowing-doing gap isn’t an information problem.  It’s a person problem.  

There are serious problems that many people in business simply ignore.  It’s not that they don’t notice or don’t care about the problems.  Rather, they think these problems can’t be solved.

  • Teams that add up to less than the sum of their parts
  • Poor communication
  • Tactlessness
  • Conflict
  • Resistance to change
  • Incremental and slow growth
  • Inattention
  • Sloppiness
  • Good enough to get by
  • Lack of accountability
  • Disengagement
  • Sales people who don’t perform

These problems stifle profits and are rooted in fear:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of loss
  • Fear of ridicule
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of embarrassment

And there’s nothing we can do about that, right? You’ve either got audacity or you don’t.  You’ve either got leadership or you don’t.  You’ve either got creativity or you don’t.  You’ve either got self-awareness, accountability, and responsibility, or you don’t. Conventional thinking is, these problems cannot be solved. That’s just the way it is with people. Soft skills can’t be trained.

Well, what if I told you that these skills are trainable.  What If I told you that you can change the dynamics on your team?  What if I told you that you can elevate the plane on which your people work together? What if I told you that your team has genius in it just waiting for permission to act?  Imagine the transformations in performance, innovation, and productivity with fear out of the way.  The results would astound you.

Improv can change your mind.  Without losing your team’s identity, without asking your people to lose theirs, you can create habits of audacity.

The Yes Works helps businesses solve problems they think are unsolvable.  We bring the tools and techniques of Adeptability to bear on overlooked business problems, getting business results you can take to the bank. Using tools and techniques drawn from improvisation, modern neuroscience and learning theory, and current leadership data, we train people to recognize fear and set it aside. We’re boosting people power in organizations large and small.

Improv fosters habits that bring forward the best of each of us in every situation.  How? Neuroscience says practice makes permanent because it builds lasting structures in the brain.  Improv is practice.

Practice constructive, innovative association.  Practice confidence and collaboration.  Practice trust.

Improv is the competitive advantage you’ve been looking for.  It’s a person solution.  Improv skills, imparted through skillful facilitation, installs in companies the audacity to thrive.

TGIF Destroys Lives

I remember once walking through the halls of my workplace on a Friday morning.  I was in a good mood.  I was happy to be there.  I was looking forward to working with my teammates.  I was looking forward to serving my customers.  It was going to be a good day.

Then, as I was passing a coworker in the hall, I greeted him with, “Hey, how’s it going?”

And he said, “Oh, you know, glad it’s Friday.”  Now, nothing special happens in our workplace on Friday.  He wasn’t talking about finishing a project or about anything at all related to work.  He was sharing with me the common workplace sentiment, TGIF.  Thank God it’s Friday.

It seems such an innocent statement.  It’s a celebration even.  It’s a short prayer of gratitude.

And it took the wind right out of my sails.

TGIF and sentiments like it really have no place in a professional’s vernacular.  The problem with TGIF is not in thanking God.  The problem is not in expressing gratitude.  The problem is not in loving Fridays.  It’s not even in looking forward to the weekend.  The problem is in the subtext.

Let me illustrate.

Recently, as I was making a purchase in a local store I frequent, the clerk engaged me in a brief but lively conversation.  When she asked me what I do, I told her that I help folks Make Work Good. After asking me to elaborate, she asked for my phone number saying, “I’d like to talk with you about how to convince my supervisor that I’m ready to take on a full time job here.”

I gave her my card, told her I’d be happy to talk, and said, “Let me leave you with this…” And I recalled to her the very beginning of our conversation when I’d asked, “How are you?” Her response was, “I’ll be better in about half an hour.”  This is a common knee-jerk response we’ve all heard countless times.  It’s the verbalization of a culturally accepted expectation that work-life is inferior to life outside work.  And it presumes that all of us feel that way.

When this sentiment is spoken to a colleague, as it often is, it corrodes the well-being of the team.  It affirms the normalcy and inevitability of the desire not to be working.  For anyone already feeling that way, it reinforces and deepens the feeling.  For those who are glad to be at work, it can lead them to feel disdain for their coworkers if they are confident.  And if they are not confident, the frequent sharing of this anti-work sentiment can lead people to second guess their own happiness in working.  Either way, it diminishes everyone’s pleasure and performance at work.

When that sentiment is spoken to a client, as it often is, the subtext is, “I’ll be better when I’m no longer here serving you.”

Very often, this anti-work message is not intended (as with the clerk who served me).  It’s about creating or strengthening relationships.  It’s intended to create an affinity between the two because, “Haven’t we all been there.”  But it’s an unhealthy affinity.  And it most certainly doesn’t serve the company writing the paychecks.

Because she’d enlisted my support in earning a promotion, I told the clerk, “You’ve been so warm and friendly.  You’ve given me great service.  You seem to genuinely enjoy serving me.  But when you said, ‘I’ll be better in half an hour,’ you basically told me you’d be happier not having to serve me.”

“I love my job,” she said. “That’s just something I said.”

“I get it,” I told her.  “It’s a thing people say.”  I told her that what people don’t understand, though, is that we’re listening to ourselves when we talk.  We’re affected by the things we say.  We start to believe the things we say.  And our mindset shifts to reflect our beliefs.  And others—customers, coworkers and supervisors—pick up on our mindset.  Our mindset speaks unconsciously but loudly through tone, body language, and subtle nuances of speech and word-choice.

“Call me anytime,” I told the clerk.  “Meanwhile, you can convince your supervisor that you’re ready to be full-time by wanting to be here.  People who add value to their organizations get promoted.  Tell yourself you want to be here.  I can see that you enjoy your customers.  Allow yourself to dive into that experience. Take on more responsibility because you enjoy the challenge.  You’ll have a full-time job in no time.”

[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”23″ align=”left”]Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to the weekend. It’s natural and healthy to look forward with anticipation to exciting plans for play, or to a well-earned rest after working hard all week.[/mk_blockquote]

TGIF is a contagion.  It’s a disease run rampant in our society.  It spreads from person to person.  “TGIF.  Thank God we don’t have to be here tomorrow.  I wish I didn’t have to be here now.”  So, I encourage managers and executives to try to gently but firmly remove TGIF and its kin—another day, another dollar, watching the clock, etc—from their corporate culture.  Don’t wait to hear it.  Hold a meeting with those you supervise, and simply tell them how you feel about it.  Tell them you want them to love their work.  Tell them you want everyone to feel free to express their love for work.  Tell them that you want that sentiment to become contagious in your organization.  And when you hear TGIF expressed, calmly explain the cost to the person expressing it.  “When you say, ‘TGIF,’ it sends the message to everyone who hears you, and more importantly to yourself, that this is a place you don’t like.  I love my work. When others hear you say that, it’s harder for them to love theirs.”beach photo - footprints

The title of this piece is, “TGIF Destroys Lives.”  That’s a bold statement, I know.  The thing is, most of us spend five days a week on the job.  If you’re working for the weekend, that means that you value only two days out of seven.  TGIF folks live the life they want only 29% of the time.  More than two-thirds of their week is a grind—“the daily grind.”  That’s no way to live.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to the weekend. It’s natural and healthy to look forward with anticipation to exciting plans for play, or to a well-earned rest after working hard all week.  The best performers in the workplace, however, are the ones who, on the weekends,  look forward to Monday even as they are enjoying a little R & R.  They look forward to getting back to work.  They like work.  They like to be there.  They like their teammates.  They like what they do.

And they deliberately cultivate that enjoyment.  When someone asks them, “How are you doing?”  They don’t say, “TGIF,” implying that they’re working for the weekend.  They don’t say, “Another day, another dollar,” implying that they’re working for a paycheck.  They say, “Never better.”  And it’s true.  They’ve been getting steadily better at their jobs since day one.  They’re passionate about work.  They’re passionate about their growth.  They’re working for love: love of their team, love of their work, love of their company, and love of those whom they serve.  They’re working for love of life.

Join them.


If Even Death is an Offer

Everything is an offer.

That’s a principle that we at The Yes Works teach.  An “offer,” in an improv context, is some bit of information provided to you for your creative use.  We can take creative inspiration from absolutely anything in our environment—from something someone says, from the tone with which they say it, or from a gesture someone makes, or the smallest subconscious movement, or a speck on the wall, or… even a disastrous event in the life of your company.

If everything is an offer—with the potential to spark a creative response—then the potential for innovation is everywhere.  A failed adhesive becomes a Post-it Note.  A failed ship’s instrument stabilization device becomes one of the most successful toys of all time (the Slinky). Last year, a drought at Stonehenge, in combination with a hose that wouldn’t reach, caused the grass, long kept green, to turn brown. While the groundskeeper may have been distraught, archaeologists answered one of the mysteries of Stonehenge. The first grass to turn brown formed spots that completed the circle of stones, indicating where fallen stones had once stood.  Was Stonehenge once a complete circle?  Yes, as revealed by the brown spots caused by this happy accident, it was.

In our lives and in our businesses, we can become paralyzed by failure or by crisis, or worse yet, we can struggle to oppose the inevitable, putting our finger in the dike when there’s not one leak, but twenty. When faced with insurmountable forces, we often ignore them.  Or we stand up to them like Oedipus defying the Oracle. Or we run away in hopes that we are faster than fate.

A dear friend of my family, Waylon Black, a vibrant, creative, caring doctor, beloved by family and coworkers (by everyone, really) learned not so long ago that he had cancer.  He fought it with fortitude and grace, and when he learned that it would surely take his life, Waylon took his impending death as an offer and an inspiration.  “I decided I was really going to live,” he told his voice teacher, my wife Jessica.

He surely had some private grief.  No doubt Waylon mourned with his family.  But he was not defeated by this turn of fate, not diminished by facing the inevitable. If advancing death was a crisis in his life, it was not a crisis first or foremost.  It was an opportunity to celebrate.  And he did celebrate.

He took voice lessons, singing in his church choir and singing American Standards he’d expanded with countermelodies he wrote.  He danced.  He threw holiday parties.  He enjoyed his grandchildren.  “Really live,” he did.

He celebrated not only in the small moments and the holidays of his remaining time, but even in his coming demise. And it was a source of inspiration to him.

Viewing crisis as a gift—as an offer, as a source of inspiration—is a skill, and one that is cultivated and enhanced by a regular practice of improv. That’s a different approach to crisis management.

A creative and inspired fellow in every avenue of his life, Waylon set about creating the mausoleum that would be his final resting place (and when she’s ready, that of his wife, Marlene).  This was no macabre endeavor for Waylon.  He did not darkly face the task, reluctantly choosing from a catalogue.  Instead, he excitedly designed the look of the giant stone monolith he would rest in, making drawings, choosing materials, drafting and editing.  The granite walls and pillars will one day hold not only Waylon and Marlene, but also a bronze statue of the two of them doing one of the things they most loved to do together, dance.  He showed friends and family his designs and plans, smiling and joking and proud of his work.  He strode into his voice lesson one day and said to my wife, grinning, “look at this picture of my mausoleum!”

And, surely, inevitably, he came to inhabit the mausoleum he’d worked so hard to create.  I don’t know if it brings him joy now, as he rests there, but I do know that it brought him joy when he was making it, in his final days.  He planned for the mausoleum to be a gift.  “I hope that others who visit the cemetery will enjoy it too.”  To insure that they would, he even added a bench a few yards away.

I’m reminded of my friend, Steve Roberts.  He says that everything is a gift.  “Everything.”  And he claims that his poster of Noah joyfully waterskiing behind the Ark (drawn by Jeff Moores) is more valuable than the Mona Lisa. This illustration, Steve says, “Encourages us to ask ourselves, ‘What will it take for me to thrive in the face of adversity?’”

Viewing crisis as a gift—as an offer, as a source of inspiration—is a skill, and one that is cultivated and enhanced by a regular practice of improv. Deliberate exercise of improv, of- its mindset and principles, creates neural pathways that make a healthy response to crisis easier.  That’s one way that Waylon’s intention that his mausoleum be a gift to others is a success—its very existence reminds me to enjoy my many blessings, and that everything is an offer of inspiration for me to respond to with creativity and joy.  That’s why we, at The Yes Works, offer support in crisis surfing, rather than crisis management.  A crisis is not simply something to manage or to mitigate.  It’s something to enjoy and take gifts from.

If even death is an offer, an opportunity for creativity and innovation, then imagine the possibilities for your business in the next crisis you’ll face.  May you face a whopper soon, and may you face it as Waylon faced cancer—with grace, aplomb, creativity, collaboration, and joy.

We're on the Radio!

Hear our ten minute interview on KLAY radio’s program, “Equal Time Radio.”


Thanks, Traci Kelly and Frank Blair, for having us on!

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

Play Your Way to Innovation

Encourage and stimulate creativity and innovation. Get the edge on your competition. Keep up your interest and passion for work. Retain employees who love their work. Excite your clients, increase referral business, and create a buzz.

This will be an article about cultivating a culture of creativity and innovation in business (and elsewhere). But first, a context.

Many of our clients come to us because their companies have become stagnant, and they’re wanting to shake things up. One client, the Artistic Director of a small theater company, said, “We’re doing ok, but we need to be doing better than that. We’re basically doing the same things we’ve been doing, but we need to be doing the things we haven’t been doing. I just don’t know what those things are yet.”

If they’re honest, we’ve found that a lot of business leaders – in the arts and beyond – can relate to this conundrum. Businesses find a model for success. They execute that model. They achieve success in whatever way they’ve defined it for themselves. And then that model becomes a security blanket or a life raft. They know they need to make a change, but they cannot see around the status quo to the solution.

Whether the broken or ailing status quo is a model for product production, for providing customer service, for marketing or for something else, the life raft often starts taking on water as soon as it has done its initial job. In other words, the initial idea works great for a while, but then the market shifts and the company’s relevance and/or its vibrancy begins to wane. Competitors may make a better mousetrap and crowd us out of the market, or our own company and its leadership may begin to get bored with doing today what we were doing yesterday. How many times have we all heard the common refrain, “Same s#*t, different day?”

Stagnancy in any business leads to:

  • Failure to capture a bigger market share
  • Loss of market share
  • Loss of productivity
  • Client retention problems
  • Talent/staff retention problems

And now, to pull this article out of a power dive, I arrive at the destination promised: Creativity and Innovation. No matter the initial reason business leaders come to me, many soon ask for help with freeing up creativity and innovation.

Creativity and innovation lead to:

  • Excitement in the company and the marketplace
  • Increased market share
  • Growth of the market through viral sharing that brings new people to your sector/category
  • Increased motivation and productivity
  • Client referrals
  • Personal fulfillment and satisfaction within the company
  • Talent/Staff retention and ease of recruitment

And the burning question in all your minds… How do we get some of that? How can we be more creative as entrepreneurs? And how can we get more creativity and innovation out of those who work with us?

Before I tell you, answer me this – Do you punish failure? If your employees take risks to try something new in good faith, and their risks result in failure, are they encouraged to keep trying new things, or are they ridiculed, chastised or sanctioned? Or, do you instead, if your team takes measured and calculated risks that don’t pay off, thank them for taking the risks, engage them in learning the lessons that failure inevitably offers, and reward them for their efforts by extending your trust again in the form of responsibility? The latter will bring you great results – failures, yes, but also great successes. They key is to fail in these initiatives quickly, learn and regroup quickly, and try something new. Nothing quells creativity and innovation like the fear of failure. It is rumored that a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to fail thousands of times on his way to inventing the light bulb. His famous response, “I never failed. I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that fear of failure dampens creativity. But this will surprise you. Incentives for creativity and innovation also dampen creativity. When offered rewards for innovation, adults, and even the greatest innovators in the world (children) suffer a marked decrease in “out of the box” thinking. Attention goes to the reward instead of to the creative process.

The engine of the creative process is play. Google, perhaps the most innovative company in operation (notice how many applications they have in beta testing) has learned this lesson well. Its employees are asked to attend to their regularly scheduled tasks for 80% of their work time. The other 20% of their time (called 20% time) is given to employee pet projects. When someone believes that they’ve got something worth taking to the market, they share it – without fear of negative repercussions if it should flop. More companies would do well to emulate Google in this.

And what of the solo entrepreneur? The same goes for you. Give yourself permission to take risks and fail. You already know that you’re resilient in the face of failure, or you’d have given up entrepreneurship long ago. Set aside time every week for exploring strange new ideas.

What Google calls “twenty percent time,” I call “Star Trek Time” – time in which your mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before.

I could go on about creativity and innovation for page after page, but I will leave you with one suggestion for priming the creative pump.

Brainstorming is a concept with which you’re all surely familiar. The team identifies a problem and throws ideas for possible solutions onto a board without regard to the viability or quality of the idea. Everything that comes into the mind goes onto the board.

Stanford School of Business professor, Jennifer Aaker, suggests turning the brainstorming session on its ear. Brainstorm and record ideas as usual. Then double the number of ideas by listing also the inverse of each idea the team came up with. For example, if one idea on the board is to, “appeal to a broader market by lowering prices,” then add to the list of ideas to, “pursue a narrower market with increased prices.” If an idea is to, “make a sweeter beverage in a larger size,” include also the idea to, “produce a smaller, less-sweet beverage.”

The results, according to Aaker (and my experience bares this out), is better than simply having twice the number of ideas. In the standard model of brainstorming, the ideas created fall on a bell-shaped curve of quality – a few terrible ideas, a few excellent ideas, and mostly mediocre ideas. When the inverse of those ideas is taken, the resulting ideas fall on a kind of inverse bell curve – many more terrible ideas, a few mediocre ideas, and surprisingly many excellent and exceptional ideas.

Start to breed a culture of creativity and innovation in your business today. Identify some problems specifically that you’d like to overcome, and dive in to the potential of play, freedom, fun and opportunity to solve those problems in ways you cannot now predict.

Want to supersize the potential for creativity and the unexpected? Think about bringing the improv team of The Yes Works to your company.