Make a friend. Almost kill him. Start a business together.

I made a new friend. One day, we almost killed each other. Then, we spent that afternoon together in misery. Next, we formed a company to teach others to do what we had done — at work. You can do it too at your work.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Meeting:

Adam and I worked together once, years ago, on a project for two months. It was great. Won some critical acclaim. Was beloved by a small number of fans. And ultimately, it failed commercially. Some time later, we entered a competition together (along with some others) with a weekends’ project, had some fun, and won an award. I liked working with Adam. I thought there was potential for a friendship there, so I asked him on an adventure.

“Let’s go on a half-day canoe trip together, Adam. Something local. I’ll meet you at the river.”

On the trip, we almost killed each other. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“The mindset that improv training breeds is kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine for a moment that every boss you’ve ever had, every coworker, everyone who has ever reported to you was kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine what you could have accomplished together.”

Adventure:

We met relatively early in the morning at a gas station. He followed me in his car to the downriver site where we’d end our morning’s paddle. And then, we drove my car to the upriver site where we put the canoe in the water. After a couple of hours of pleasant, enjoyable calm flat water, punctuated by the occasional mild, short, fun rapids, we came to a bigger rapid, and pulled the boat to the bank to reconnoiter.

I hopped out, scrambled a ways down the bank, climbed up on some rocks and debris, and scoped out the rapid. It was fast, turbulent water, but the chute through the rapid was uncomplicated and clear of any major obstacles. I nodded, returned to Adam, and said, “Let’s do this.”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

“I think we can do it,” I said. “Bigger, but not harder, than what we’ve already done.”

Then I reminded him of a few key techniques for navigating the rapid successfully and what to do if we capsized (I was the experienced paddler in the boat), and we pushed off the bank.

The first half of the rapid was a thrilling, easy, straight shot. We came to the first of two slight adjustments we’d have to make before reaching calm water again, and Adam leaned right when he should have leaned left. We took on water. The boat rode lower, and within one second we were capsized. For a few seconds, I shouted instructions to Adam. “Hang onto your paddle! Feet downstream! See you at the bottom! Left bank!” Neither one of us knows if he heard any of that.

Disaster:

The next thing I knew, my ankle got caught between two boulders. I swung around head downstream, foot pinned, face up in the heavy water. And the torrent played me like a ragdoll. I could not free my ankle. I struggled to keep my face above the water. By trying to sit up, I could just manage to bring my face to the surface long enough to gasp a breath. I did this a few times. I hadn’t been pinned more than a few seconds, I think, but I was already becoming exhausted.

If I couldn’t free my foot, I would drown very soon. But struggling as I was to earn just three breaths, I was losing strength, and hadn’t made any progress toward freedom. I thought, “I’m going to die.” I thought of my unborn daughter growing up without a dad. So I took a breath, and gave in to the torrent. I went limp. My body did a horizontal impression of a car-dealership tube-man in the current.

I was resting.

After only a couple of seconds of that, I summoned my strength and did the hardest situp of my life. I managed the biggest breath so far, and — finally — to wrench my ankle from between the boulders that held it.

Seconds later, the rapids spit me out into the calm but swift water below. I thought, for the first time since being pinned, of Adam. I hoped he’d fared better than I had. I hoped too that he’d heard me say left bank. I swam for that bank myself, exhausted.

By coincidence or by design, Adam had also found the left bank. We found each other, and took stock.

Our paddles were gone. Our boat was gone. Adam had seen it destroy itself against a rock, turning inside out and wrapping around the boulder under the immense pressure of the water. Our food was gone. Hats gone. Almost everything was gone. Drinking water, gone. Adam’s shoes, gone.

I still had my wallet. Still had my keys. Both of us, somehow, had managed to keep our smartphones, and to keep them dry.

The phones turned on, but there was no reception. So we climbed a small but steep hill beside the river.We were somewhere inside Fort Lewis Army Base, and there were no buildings, or paths or other man-made anythings to be seen, even from the hill. The bank was impassable. The river too swift and cold to float the afternoon in. And we could not place a call. Google maps did, however, give us some slight indication of our location and of directions. We identified a possible road on the map and planned to walk there. It was not very near.

Adam’s shoes were gone, and his bare feet already hurt after the small amount of walking we’d done. I gave him my sandals and went barefoot.

Ordeal:

We tried to walk in the direction of the road or path that the map had indicated. It wasn’t easy to do. The forest around us was all but impenetrable. Every foot of progress was hard won through undergrowth and brambles. We zigzagged our way in the general direction we wanted to go by walking along fallen logs whenever we could. They provided paths through the bramble.

The afternoon became hot, and we wished we had water. We became quite fatigued. The landscape of small hills and valleys was difficult. The bramble nearly impossible.

Eventually, we reached my wife by phone and tried to describe the spot we were trying to reach — and told her it was within Fort Lewis. Could she call someone to meet us there — or try to meet us there herself?

We lost reception.

When we regained reception, we learned she’d gotten permission to drive into this remote section of the base to try to find us.

We pushed on. I lost my wallet, and spent some time and energy looking for it, retracing my steps a small distance. I could not tell where I had been, could not see my own path, so I gave up on my wallet, and we pressed on again.

Finally, we came in to a valley we believed our road ran along. But there was no road. So we pressed on, until…

Salvation:

I don’t know whether I saw or heard her first. Bless her, my wife had found our road, driven along it as far as she could, and then, when the road became impassible to the car, she’d left the car to find us on foot. She’d brought water.

Rejuvenated, somewhat, by the arrival of our rescuer, and by the rehydration, we quickened our pace and reached the car.

With the worst of the ordeal behind me, I decided and told Adam, “Now that we’re safe, and only in retrospect, that was kind of fun.”

“Not my idea of fun,” said Adam (a guy who’s run the Tough Mudder because that is his idea of fun).

Retrospect:

That’s when something began to dawn on me. “Not my idea of fun,” was the most negative thing Adam had said all day.

We’d stood on the bank of that river, nearly drowned, already exhausted by the ordeal in the rapids, with no way back to civilization, without water, and facing hours of greater ordeal in the heat of the afternoon. Adam had leaned left when he should have leaned right. I’d taken us into a rapid that I should not have attempted with Adam’s level of experience and confidence. We stood there on the bank facing trouble, but not emergency.

There were lots of conversations we could have had on that bank. Either of us could have blamed the other, shouted, pointed, and cursed. Either of us could have sat on the bank to cry. Either of us could have begun to marshal resources to support his own comfort and ease — to hell with the other guy.

Instead, we took quick stock of the situation, and began to think of the two person unit. Adam was fitter physically. I was more experienced outdoors. I had sandals. Adam’s bare feet were already hurt.

We strategized briefly. And we took immediate action to get the pair of us out of the predicament.

And the day went that way, each of us caring for the other, filling in when we could for the other’s weaknesses.

There was not a moment’s time given to sniping or to blame. We spoke occasionally of the fatigue and the dehydration, but neither of us complained. Instead, we kept the team apprised unemotionally of our slowly deteriorating state of strength and endurance. We took a moment to admire the beauty of a striking caterpillar posing on a tree trunk.

We disagreed about strategy often. At those times, we debated briefly, and one of us would defer to the other, and get completely behind the plan from that point on. We made errors that set us back. We adjusted, and still never pointed fingers.

Revelation:

We had each other’s backs, and we were united behind a single purpose.

I’d been considering a company dedicated to making work good for people. I’d seen how much ineffectiveness there is in many people’s work habits, and how many people feel beat down by work instead of fulfilled. Most people in our society don’t like work. I wanted to make a difference in that because I wanted my daughter to grow up in a culture where work is viewed as a grace and a privilege. I knew that tools and techniques from theater improv could serve to help people focus on what matters, to respond to others with empathy and purpose, and to take inspiration from the most seemingly trivial things — and therefore to like work.

Because Adam is the best improviser I know, I’d thought about asking him to join me in founding this company.

But it was because of who we were together in adversity, because of our focus on purpose, our willingness to keep going when it seemed we could not, because of the resourcefulness and commitment to purpose and team above all else… Because of those extraordinary qualities proven in a true trial of our temperaments, I knew two things.

Company Born:

First, I knew Adam was someone I could work with in the trenches. Come hell or high water, we’d be able to weather the rough seas of a startup.

Second, I knew that it was the improviser’s mentality that allowed us to maintain such equanimity, kindness, and resolve during and after such a trial. I knew we had something we could offer to the workplaces and to working-teams all over our country. And I knew we were already both experienced at teaching it.

Pair that with a life-long passion for developing leadership in myself and others… We were poised to change lives. We asked Rachel (who shares our mindset and devotion to developing it still further) to join us. She rounded out our team, and we started changing the world of work one team at a time.

Our Impact:

The mindset that improv training breeds is kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine for a moment that every boss you’ve ever had, every coworker, everyone who has ever reported to you was kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine what you could have accomplished together. Imagine the joy that would have filled your days. Imagine how you would feel on Monday morning, knowing you were heading to work to be surrounded by minds like that.

That’s why I have found my life’s work in changing lives, by changing work, by changing habits, by teaching improv dynamically correlated to the work you do.

 


Company Culture By Design

Company Culture Blueprint

Company culture ain’t a list on the wall. It ain’t platitudes spoken at team meetings. Company culture ain’t even a prevailing attitude that everyone on payroll adopts after they’ve drunk the company Kool-Aid.

“Want to create a productive, lucrative, and personally rewarding culture in your company? You can. Create the contagion.”

Gotta Understand What Company Culture Is

So what is it?

Company culture is the set of contagious behaviors and attitudes shared among the people on your team (and reflected in your clients and vendors as well).

It’s a system of beliefs and behaviors instilled into the zeitgeist of your company. Everybody’s doing it and steeped in it. The indoctrination began during recruiting. Culture is shaped by the stories we tell within a community. It’s the behaviors that have become habitual and automatic. Culture’s details are selected by reinforcement and by disincentives and by benign neglect. Company culture is the behaviors that people exhibit even when the heat is on, they’re under stress, and people are getting under their skin. And company culture can be shaped. It can be changed. It can be trained.

But it can’t be memo-ed. And it can’t be policied. And it can’t be employee handbooked. It is profoundly influenced by behaviors in the C-Suite. But, Company culture is not simply a top-down thing. It’s an all around thing. Think the C-Suite can’t have it’s culture slowly changed from the bottom? Think again. Culture, by its very nature, is definitively contagious. Think of a Grateful Dead show. Imagine Burning Man. Think of a Donald Trump Rally. The people in those environments don’t behave that way — for better or for worse — at home. They get swept up in a powerfully contagious culture wave. That wave is influenced by the behaviors and the stories that surround them.

Sold?

Want to create a productive, lucrative, and personally rewarding culture in your company? You can. Create the contagion. Behavior is contagious. Belief is contagious. Any person at any level can introduce a new contagion. Don’t believe me? What phrase or figure of speech do you use now, but that you didn’t before a co-worker started saying it in your presence. What stories are told in the break room that have you and your colleagues nodding or cheering? That’s an illustration of the contagion of culture.

Gotta Know What to Do

What are the behaviors that lead to a productive, lucrative and personally rewarding culture? Here are some:

  • Give feedback to your direct reports and peers that is:
    • Frequent
    • Specific.
    • Timely
    • Organic
    • Compassionate
    • Heavily congratulatory
    • Corrective when needed
    • Focused on the future
  • Contribute thoughts and ideas freely.
  • Respond to others thoughts and ideas by furthering the discussion (never shooting down).
  • Focus on purpose and on actions that need taking.
  • Observe and inquire about the non-verbal cues of others for greater clarity and communication success.
  • Observe and choose your own non-verbal communication for greater clarity and communication success.
  • Offer solutions, not complaints.
  • Welcome change while respecting tradition.
  • Speak about clients and coworkers with compassion and appreciation.
  • Replace time wasting conflict between people over who is right with effective conflict between ideas so the best ideas are found and forged.
  • Tell stories that cast others in a good light, and in which you are not a victim of circumstance.
  • Manage and supervise in ways that help your people manage fear — to feel less fear, and to act with freedom in the face of fear. We call this a “Got-Your-Back Culture.”

More than the sum

These are the behaviors that awaken the elusive SYNERGY we hear so much about. Synergy is not a mythical unicorn or a woo-woo concept from beyond the pale. Synergy is real. We’ve all experienced it.   And, it’s attainable. One way to get it… the skills and techniques of Adeptability Training correlated to the work you do.

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As G.I. Joe used to tell me at the end of each episode… “Knowing is half the battle.” The gap between what your people know, and what they do… fear. If you’d like to build fear-busting Adeptability culture in your company, click to book a call.


Case Study - Mean to Team (Part 2 of 2)

The trivial details – names, and the like – in this case study have been changed to preserve our client’s anonymity.

Last week, you read about the problems on Jack’s team. They were significant. Some people were at each other’s throats. Some people simply weren’t speaking to one another. Others were simply disappointed to be working in such a contentious setting. Productivity and work product were suffering.

And now, the exciting conclusion…

THE RESULTS:

Four weeks later, Jack said, “You undercharged me. What I got for myself and my job alone was worth what we paid for this workshop. And then there’s what my team got too. You undercharged me.”

Here are a few of the other things Jack told us:

  • “I’ve regained the trust and earned the respect of my team.”
  • “People are coming to me to share, not to complain.”
  • “I’m not stomping out [figurative] flaming bags of shit outside my door every day.”
  • “We have a common language now.”

Specifically, Jack had given us three priorities… three results he wanted for his team from our training:

  • Cohesion
  • Camaraderie
  • Communication

Those things can be difficult to measure quantitatively. However, here is the shift in Jack’s rating of his team (on a scale from 1-10) in those three areas after a single workshop of 4 hours.

 

before after
Cohesion 4 or 5 6 or 7
Camaraderie 6 7
Communication 6-7 7-8

 

Jack rated tensions on his team at a 6 out of 10 before the workshop. Four weeks afterward, Jack’s estimate is just 2.5 out of 10. Jack is planning their next installment of training with The Yes Works.

A few more quantifiable results you’ve got to love:

  • Three people who work in a cubicle pen but didn’t talk even when work required it are now willingly communicating without third party intervention.
  • Mark and Margaret are willingly communicating as well, without needing to involve Gary.
  • Jack reports that before the workshop with The Yes Works, the team was working at a productivity level of 60% of his target for the team. Four weeks later, they are working at 80% productivity (compared to the same target). That’s a 33% increase in productivity almost overnight.
  • No more vomiting before, during, or after staff meetings!

Jack’s team was under significant stress before working with us, so results may vary. But every team can benefit from the collaboration intensive training we provide.

After an intensive training with The Yes Works, Team members will:

  • Improve communication skills and eliminate most miscommunication.
  • Collaborate effectively, considering all perspectives and finding innovative solutions.
  • Experience greater confidence in making decisions.
  • Enjoy greater freedom and personal accountability.
  • Work effectively and with gusto without close supervision.

Call us today to discuss your goals for your team — and to learn what an improv perspective can do to light a fire within the heart of your team.

 

Your company culture engineer,

Aaron Schmookler
253-301-8004


Case Study - Mean to Team (Part 1 of 2)

The trivial details – names, and the like – in this case study have been changed to preserve our client’s anonymity.

THE TEAM:

12 engineers make up the operations team supporting the IT department of a large school with 25K employees.

“You undercharged me.” — Jack, the Team Leader

 

THE SITUATION:

When Jack, the Operations Team leader, reached out to us, he cited communication and cohesion challenges on his team. We soon learned that he was understating the problem.

Interpersonal tensions were so extreme on Jack’s team that he was frequently physically ill before, during, and after staff meetings. Just imagining being in the same room with all those people at once, with the strife he experienced weekly in that room, caused him to vomit. Jack gave us this example of the tension level:

Mark requires Margaret’s work product to complete his own work. Mark won’t talk to Margaret directly, however. He won’t even look at Margaret. She won’t even say, “Good morning,” to him. Instead, when Mark needs Margaret’s work, he asks Gary to get it. Gary goes to Margaret. Margaret rolls her eyes. Gary rolls his eyes. Mark sits at his desk, drumming his fingers waiting for Mark to return so he can get back to work.

What an unnecessary and destructive waste.

On his wall, Jack had posted an acronym of traits he and his team had committed to embodying. While I’ll keep the acronym to myself, to protect the client’s anonymity, I will say that one of the traits was, “professional.”

I complimented Jack on some commendable ideals and asked out of curiosity, “How do you guys define ‘Professional?’”

He answered, “You know. Everyone knows what ‘Professional’ means.”

“Sure,” I said. “You know what it means, and I know what it means. But the problem is that we each have different definitions. But we assume that our own definition is universal.” I laid out a scenario:

Betty and Dave are standing outside their cubicles, talking about their weekends and their kids, and laughing. After about a minute, Stan gets very irritated. Don’t they see him trying to work in the next cube over? They’re so loud. Why don’t they just get to work? It’s work hours. To Stan, they are clearly unprofessional.

Meanwhile, Betty and Dave both wonder why Stan — who is sitting right there — hasn’t joined the conversation or even said hello. It’s clear to them that a little light conversation on a Monday morning reacquaints them with each other. It lubricates the professional relationship, and gives them insight into each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and what stresses or joys from their personal lives might affect their work today. Stan, however, seems to be giving them snide looks and is muttering something under his breath. To Betty and Dave, Stan is clearly unprofessional.

“Yes,” Jack yelled when I had finished my short story. “That’s my team.”

Beyond helping teams define important terms and values so that everyone’s on the same page, we explained to Jack, we also help to establish a foundation of empathy — as a habit — between people. Each person’s perspective helps to create a rich and well-balanced vision for the team as a whole. There’s a bit of one of my father’s favorite jokes in the training we offer:

Two arguing men in the community come to the Rabbi to ask him to settle their dispute. The first explains his perspective. The Rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The second argues his case. The Rabbi says, “You’re right.”

The Rabbi’s wife, overhearing all this, says, “He’s right? And he’s right? How can they both be right?”

The Rabbi shrugs and says, “You’re right too.”

 

THE TRAINING:

Soon after our first meeting with Jack, we met with his team for the first installment of their training. We were there, ready to begin the training on time. For the first time in our company history, however, we did not start our training on time — even with everyone in the room. The first 5 minutes of the training time were spent in an argument.

Kerry was certain that the training had been scheduled for 3 hours. Sally rolled her eyes and said, “I saw that in the last email, but every other email (and the calendar invitation we all got) said 4 hours. 3 hours was a typo. It’s 4 hours.” Kerry insisted it was three. Sally repeated that it was four. This went on for some time with only little variation. Jack, their boss, sat between them, bemused. We, The Yes Works trainers, sat before them, diagnosing the patient and seeing first hand the disfunction that Jack had described.

Each was so focused on being right (and in Kerry’s case, on going home), that they completely overlooked the authoritative resources in the room that could have settled the argument. We were there, looking at them, and would gladly have shared what our intentions were as the trainers (and what we’d been paid to do). Their boss sat only feet from them — between them — and could easily have defined the expectations. But neither of them asked him, and he didn’t interrupt to resolve either the content of the dispute, or the context of the dispute.

Kerry seemed committed to reading any ambiguous communication to him “in his own favor.” Evidently, he defined “in his own favor” as whatever would have him out of this place and this activity the fastest. Sally seemed committed to using the power of her reasoning to defeat Kerry’s wrong-headedness. Jack seemed disinclined to intervene. He did not assert his authority about a matter that had an authoritative answer. He did not bring his employees back to a focus on in purpose instead of self-interest.

When the dust eventually settled, we began our four hour training.

Some of the team was excited to have us there, and participated from the first moments with gusto. Others, like Kerry, were there because they had been required to be there, and were reluctant. Within minutes, however, we had the entire group on their feet. They laughed. They moved past some fears. They saw new sides of one another. They all went through quite a mental workout, each person going through multiple reps of practicing the principles that define our business-relationship training. Many of them did and said things they would not have anticipated doing. All of them participated equally. Kerry was completely involved.

 

Click here to read the exciting conclusion


Collaboration Culture is "Got Your Back" Culture

Tracy and Cal work for a company that names “Collaboration” as a core value, but no one has ever defined collaboration.

Tracy and Cal head back to their desks after the meeting. Tracy says, “Cal, You told me last month when I started working here that you were going to have my back.”

Cal says, “I did. You heard me tell them you were doing your best.”

Tracy feels hopeless. “Yeah. Exactly. Now thanks to you, they all think I’m drowning. They think my best is crappy.”

Cal asks, “What’d you want me to say?”

Tracy stops walking and says, “Where were you last week to help insure I was better prepared for that meeting before I put my foot in it? You knew I was on the wrong track and you did nothing. You call that collaboration?”

What does collaboration mean?

The expression, “Got your back,” means different things to different people.

In some of the teams I’ve worked with, there’s very little agreement as to the meaning. Tracy feels hung out to dry while Cal knows he’s got her back. Often, the argument is not so much about the facts of who’s doing what, but about what it means to truly have your teammate’s back.

This is something I give a lot of thought to. “Got Your Back” is a central principle in every training program conducted by my company, The Yes Works. Our Adeptability Training is built on principles from neuroscience, organizational psychology, improvisation, and best practices in leadership practice. We help teams to function at higher and higher levels of teamishness through exceptionally collaborative relationships. “Got Your Back” (which we describe as making your teammates look good — and be good) is one of my favorites among those principles. Everyone can always improve in their practice of it.

Ultimate Got-Your-Back, Ultimate Collaboration

As Lon, a recent acquaintance of mine, told me today over coffee, “I ask myself, ‘who do I need to be to amplify my wife’s best?’ And she asks herself, ‘Who do I need to be to amplify Lon’s best?’” That’s not a question with one simple answer. And it’s a question of a higher level than most use when considering how to have a team mate’s back in collaboration.

Colleagues disagree about whether they’re being supportive because few teams have any specific definition of what a supportive attitude or supportive behavior looks like. I don’t have one either. I have eight. Each definition represents a different level of practice, and each level reflects a higher degree of functionality, productivity, and satisfaction on the team.

I’ve got your back:

  • Level 1: I won’t throw you under the bus. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 2: If you’re in distress and you ask me for help, I’ll agree to help. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 3: If I see that you’re in distress, I’ll stop and volunteer my help. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 4: I know where you’re likely to need help, and I’ll ask if you’re struggling and need my help. I’ve got your back. This includes looking for the inspiration in every idea, and seeing the value in intention.
  • Level 5: I know your strengths and weaknesses. My help will come in such a way and at such a time that your weakness will never show. The help is there before you know you need it. I’ve got your back. This includes allowing yourself to be inspired to action by those around you in all that they do.
  • Level 6: I know our strengths and weaknesses as a team. I develop my skills and those of my team and find resources to eradicate those weaknesses and contribute to seamless team production. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 7: No matter what’s going on with me, I’m going to bring my A game. You can depend on me to bring my best, even when I’m tired or overwhelmed or scared. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 8: No matter what’s going on with me, I’m dedicated to your success. I will do what I can to bring out your best. I’ve got your back.

Collaboration and you.

What level are you playing at? What level is your team playing at? What level would you like to play at?  No doubt you want your company to prosper. What level of “Got your back” do you and your team need to play at in order to reach your goals?

Levels 7 and 8 require a whole culture of got-your-back. I can only bring my best, and truly be committed to bringing out your best, if I’m confident you’ve got my back. Someone’s got to look out for my best interests. If I know the team is looking out for my best interests, then I don’t have to.

What are you doing to move your team along the continuum? Leadership coach, Cy Wakeman, suggests a single question for the arsenal of every leader. When the shit hits the fan… When an employee complains about a peer… When a deadline is missed… “What did you do to help?”

Adeptability training is another way to move everyone up through the levels of got-your-back habit. This is simple, but not easy. Each of us plays at different levels at different times and in different circumstances. Each of us has moments where we fall off the Got Your Back track altogether. With practice, repetition, awareness, and intention, you can enhance your relationships — and (as Lon said at lunch today) “who you are,” in relationships — in business and beyond.

 

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Communication and collaboration are some of the hardest things to get right in any company culture, and the difficulty increases exponentially as you add more people to the team. Adeptability Training gets teams communicating and collaborating effectively as a matter of habit and mindset. Book a call today.