Set Expectations Like an Improviser

Are you in sales? Do you have a boss or have people working for you? Got people working with you? Do you work with people? 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, there are people who expect things from you.

The question is, are their expectations consistent with the reality you are prepared to deliver? Will you meet their expectations, or will you disappoint?

Half the answer lies in what you deliver. The other half lies in what they expect.

THE INCOMPLETE SET

Last month, I placed an order with a marketing company. They told me, “Your marketing product will go live in no more than 30 days. Maybe sooner.”

That’s expectation setting. They gave me an expectation about timeline.

They also told me that I’d have a “success manager” assigned to me and my marketing efforts, and that I’d hear from that manager to get my input along the way.

They gave me specific time when I should expect completion, but no specifics about when I’d hear from the “success manager.” Because they left a gap in setting expectations for me, I filled the gap with my own expectations about what the interim timeline would look like. Because I set my own expectations about their service, they set us both up for confusion, disappointment, and anxiety.

Indeed, two weeks later, when I hadn’t heard from anyone, I touched base with the sales rep who brought me on board to ask how things were progressing. “The holidays have created a backlog. I’m sure you’re still on target. You’ll hear from someone soon.”

Cool. Reassuring. A little bit.

When I called again a week after that, I heard, “There’s a bit of a backlog because of the holidays, but I’m sure your release will happen on time.”

Less reassuring. Kind of vague.

When I heard from his colleague that same day, “I received your search landing page today, and you’ll see it for review in about an hour,” that truly reassured me.

Why?

THE COMFORT OF SPECIFICITY

Was it the tangible progress that reassured me? Because someone had seen actual work done on my project…?

Well, that was part of it.

A bigger part of it, however, is that the info they gave me was specific. It was not a general assurance like, “I’m sure you’re still on target.” Or, “You’ll hear from someone soon.”

I heard instead, “I’m currently looking at this specific aspect of our deliverables to you.” She said, “You’ll see it in one hour.”

It was nice that I’d see it so quickly. But, “tomorrow morning by 10AM,” would have been almost as good. It’s the level of specificity that gave me something to hold on to. My worries are gone. And I know when I should start worrying. I can directly compare the reality on the ground with the expectation they set for me.

IMPROV’S LESSON FOR SETTING EXPECTATIONS

What I’d like to impart to you is a bit of wisdom I learned by training as an improviser…

The more specific you are with others in your life — those who work with you, live with you, depend on you, employ you, work for you, buy from you, sell to you… whatever — the more specific you are with others, the more comfortable they will be.

And guess what, the less likely they are to irritate you as well. I think I got under my vendor’s skin a bit, by writing a few times to ask about the status of my order.

What would have saved me the worry that my order would be late? What would have saved my vendor the irritation of my, “Are we there yet?”

One thing would have saved us both the stress — practicing the improviser’s tool, “Be Specific.” Had they been specific, not only about the deadline for the finished product, but about the timeline of every deliverable along the way, I’d have rested comfortably and left them to do their work.

BE SPECIFIC

So, dear reader, the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone else is looking to you for answers about what to expect:

  • When will you…?
  • What will X look like?
  • How will costs be calculated?
  • What do you like about…?
  • What are the metrics for success?
  • Where can I find X?
  • How can I attain X results?

Be as specific as you possibly can.

Expectations are like bowling. When you’ve got a seven-ten split, you can’t expect to knock down both pins by simply rolling the ball down the alley “that way.” You’ve got to hit the seven pin just so, in order to send it spinning into the ten. That’s a specific task.

So is communication. You’ll be rewarded for your specificity.


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.

 


Make "Work Haters" an Endangered Species

Altogether too many people hate their jobs. Company cultures have a lot to overcome. My facebook feed is littered with people griping about their bosses, complaining about customers, and using “TGIF” like a clarion call to freedom. But the freedom is short lived. Do a quick google image search for “Monday.”

  • “I hate Mondays.”
  • “If Monday had a face, I’d punch it.”
  • “Look on the bright side… At least Mondays only happen once a week.”
  • “My week: Monday, Monday 2, Monday 3, Monday 4, Friday, Saturday, Pre-Monday.”

Apparently, Monday has a lot of detractors. If you haven’t thought about this before, think about it now. TGIF Monday haters are not giving their employers their best. With those beliefs about workdays, how could they?

But it’s not their fault. I blame culture. I blame schools. I blame, “Yabadabadoo!”

However we got here, we must take back the world of work. Work can be good. For more and more of us, work is good. And we’re learning about how business thrives when workers view work as good. And an increasing number of companies are taking the need for work that’s good for workers seriously. Tech companies are early adopters of great company culture as a value. Infusionsoft, for instance, has gone so far as to hire a “Dream Manager,” whose job is to see to it that employees are attaining their dreams. Go, Dan Ralphs!

Some tech companies exist to serve the employees of other companies. Limeade, for example, sells whole-person wellness tech to companies nationwide to help them keep culture buoyant and employees happy and healthy. I recently recorded an interview with Dr. Laura Hamill, the Chief People Officer at Limeade. It was a great conversation about what makes for a great place to work, about how to get the most from your greatest resource — your people — and about company culture. (You’re going to want to listen to that podcast episode when we release it.)

Dr. Hamill says, “Culture is an employment benefit.” Culture is an increasingly important component of recruitment, engagement, and retention efforts in the best companies in the world. Workers are coming to demand great culture. And as Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The Yes Works is also in the business of engineering and supporting great company culture. Our clients know people matter. Habits of interaction matter. Relationships matter.

Culture lives in relationship habit.

What are great business relationship habits? To us at The Yes Works, a great business relationship is marked by health and synergy: the ability for those within the relationship to produce more, better work within the relationship than they would have been able to produce without it, and the ability and the likelihood to continue doing so into the future. Applying principles of theater improv can strengthen and enliven business relationships — within a company, with clients, with vendors, and with your network at large.

Improv is rich relationship soil with many components. Just ask Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo. He recommends that you, “Manage your company like an improv group.“The following four principles constitute a powerful first glance into improv for business. Take a deep breath before you proceed. This is simple stuff… Each principle is simple. Even taken together as the beginning of a system, it’s simple. But simple don’t make it easy. As you engage with these ideas, consider what you recognize — for better and for worse — in yourself and your work relationships. This is personal. Let it be.

 

Yay for Failing: It’s temporary, inevitable, and full of useful information.

Nobody likes to go down in a flaming blaze of nope. Essentially, there are two ways that people respond to a TRY and MISS: Some people tuck their tails between their legs and have trouble afterward looking themselves in the eye. Others shrug, dust off, and try again. Thomas Edison, for instance, is reputed to have said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” Imagine having a boss who thought that way about your work.

“Yay for Failing” is a perspective, not a celebration of accomplishing nothing. With a “Yay for failing” mentality, you can fall down hard and get back to work without a long mourning period and without shame. Shame is a serious enemy of productivity, contribution, and collaboration. Without fear of failure, people work with great intensity and a keen eye to purpose.

With a “Yay for failing” culture, created and lived by a “Yay for failing” leadership, nothing gets swept under the rug. Missed deadlines are not hidden, so timely adjustments can be made. Failures are acknowledged and reviewed for their lessons. Team members work transparently so others can learn from them, and so they can be effectively coached themselves.

It’s not often any individual failure that costs business time, money, and opportunity on a large scale. It’s failure to recognize failure early, and to respond to it healthfully, and to embrace each failure as a step on the path. And failure punished or ridiculed costs even more in abysmal morale, and diminished risk taking, and declining eagerness to contribute.

 

Got Your Back: We’re stronger, more resilient, and more capable together.

Working on a team or working alone, not one of us can do it on our own. We need support, insight, help, and encouragement from others no matter what our work is.

“Got Your Back” is a principle that gets deeper and more profound the more you use it. On the face of it, “Got Your Back” means I’ll help you out when you need it. Call on me, and I’ll be there. As a principle of improv, it means that I’m committed to making you, my team member, look good. It means I’ll back your play when the chips are down. It means I’ll anticipate your needs, by knowing you well. It means I’m always a servant to our shared purpose.

It means I’m looking for the gold in your contributions. If you’ve put forward an idea that could never work, would never work, you’ve put that idea forward with good intentions, and with wisdom. I’m on the lookout for the value within your intentions. We call that, “making sense of the non-sense.” As a result of my treasure hunting your idea, you feel good. You know you’re valued. You experience that your contributions matter. And the team’s purpose is advanced even by unworkable ideas. No intellectual capital goes to waste.

Too often, co-workers throw one another under the bus — in order to shift blame away from themselves, in order to look better by comparison, in order to play for self-advancement.

“Got Your Back” is an incomparable tool for an effective company culture of collaboration.

 

Everything Is an Offer: Our minds are designed to make associations that creatively address the problems we face without our even trying — if we give ourselves the freedom.  We are all natively creative problem solvers.

In improv, a living creation is built on a single idea — the first offer. We define an offer as anything at all that your mind can take inspiration from, associate with, and respond to. In other words, everything is an offer. Your brain responds to everything that you give attention to. Everything.

A speck of dust can become a marketing idea. If I say, “speck” out loud, that could lead you to think of the bacon-like Swiss cured meat, speck. If you give voice to that association, it may occur to me that we could find a way to take advantage of the popularity and viral nature of the bacon fad to sell our vacuum cleaners. (Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that using bacon to sell vacuums is a good idea.)

Too many of us live our lives believing, “I am not creative.” Non-sense. Each of us has creativity. Each of us makes different associations given the same stimulus. Permit yourself to value that association (and from “Got Your Back” above, also to the stimulus), and you’ll find your brain supplies you with boundless ideas. And each idea you express is stimulus — an offer — for someone else.

This kind of association won’t always lead you and your team in a straight line, but this is the stuff that breeds innovation. Defining your culture as one in which everything is an offer creates a fertile ground for association. Innovation is association plus execution.

 

Yes, And: Notice the power of acceptance — of your ideas, of others’ ideas — and the unstoppable creativity of every human mind.

Clearly, these principles have overlapping implications. The practice of “Yes, And” would have you accept that every offer has merit. Sometimes the merit is buried a bit.

In the workplace,  practicing “Yes, And” means that no ideas are dismissed. In communication, you would deliberately discipline yourself to make sense of the non-sense. To accept that the idea before you has merit, and to contribute your associations to the discussion. This is a concrete method of having your team mate’s back.

Here’s how that might play out. Gary comes to you with an idea for a new product line. “We should keep making vacuum cleaners, but make them single-use vacuum cleaners.” On the face of it, this sounds nuts. Who’s going to buy a single-use vacuum cleaner? If you tell Gary that his idea is stupid or that he sounds crazy, he’s going to stop contributing. He may even take his ideas to your competitor.

How could you employ “Yes, And”? The easiest way might be, “Ok (your yes). I don’t see it yet. Tell me more (your and).” As you advance with the skill of “Yes, And,” your response might be, “I like the way you’re thinking. That falls right in line with the conventional wisdom that to make lots of money you should sell something that people need, and that they’ll need to replace.” Gary will then likely get excited and tell you more about his idea. You may find that from his elaboration, you are able to glean some gold. As your skill becomes still more advanced, you might say, “There’s something to that! While I can’t see making all the vacuum components disposable in a way that’s environmentally sound or cost effective, I know that people do hate getting their hands dirty. With the vacuum industry going more and more bagless, touching the dust becomes a greater and greater problem for our customers. Let’s put our heads together to see if we can improve our user experience in that arena.”

 

So, simple, right? Simple, but challenging! Big-time challenging. But rewarding. Fulfilling, joy producing, and lucrative, to boot! And challenging.

That’s why when we work with teams, we promise, “No ineffective, powerpoint lecturing yak-yak.” Because, it’s one thing to understand this stuff, and it’s another thing altogether to put it into practice. In the exercises and activities we facilitate with the teams we support, participants PRACTICE. And PRACTICE again. We give each participant  many, many reps of practice in each hour we spend together. Because, reps build skills. Skills repeated build habits. Healthy habits make up healthy culture. And healthy culture is self-perpetuating.

Try using these principles yourself. Define these principles as a part of your company’s culture and ask your team to put them into play. If you find you cannot overcome the force of habit (bad habit) that prevents people from this kind of generous behavior (or if you see the potential and want your team to be great at employing it) call on The Yes Works to learn how we can help you create an improv culture in your company.


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.


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.