Tales from the Unstuffed Shirt

Like a boss: from improv thinking to business solutions

In my last post, I focused on the idea that people (not roles or ideas) are the real basis of “Yes! And” collaboration—that it’s really about a mutual commitment to trust and engagement in each moment to create greatness. While this makes an excellent foundation, the inevitable question is “what’s next?” Well, you’ve come to the right place! It’s the right question, too.  

If you’re actively working to develop your workplace culture to be more trusting, present and willing to engage, then you need a means of channeling all that goodness into the development of new or transformed solutions. This is where the improvisor’s mind is a powerful tool. In successful improv scenes, new ideas are constantly introduced and integrated in the service of creating a cohesive, compelling story. People who commit to mastering the role of improvisor develop a mental model for effectively integrating new ideas into their work. With practice, most improvisors don’t even realize they’re doing it. What’s exciting is that the same approach can be adopted whole hog to drive better solution thinking in the workplace.

Consider the following offer from factory worker to line manager: “Lou Anne, some of us on second shift have been talking, and we have an idea to reduce widget assembly errors.” The good news is we’ve already got a culture where a factory worker (let’s call him Gerry) feels comfortable going all “Yes! And” on his boss. But what is Lou Anne supposed to do? Chew on that, and then focus your attention on this week’s complimentary graphic:

Potential Solutioning Outcomes

When a new idea is introduced onstage that is qualitatively different than the prevailing idea, improvisors think and act together in real time to incorporate the new idea into the scene. This thinking follows a consistent path, as follows:

First, they look for a Holistic Solution. In other words,

“let’s take this new idea and embrace all of it into our prevailing reality.”

In Lou Anne’s situation, her response might be “that’s a great idea Gerry! It complements our current approach, and we should adopt it in addition to our current processes.”

Next, they try to find a Focused Solution:

“we can combine some parts of this new idea with other parts of our prevailing reality to create a better prevailing reality.”

Lou Anne might say, “I love the thinking. Let’s work together to figure out how we use it to transform the way we’re working now.”

If that doesn’t fit, they set off in a New Direction; or,

“this new idea is so compelling that we’re going to abandon everything we’ve been doing until now.”

This is a “stop the presses” moment—they sometimes happen onstage, but too many of them confuse and exhaust your audience. Lou Anne might respond: “Shut down the assembly line and retrain everyone on this new approach tonight!”

Too often, we make excuses to settle for the Status Quo. You know this one—it’s often referred to as “the Heisman”. Onstage this rarely happens—improvisors are trained to always work towards inclusive solutions.

In the workplace, we may believe there are compelling reasons for inaction on a new idea.

But, we can (and should) honor the person and their idea even if the prevailing reality prevents it from becoming part of the current solution.

Lou Anne’s answer might be: “I value your commitment and ideas Gerald, and this is no exception. Can you help me work through how we might incorporate this given our constraints?”

But wait—did you hear that? Lou Anne just turned on her mad improv skills! Instead of settling for the status quo, she offered her own “Yes! And” to Gerald. She made a commitment to engage and collaborate in the moment, and to explore where Gerald’s idea takes them. This happens onstage ALL THE TIME. If someone has entered the scene with a new idea and I’m not sure of the intent behind the new idea, then I’m going to stay in the moment, trust that my scene partner is playing to the height of her ability, and discover together how we get to a better mutual solution.

When you’re in an environment (stage or workplace) where everyone is playing their roles to the height of their ability and is comfortable with “Yes! And” collaboration, the Status Quo is never an option.

When people feel comfortable in their roles and safe contributing new ideas, those ideas will always make the prevailing reality better.  

A bold statement? Maybe…but it really is that simple.


Live - Laugh - Love.

As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”

Steven Beauchem is a strategist and consultant helping clients to excel in the digital world. He studies and performs improv in Chicago and San Francisco, and is passionate about leveraging the ideas, energy and techniques of improv to drive innovation and cultural change in the corporate world. In his spare time, he is a board member at Stage 773, home of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, and is also developing a new improv performance series (expected to launch in Chicago in spring 2017). Steven's writings here are his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employers or clients.


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Written 6 years, 5 months ago.
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